Retain Your Employees With Your Ideals, Not Your Perks

Uncategorized Nov 05, 2007

Earlier today I was asked what I look for in a job. Specifically, what it would take to retain me past the typical “three year burnout” period tech workers often find themselves up against. The usual answers came to mind: a fun corporate environment, challenging assignments, working with people smarter than myself. Those are all important factors, but they’re also very vanilla. Who wouldn’t want to work in a fun workplace? Unless you have a serious ego, why wouldn’t you want to be around smart people?

The person I was talking to pressed on looking for a more concrete answer. I thought back to previous jobs and why I had left them. I know that burnout had been a significant factor in leaving one position. The job became stale – repetitive. I lost hope that things would ever change, and, more importantly, that I could even influence change. The result? I stopped caring. Is that a fault of management? Most definitely. Is it also a fault of my own personality and work ethic? Yep, that, too.

I’ve never quit a job out of malice. But I came close once. During a performance review with my immediate supervisor and the president of the company, I was asked what my “dream job” would be within the organization. I think everyone probably gets asked this at some point. It’s a standard interview question designed to uncover where you’ll fit in. Of course, the problem with this is that it only works if you answer honestly. And who is ever completely honest answering a question like this during an interview? But during a performance evaluation? This is a rare opportunity to get reassigned to a better project or tweak your job description. I’d be an idiot to pass it up.

In a rare moment of unrestrained what-the-fuck-it-cant-hurt-to-try I was totally honest. I said I’d scrap the entire corporate website and rebuild it using best practices – valid HTML and CSS, minimal use of Flash, and a heavy emphasis on making everything accessible. I explained that not only would this help our search engine rankings, but we’d be better people for ensuring that anyone willing to try would be able to access our website – whether it be through a cellphone, text browser, or screen reader.

There wasn’t much hesitation in the answer I got back. The COO said flatly “Who cares if our website is accessible? Blind people aren’t going to buy [our product name] anyway.”

I was a little shocked. Up until this point I had thought quite highly of him and the corporate ideals he and the other executives often spoke about. I had even gotten swept up in the company’s mantra (which I’ll refrain from repeating here) and genuinely believed we could have a positive impact on the world. But with that statement I realized that despite all the corporate good intentions, in the end he was just another MBA out to make a buck.

Like I said above, I didn’t leave out of malice. I left (in fact, two weeks later) out of disappointment.

So, what’s the point of this story? The point of this whole post? It’s that I don’t think there can be a real answer or set of answers to ensure employees stay with a company long term. No corporation can be everything to every employee. They shouldn’t even try. Instead, they should focus on fostering the ideals that they as a company hold dear. They should communicate those ideals strongly in the workplace. The result will be a natural sifting-out of employees who don’t match. The stronger those beliefs are held in the corporate culture, the faster the sifting, and the less time wasted on both sides. Employers don’t waste time and money trying to fit round employees into a square cubicle. And employees can quickly move on with their lives and to a job that fits who they are.