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Brian Wunder fondly remembers summers spend working at his local gas station in Kansas City, MO, as a teen. Unpredictable overtime, snappy customers and lots of legwork were a given. But he didn’t mind – he wasn’t looking to make a career out of it and left the job as soon as the weather turned colder.
Wunder, now an account executive for Service Management Group, an Oklahoma City-based performance improvement company, says pumping gas taught him the importance of employee loyalty. “Most quick-service jobs are transitional jobs anyway,” Wunder says. “It’s difficult to say to employees, ‘You stick with us and we’ll make you famous,’ but you want to extend that tenure in the most meaningful terms as you can.”
As Wunder learned from experience, employers today still have to offer more than gas on the house to retain employees. A fun work environment, opportunities to learn new skills and a motivated manager will keep employees on your payroll longer.
All work and no play doesn’t work all the time. Employees at Sonic Drive-in, the ’50s-fashioned fast food chain headquartered in Oklahoma City, are rewarded for serving up burgers and onion rings and, more importantly, for their loyalty to the company. Good customer service, cleanliness and knowledge of corporate guidelines are judged throughout the year at each of Sonic’s 2,300 restaurants. Its official employee retention program, called “Showdown for Sonic Gold,” features “The Dr. Pepper Games,” an Olympic-style competition with categories such as Carhop for the best food delivery, Fountain for the tastiest drink preparation, Switchboard for the snazziest service delivery and Dresser, Grill and Swamp for the best food preparation. Additionally, other contests held throughout the year rate employees’ knowledge and cleanliness. Staffers are awarded cash and points that can be redeemed for prizes ranging from a T-shirt to a home entertainment system.
When the program began in 1994, only 20 percent of the drive-ins participated because of high employee turnover. Today, 2,200 out of the 2,300+ shops are participating in the 2009 Sonic Dr. Pepper games. (That’s more that 70,000 employees.) After competing in the National Finals, which will took place in Las Vegas this year, the top-ranked shops will be honored on stage at Sonic’s Ninth Annual National Convention, to be held in Hawaii. Diane Prem, director of operations for Sonic, says the prizes and teamwork drive the performance and keep the employees working at Sonic longer. “It’s fun, and it gets everyone involved,” she says. “It’s like a sporting event. The team sets goals and they drive each other.”
Wunder, who helped start Sonic Gold eight years ago, says it retains employees in an industry notorious for high turnover. Throughout the year, Sonic’s employees learn leadership skills, how to work with others as well as customer service and food safety tips. All of Corporate America can learn from this example, Wunder says.
According to the American Management Association’s 2008 Administrative Professionals Survey, 56 percent of employees say that training would improve their performance and 27 percent said more support from their manager would spur them on. “With youth, you’re not looking for lifetime employees, but you are looking to add months and years to their employment,” he says. “The recognition is that people want help to find a better route in life. Help them troubleshoot and be their mentor. That could be one of the most powerful motivators out there.”
Fountain of Youth
While keeping part-timers happy can be a challenge, using those same tactics in any industry, especially those with high turnover, can do wonders for retention. “What typically drives people out of the work force faster than anything is lack of respect. Second is unfair treatment,” says Fred Martels, president of People Solutions Strategies, a performance improvement company located in Chesterfield, MO. “Let them know what their service means to customers. When people understand how their job affects someone else, they take on a higher level of pride. They’re someone who really makes a contribution.”
A fun work environment that offers flexible scheduling and the opportunity to learn are high on job candidates’ lists of needs in 2008, Martel says. However, even if a sluggish economy doesn’t allow people to jump from job to job as freely as they once did, most employees don’t have a problem with leaving an employer that doesn’t meet their needs as soon as a better opportunity comes along. “People like to learn,” Martel says. They want to feel like they’re accomplishing something and have opportunities to advance, knowing they can get from A to Z after a period of time.”
Employees at Southwest Airlines know how to have fun. The airline’s 32,000 employees are encouraged to be themselves, “not robots,” at work. At their headquarters in Love Field, Texas, every inch of wall space in the five-story building is filled with mementos of company gatherings and celebrations. Each month, an Employee of the Month is featured with a description of his or her history working with the airline in the in-flight publication, Spirit, and on the airline’s Web site.
Leslie Yerkes, founder of Catalyst Consulting Group, a performance consulting firm based in Cleveland and author of Fun Works: Creating Places Where People Love to Work (Berrett-Koehler), says Southwest became the retention story of the year by successfully combining fun and hard work. “For some people, work takes a toll on them,” she says. “When you find work being an extension of play, it gives you more energy. It’s not just dressing up and spinning in your chair.”
Yerkes says that whether employees are 14 or 74, a fun environment and opportunities to grow are vital. “I’m in my early 40s, and my peers and colleagues who have put 20 to 25 years into their careers are now making real, conscious choices to leave high-paying jobs for ones that give them more meaning and satisfaction,” she says. “If you trust employees with the most valuable assets of your organization and share the guiding principles, values and goals, why wouldn’t you trust them to get the work-fun balance right?”
write by Odette