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Ken Keller: How to lose your best employees

Brain food for business owners

Posted: August 10, 2010 6:13 p.m.
Updated: August 11, 2010 4:55 a.m.

Many business owners state that “our employees are our greatest asset.” In many organizations, if the truth were told, the employees are the business.

Not all employees are equal on the job. Some cost the company money; others make the company money. Some employees are loyal, hardworking and trustworthy; some are disengaged and have to be closely monitored to make sure they are getting their assignments done.

Some do the minimal amount necessary to stay employed, showing no initiative; others consistently go the extra mile and do whatever is needed without being told.

It is very unfortunate many people working today have a sense of entitlement. Somewhere along the way, people came to believe that they should get raises and promotions for just showing up or for just putting in time.

In the real world where people work in business, it is all about results. Those who produce more get rewarded more. This is not fair. It is not meant to be fair. In the world of business, making money is what is important and agreement is not necessary to understand the philosophy.

Tom Peters, the author of several best-selling books on management, stated that “some employees are worth a lot of money. ... Some employees are worth a hell of a lot more money.” The preamble to that quote should be “some employees are not worth having on the payroll, and everyone should be paid what they are worth. ... Having said that...”

Most owners recognize and mentally rank employees based on whatever internal values are important, be it longevity with the company, work ethic, loyalty, results, likeability, ability and so forth.

However, that value system is rarely communicated formally to the employee. This leaves every employee thinking that they are the best employee on the payroll. That is because no one ever told them differently.

Because it is often an unpleasant meeting, most employees have never been sat down and told the truth about where they stand in the company as an employee. Performance reviews don’t happen anywhere near as often as they should. Absent the truth, even the least-productive employees believes they’re hard-working, doing their job, underpaid and worthy of an immediate raise in pay. 

The best employees see this and don’t much care for it. What owners don’t understand is that there has always been, and will always be, a shortage of the very best workers.

The best workers don’t care about the economy. They know that there are opportunities available to them. The top employees will find a job.

What does it take to keep them? It takes recognition and rewards.

As an owner, if you want to lose your best employees, the hardest workers, the ones who make a difference in the business and for your clients, keep doing the following:

First, keep believing that every employee is giving the same return on payroll dollars invested.

Second, pay everyone the same, and keep raises the same for everyone, especially when it is known in the company that some employees aren’t deserving of any raise at all.

Third, never have a frank talk with those who underperform; let those employees continue to harbor the belief that they are productive and hardworking.

Fourth, take away work from those who announce they are “overworked” and make sure those assignments get transferred to hardworking employees who will get the job done without complaining.

Fifth, spend more time with employees who are less effective, less efficient and need morale support to get their job done.

Do this in the hope that the investment of time may someday payoff versus spending time with better employees where there will be an immediate boost in results.

Sixth, don’t waste time giving thanks or praise to the top performers because that will just build their already large egos. Instead, micromanage and criticize the top performers to keep them in their place and to demonstrate they are far from perfect.

Seventh, don’t provide any recommendations for improvement to the top employees. Let them figure out how they can get better on their own.

Finally, tell the top performers that they make too much money already, and they won’t be receiving another raise or promotion until things improve.

Shared sacrifice is one thing; everyone understands that. What the best people won’t do, regardless of the economy, is stay where the contributions they make are not recognized or rewarded.

Now is the time to take action to keep those employees who make a substantial difference in your place of business. If you don’t, don’t be surprised if they leave.

Ken Keller is president of Renaissance Executive Forums, helping top executives make better decisions through informed peer perspective, resulting in better top and bottom-line results. He can be reached at His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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