Mark Hammer

The notion of “retention” is generally underspecified in such discussions. When we say that we wish to “retain” a great hire, do we mean that the person:

  • remains in the position they were hired for and doesn’t leave it for a long time?
  • switches positions, but never leave that sector/branch/division of the organization?
  • moves around the organization, gathering organizational knowledge, but never leaves the organization?
  • hops from organization to organization but never leaves the public service?
  • leaves the public service but not the public sector? (e.g., they go to an NGO or think tank)

It’s also not clear how long “retention” is. If I snag a great hire and they stay in my work unit for 3 years, before scoring another job somewhere, is that long enough to consider the “retention” mission accomplished? Is 4, 5, 8, 12 years enough?

In the case of Jobs and Apple, the mentality behind hires, and that whole “war for talent” thing, is often very different than what we think of in the public sector. As Steve (our Steve, not the dead guy) noted, if Apple tries to recruit someone, that’s partly so someone else doesn’t get them, in addition to whatever value that employee might add to Apple. The competitiveness of the private sector incorporates an element of prophylaxis in hiring. I hire you so THEY don’t GET to hire you. In the public sector, if I’m trying to lure someone to work for me in Labour, but they take a position with EPA, I may have lost a good hire, but government overall has snagged a good one, that will hopefully stay in the system.

One view of “retention” might emphasize organizational continuity and stability of functional capacity (i.e., no one in my work unit is going to walk out on me before I’ve had a chance to hire another person, have them job shadow for a bit, and acquire “the knowledge”), where I’ll never find myself shortstaffed. Another view might emphasize an approach to retention where hanging onto someone as a broadly-informed corporate resource (e.g., a well-respected strategic trouble-shooter) is the primary objective.

None of this is a criticism of Steve’s original post. Any one or more of the goals might constitute successful retention, within the context of a particular organization at a particular point in time. The thing is, when we ask for strategies to foster retention, we really need to first specify what WE mean by “retention”, and what it is we are trying to hang onto, in order to help identify what sorts of strategies would be most appropriate, and most successful.

Finally, there is an awful lot that is simply not within one’s control, and you have to respect those limits. I can think of no better example than the struggle public sector employers have to hang onto hires when an industry, like the oil patch, springs into overdrive and offers double the salary…if not more. Staff development is often a crucial part of making new hires feel valued. While lack of support for career development is often a reason for people to feel little allegiance to an employer and position, at the same time, developing one’s employees can end up making them more attractive to those employers you compete with. It’s a tough line to walk.