Retaining the Best Talent

HR leaders in academe consider how to keep their best employees -- faculty and administrators alike -- in era of tight budgets.
September 23, 2010

NEW ORLEANS -- In the first year of the economic downturn, employees “totally got it” that there was a reason for a salary freeze. In the second year, said an HR leader at the annual meeting of the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources here, things were so bad that many felt “lucky to have a job” and they accepted another year without salary increases.

Now, planning for a third year, the attitude of many employees is “we’re done” with waiting for raises. Part of the problem is an understandable lack of patience with regard to getting a raise. Another part of the problem, said the administrator, is that it is becoming evident to all that the salary freeze wasn’t uniformly enforced. Some people took on new responsibilities or had offers to leave or had bosses who came up with some reason for “an adjustment” -- and now everyone else is tired of waiting and knows that some people are getting more money.

What do you do -- especially if, as most here said was the case at their institutions, money remains tight? While many discussions here focused on the general issue of preserving morale and retention in this era, one session focused on how to keep your top talent, faculty and staff alike. The association welcomes press coverage of its sessions as long as attendees who are not panelists are not quoted by name without their permission, so many of their comments here are anonymous. And many said they were truly vexed by this challenge and didn't want to talk about their institutions – and that they were finding that strategies that seemed to make sense weren’t working.

One HR official described efforts to give modest raises at her institution -- at a time when major employers in her area were still freezing salaries and eliminating many positions. Rather than finding faculty and staff appreciative, she said that most “don’t realize that this isn’t the norm.”

Another described creating an incentive to encourage early retirement, having relatively few people take advantage of the incentive, and then realizing that she was processing the paperwork for a faculty member taking advantage of the program at the age of 77. “Our older faculty are hesitant to retire and our incentives aren’t working,” she said.

Yet another HR official -- at an elite private university -- said that her institution was struggling to hold on to talented fund-raisers. The reputation of the development operation is strong, so it seems that anyone with a few years of experience is recruited away -- just at the moment when these development officers have built relationships that enable them to ask for bigger and bigger gifts.

From a university in a major metro area came another frustration. The colleges and universities in the area do a lot of collaborative work, she said, and while this makes a lot of sense, “everybody knows who everybody’s superstars are and we steal shamelessly from one another.”

These comments illustrate a few of the themes presented by Lynell James, senior vice president and HR relationship manager at TIAA-CREF. One key point, she said, is that whatever one hears about hiring freezes, “there are always people hiring.”

At the same time, she cited national surveys of employers that show that many of the jobs that have been eliminated in the last two years will never be restored. That means every lost employee whom you wanted to keep is potentially not only the loss of that talent, but of the position.

James and others here argued that academic employers need to do a better job of identifying those they most want to keep (in all kinds of positions) and focusing on providing them with advancement, support and (when possible) money. She described TIAA-CREF’s internal process for identifying its own superstars -- and then noted that the company does annual surveys of all employees and of its superstars to see if the latter are as satisfied as the company would like.

One of the points James and others here stressed was that national surveys suggest that top employees have a range of motivations for staying or leaving a position -- and that money is not the only issue. Paul Michaud, chief HR officer at Georgia Southern University, said that he believes colleges and universities regularly underestimate the value of simply saying “thank you” to people who are doing top work.

Further, he stressed that the “soft elements” of job conditions send important messages in tight budget times. He said, for example, that the university has long encouraged all employees to seek out professional development, but that some complained that their bosses wouldn’t give them time to do so. So the university adopted a “learning policy” that states that every non-faculty employee is expected to attend at least 20 hours a year of activities related to career or skills advancement -- and that this time must be provided. (Faculty are presumed to be already engaged in such learning.)

In numerous discussions here, HR leaders said that they favored a mix of approaches to employee motivation and appreciated the idea that non-financial incentives play a role. But many said that they were forced to confront the question of keeping top talent when any raise money became available. Several said that, from their vantage point as HR experts, their institutions would gain the most from using any raise money exclusively for merit raises.

But for a variety of reasons -- some contractual and some based on concern for employees who have gone too long without any raise -- these views tend to be modified with funds shifted all or in part to providing some more money for everyone. But this, they said in turn, minimizes the impact of the merit raises in motivating the best employees to stay.


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