Employers focus on engaging workers to keep them

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MINNEAPOLIS — When Minnesota Bank and Trust opened in Edina, Minn., in 2008, CEO Kate Kelly was determined to make it a place people wanted to work.

So she appointed three volunteers to the employee event committee, set a budget and waited to see what would happen. Soon, there was lawn bowling, miniature golf, blue-jean Fridays, an employee bus ride to see Christmas lights, and a surprise holiday trip toWal-Martwhere each worker got $10 to buy a Secret Santa gift.

"It's nice every once in a while to just laugh," Kelly said. "There is a noticeable difference in the mood here after an event. Everyone is chatting and laughing. You don't have to spend a lot of money."

Yet the payoff is significant: People want to work there.

And that's important, according to a report issued this month by the Society of Human Resource Management. If employers don't want their best talent to slip out the door for good, they need to fortify their employee retention and recognition programs.

In its global survey of HR managers, the group found that nine out of 10 human resource managers said employee engagement is a top staffing challenge. But only four in 10 companies track it. And just 15 percent measure the return on investment for their employee recognition programs.

During the recession, many companies scaled back employee appreciation projects to cut costs. Few companies dropped them altogether, but the emphasis definitely faded, employee benefit firms have said. Now with the economy picking up, employee benefits pros say companies that fail to reinvigorate their programs could be at risk.

"Companies need to fine-tune employee recognition and engagement," said Mark Schmit, research vice president at the Society of Human Resource Management. "Effective … programs can spread positive energy across the organization and may lead to increased profit margins, customer retention, productivity, and more."

Some executives say they are determined to retain their best talent and to spend the time and money necessary to ensure that all workers have a fun, engaging workplace where they feel valued.

Kelly said her bank grew from 20 employees to 33 in four years. At the same time, she's lost just three workers since 2008. It takes 12 to 18 months of training to replace a person who leaves. So her investment in fun makes a lot of sense, Kelly said.

Jessica Pecoraro, a partner and employment attorney at Maslon, Edelman Borman & Brand in Minneapolis, is a member of the Women Presidents Organization. Every leader in that group "wants to keep their talent, and they want do it by offering bonus programs or deferred compensation programs. They are looking for alternative methods other than salary to incentivize people, one, so they perform and, two, so they stay."

Beyond money, they look for ways to have fun. "Everybody loves jeans day," Pecoraro said, "because the employees love it and it's free."

Other returns on investments come in all sizes of smiles and in all manner of nuttiness that often have little to do with the job at hand.

Gina Jacquart Thorsen, who runs a family sewing business in Michigan with 160 employees, invests in employee-of-the-month awards, employee trumpet-tooting at meetings and silly-hat days.

Every year, Rose McKinney, who heads a reputation-management firm, throws a New Year's Resolution Party in which co-workers create helpful resolutions for each other.

"It's a lot of fun. And people love it," McKinney said. "It's something they look forward to."

One employee bought a bottle of champagne and six glasses for a cubicle mate who worked very hard, scored contracts but never rewarded herself. Her resolution? Champagne and self-recognition for every accomplishment.

Copyright 2012 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis); distributed by MCT Information Services

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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