A New Approach To Employee Retention — Part 2

A New Approach To Employee Retention — Part 2

In part 1, we discussed the impact of employee turnover on an organization’s profitability, and the disconnect between employer and employee which keeps the turnover going. That disconnect is a lack of trust which results in a lack of loyalty. You can’t hire a new employee, welcome them to “the family,” then follow up by making them sign a document in which they understand they are an “at will” employee that can be fired at any time. That’s not how you build trust and loyalty.


Organizations are quickly realizing that loyalty and trust can be significantly increased with a time-based commitment. This includes a commitment from the employee that they won’t leave the company until a specific goal is reached or task is completed, and an equal commitment from the employer that within the specified period of time, they will enable the employee to gain a specified set of experiences or skills which will benefit the next step in their career.

These commitments are called Tours of Duty. Each tour can last one to three years, depending on the situation. At completion, the employee has the right to seek employment elsewhere, or re-commit to another tour. As you would expect, if the experience was right, and the next opportunity provided additional personal advancement, they are likely to sign on for another tour.

Sound easy? Well, it actually is — provided that your organization is committed to doing two key things:

  1. Provide the employee with a specific goal (mission) in a realistic timeline. For example, “you will add 15 new growers in two years” or “establish a precision program with X% of customers in three years.”
  2. Promise specific career benefits for the employee. This must be specific to be fair to the employee. Being vague by saying “you’ll gain valuable experience” might work for a job description, but it won’t work here. This is the company’s commitment to the employee, and it needs to be specific. Examples of benefits could include “opportunity to develop and implement a new marketing program” or “over the next 36 months, you will have the ability to establish a new program, and manage its P&L.”

These commitments acknowledge your employees have the right to leave in order to gain more experience. And by default, build the relationship that convinces them to stay.

Going By The Book

In the book “The Alliance,” Reid Hoffman explains how he used three types of tours to recruit, engage, and retain highly sought after employees.  At LinkedIn, these Tours of Duty were broken into three different categories:

  1. Rotational Tour. This typically targets entry level employees designed to build a baseline of knowledge with a goal of advancing to the next level in the company. This could move an employee from sales trainee to sales representative.
  2. Foundational Tour. This targets employees with established careers and focuses in strengthening the tie between the employee and the company by recognizing their personal needs/goals and tying them to company objectives.
  3. Transformational Tour. This is a personalized agreement that recognizes the talent an employee brings to the table, and the ability to enhance their skillset by giving them a specific objective that will both enhance their resume and add to the company’s success. Upon completion, employee and the company have transformed to a higher level as a result of the agreement.

Contracts may seem counter-productive in an era where companies need to develop personal and rewarding relationships with new employees in order to retain them. However, each agreement results in the deepening of their relationship with the employee by documenting and proving commitment each step of the way. Each Tour of Duty will incrementally build the trust both parties are seeking.

A major challenge in many retail agribusinesses today is they miss the opportunity to have open and honest career discussions with their employees. Most employers in this sector tend to treat annual reviews as an opportunity to talk about the good and bad of past performance, but fail to connect with the employee by focusing on what they want in their time with your company. The Tour of Duty concept forces those conversations to happen on a fairly regular basis. And, it’s those same, honest, career conversations that engage and retain the talented employees that would typically feel like they need to move on, to learn more.

You would be correct in saying this framework gives employees permission to leave at a set date. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that managers don’t hold the right to give them permission in the first place. Your employees don’t need permission to leave. In fact, by attempting to withhold the ability to leave, distrust will increase and they will leave behind your back, without any notice.

Something To Consider

Think about this: Do you want your talented employees to stay with your organization for a set time, agree not to leave until specific targets are met, and likely sign on for another one- to three- year period? Or would you rather they leave without notice, mid-stream in the development of a market?

The final thought on Tours of Du­ty is the positive impact they can have on your relationship with former employees. Like it or not, an organization’s relationship with ex-employees is a factor in their ability to recruit future employees. The way a former employee describes their experience in your company has a direct impact on the perception of your organization’s culture for future employees. Today, many conversations between a former employee and a potential employee might include comments like “I wasn’t going any­where,” I wasn’t challenged,” or “they ignored my request to do more.” Re­gardless of the true culture of the company, this leaves a pretty negative impression on that prospect. However, a system that included Tours of Duty enables former employees to say “yes, I left there. But only after I met my goals, and they enabled me to learn the skills I needed to take the next step in my career.”

This type of process may not be a fit for everyone, or for every role. But it can be a tool in your toolbox when challenged with turnover of entry level employees, the need to increase relationships with talented employees, and a desire to enhance your recruiting effort by leveraging the positive comments from past employees.