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talent retention

When Shantal Feltham started Stiris Research Inc. seven years ago, she needed a director of business development for her London, Ont.-based clinical research firm.

The president and chief executive officer of Stiris didn't have to look far to find the right candidate for the job. "I turned to our competitor," she says. "I hired away one of their star employees."

That wasn't her only raid. Four years ago, she hired away a vice-president from her ex-employer.

"I knew she would be a perfect fit for the company," Ms. Feltham says. "I pursued her for three years."

Ms. Feltham is neither the first, nor the last, boss to poach employees from the competition. As the economy improves and hiring picks up again, studies show that there will be a growing number of workers on the hunt for new jobs – and many willing to succumb to offers at pastures they see as greener.

No business wants its work force pilfered by the competition, especially when it comes to key performers. And that's even more so for small and medium-sized businesses than bigger ones, which can ill afford to lose and try to replace important players.

So businesses that want to hang on to top talent need to make moves to retain their staff, experts say.

Employees entertain offers to jump ship for a variety of reasons, usually when their needs aren't met. And it's not necessarily about money, says Maureen Neglia, a Toronto-based senior consultant in Towers Watson's talent and rewards practice.

When someone's ideas stop getting heard, other employers start to look attractive, says Iain Morris, a Toronto-based partner with Mercer Canada Ltd., a global human resources consulting firm.

Indeed, Ms. Feltham says her director of business development took a pay cut to join her firm because he felt his opinions would count more, she says.

David King, Canadian president for headhunting firm Robert Half International, says many people leave jobs because of a sour relationship with a direct manager. Trying to resolve differences through discussions may help, or things may work out by having the person report to a different manager, he says.

A lack of career advancement can also motivate employees to make a move, Mr. Morris says. "Sometimes people feel blocked in their current career and so they start considering a different organization," he notes.

Offering an employee a promotion or a special project could prevent someone from jumping ship, Ms. Neglia says.

While added responsibility may be enough to stave off some employees' defections, others need a bigger career makeover. That could include moving an employee into a different role, into another part of the company or offering up professional development and training opportunities, she says.

"Any kind of formal education or training is very attractive," she says.

Flexibility is also key to many employees. In the seven years since she started her business, Ms. Feltham says that not one of her 127 employees has left to join a competitor. She says it comes down to trust and a healthy work-life balance. She doesn't mind if someone works from home or outside a typical schedule, as long as they do their work.

"We use the word respect," she says. "I respect them and they respect me. I trust they'll get the work done."

That's also one of the carrots that Cheryl Ng, owner of Fou Fou Dog, a Richmond Hill, Ont.-based dog-clothing manufacturer, dangles in front of her dozen employees.

Ms. Ng says she's "not into the whole nine to five thing any more." As long as employees are meeting deadlines, she doesn't care when they do their work.

Ms. Ng also offers her employees numerous financial incentives to keep them onside. Among them: Employees receive bonuses based on sales numbers. They also get a raise ranging from 8 per cent to 13 per cent every year and she recently introduced a profit-sharing plan. She also pays for some mobile data plans, and when staff travel to events, they eat at five-star restaurants. Every dinner and drink is on the company.

"As the company grows, everyone grows," says Ms. Ng, noting that she's had only two employees quit in seven years, and neither went to a competitor.

If money is the thing talking, people simply want pay to be on par with their peers, Mr. King says. "You don't have to be the best-paying firm, you just have to be a competitive one," he says.

It's important that whatever moves are made, they address an individual employee's underlying concerns, Mr. King notes.

People may be happy with a raise or more responsibility in the short term, but once the euphoria wears off or the solution hasn't dealt with underlying issues, employees may get itchy feet again.

"We see a very high incidence of people who accept counter-offers not sticking with the firm six months down the road," he says. "They get used to the extra cash [but]prior issues haven't gone away."

Busy business owners may not realize what is bothering an employee. Having a formal process, where employers talk to their most valuable workers on a regular basis about how they feel about their job, will keep lines of communication open, Mr. Morris says. "Ask them how it's going, about what they're happy and unhappy about. There should always be open and ongoing dialogue."

In the end, the experts say, it's all about making employees feel they count. Says Ms. Feltham: "People want to have some sense of value at their workplace."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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