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One evening, while visiting a client, she asked us to look out at the parking lot. All we saw were employees going home. Here’s what she saw: “Every night, the assets of my company leave the building.” That’s true. And, there are three ways to protect those assets — to persuade, to prevent or to punish. The world is changing: Where punishment (litigation) was once the way, now persuasion and prevention are the least expensive and most effective options. After all, you can’t lose what doesn’t leave. Tip No. 1: It’s about more than money. Thinking it’s just about money is so 1990s. Once an employee reaches a certain threshold of income, other factors in retaining her are much more important. At the end of their workday, employees in the new economy understand this reality: They are CEOs of their own company. If you help employees with their personal bottom lines, you invariably help yours. Tip No. 2: Adopt old methods to new needs. You don’t need to get on the latest bandwagon. You can do something as simple as modifying your personnel evaluations so employees can tell you what new skills they want to learn and how they want to go about it, even if it may not directly impact their current job. Also, think about rating managers on how well they help their employees achieve these goals. Or use traditional exit interviews to focus on why an employee is leaving and what might have kept them. (Or, better yet, as the Nike commercial counsels, “Just do it” — go ahead and ask the employee these questions before he leaves.) Tip No. 3: Go ahead, take a chance. A few employers in Austin have take-your-pet-to-work policies. Sound silly? Not really. Like many things in life, a sincere gesture is often worth more than a thousand words. Even if an employee never takes his pet to work, he gets the message that he is valued, and the employer is willing to think creatively. Other options include providing employees with their own personal career coach, or benefits that focus on personal development, like a two- or three-week sabbatical or personal development funds, which the employees can use as they see fit. Tip No. 4: Don’t treat them like kids. The demographics of the workforce are changing, with employees from Generations X and Y taking on crucial job functions. These employees are more interested in the big picture — what the company’s goals are, how it plans on achieving those goals, and their role in doing so — than were their predecessors. So, trust them to hear the truth about themselves and the company. Tip No. 5: Communication: It’s more than waiting for your turn to talk. Here’s a fact: Fifty percent of employees’ satisfaction on their jobs is based on the relationship they have with their bosses. Training managers on interpersonal skills, mentoring and communication goes a long way to employee retention. And, we’re not talking about making your managers psychologists or Ph.D.’s in communication. A simple training session in communication techniques yields results. For instance, encourage managers to “supplement” when an employee comes up with an idea — rather than “Yes, but . . . ” have them say “ Yes, and . . . ” and supplement that with “ Let me build on your comment and see if I am on the same track you are.” “Yes, but . . .” discourages communication, while “Yes, and . . . ” encourages it. Or, for instance, the supervisor can summarize what she thinks the employee said in her own words, something like, “ Let me see if I understand what you just said . . . . Is that correct?” All of us have a deep-seated need to be heard. Learning how to communicate does just that. Want to learn more? “Resolving Conflicts at Work” by Kenneth Cloke and “Difficult Conversations” by Douglas Stone are two great books to help you. THE THREE P’S Tip No. 6: Practice business ethics. Aside from being heard, employees also want to feel good about working for you. Here’s a startling fact: Almost one-third of employees in a KPMG survey reported observing misconduct within the past year, including lying to customers, vendors and the public. Almost 40 percent of employees said they don’t report misconduct they observe, and an equal number who reported misconduct felt dissatisfied by the company’s responses. Here’s the good news: In the last five years, 20 percent more employers have adopted ethics programs, with a corresponding increase in employee job satisfaction in these companies. Adopting a formal ethics policy, with a true commitment to it, is key. If it’s inauthentic, then employees will be reminded of Groucho Marx’s comment that “these are my principles, and if you don’t like them, I have others.” Here’s the formula: higher ethics = higher employee morale = higher retention. And if you think morale doesn’t count, simply compare the morale of the Johnson & Johnson employees who weathered the Tylenol scare with what we can only imagine to be the morale of beleaguered Firestone employees. So adopt a formal policy: Train and educate employees on the policy, practice what you preach and have a mechanism in place for employees to obtain advice on ethical issues. Tip No. 7: An ounce of prevention. Taking steps at the outset of the employee’s employment is inexpensive. So, make sure all employees sign agreements, promising not to disclose confidential information and agreeing that they will not hire or encourage employees to work for a competitor after they leave. These agreements do not require time, geographical or scope-of-activity limitations, as do noncompete agreements. Also, employees should acknowledge that any intellectual property they create is “work for hire” under copyright laws, including any derivative work. Otherwise, you could end up with protection only for an earlier iteration of your products, not the newest version. Finally, remind departing employees of their obligation to disclose these restrictions to a new employer. (And, make sure you ask potential employees of your company if they are bound by any restraints: “Don’t ask, don’t tell” isn’t much of a policy in the new economy.) Like war, litigation is one legitimate means to accomplish your goals. But don’t forget an important fact: When you punish others, you sometimes must also punish yourself, in terms of attorneys’ fees, and misspent time. Here’s the point: Only you can decide the right mixture of the three P’s in deciding how to protect your most important asset. Our take on it: More time and effort devoted to the first two P’s will result in less need for the third. Of course, as they say on the World Wide Web, that’s IOHO — “in our humble opinion.” Mark Shank, president-elect of the Dallas Bar Association, and Michael Maslanka, author of the Texas Employment Law Letter, practice employment law at Clark, West, Keller, Butler & Ellis in Dallas. Both are board certified in labor and employment law, and Shank is board certified in civil trial law.

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