How To Keep Your Best Employees – An Interview with Brooks Holtom

Brooks C. Holtom’s goal is to bridge the gap between human resource professionals and academics in the field of Organizational Behavior. Dr. Holtom is a Professor at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business, and the recipient of the 2006 Academy of Management award for Outstanding Practitioner-Oriented Publication in Organizational Behavior, for his article Increasing Human and Social Capital by Applying Job Embeddedness Theory.  Job Embeddedness Theory is described in detail in the prior post, which can be found by scrolling down.

But given the high level of job dissatisfaction and burnout, we wanted to get Professor Holtom’s thoughts on why employees stay at their job.

Holtom:  What is keeping employees in their jobs today is the macroeconomic environment. (High unemployment, employer’s reticence to add to payrolls and the lack of wage premium for movement.) 

We are seeing a pent-up desire to move that will find expression when the job market picks up.  Companies have “leaned down” during this economic slowdown, so it seems fair to assume that the current employees are the ones the company wants to keep.  If so, now is the ideal time to think about Job Embeddness and how to retain those employees when the economy improves.

Employees may be unhappy but are currently staying in their jobs. So you believe now is a great time to address some of the concerns of the employees and re-engage them.

Holtom:  Yes.  We’ve seen dozens of studies over the years showing higher engagement and organizational commitment results in higher productivity. Now is when employers need to be thinking systematically about the links, fit and sacrifice which employees have with their jobs and looking for ways to increase these levers.

We’ve had five decades of research on Job Satisfaction, three decades of writings on Organizational Commitment and over a decade of thought on Employee Engagement.  Job Embeddedness is another tool for companies to diagnostically evaluate the employee value proposition as a totality.  It creates an opportunity to see things which can make the employer unique and desirable in the employee’s (or recruit’s) mind.

Let me give you an example, Adobe employees in Seattle put a premium local produce. Upon learning that some employees were spending Saturday mornings at the Farmer’s Market, the company roped off part of the parking lot on Friday afternoons and encouraged local farmers to sell their produce there. The produce vendors were thrilled to have a new location with no additional charges.  The employees had a unique perk, which many valued. This cost the company almost nothing while increasing the sacrifice an employee would feel if leaving for a firm in another location.

The challenge for Human Resource professionals is the efficiency of treating everyone the same, which conflicts with the reality that each person remains a unique individual.  Adobe’s “value-added” produce market might add little to no value in another part of the country or for people in another industry.  So, people in HR need to be creative to find unique ways to add value.  Surveys are not the answer, but rather open communication with individuals and careful listening.

What a great example of the sacrifice in of Job Embeddedness theory.

Holtom:  The Adobe-Seattle example brings the external world to bear on the sacrifice if one leaves the company.  Mentoring can strengthen the links to colleagues and therefore to the corporation. But for all the benefits to accrue, it cannot feel forced or contrived, therefore I encourage companies to support their mentoring programs with funds for lunches or social events.

I would also interpret that as a plug for the importance of a great match between the Mentor and Mentee and the advantages of Mentor Resources’ personality-based matching with WisdomShare™. Thanks.

Holtom:  Mentoring can also enhance the tendency of corporate cultures to reflect the choices of specific people with the organization.  The informal actions of individuals influence the fit, and employees self-select. Ben Schneider’s, People Make the Place, discusses the how the Attraction- Selection-Attrition reinforces the corporate culture. In the company is seeking greater diversity in viewpoints, this can be disadvantageous.  A particular group or perspective can become over-represented.

Some companies set a goal for their mentoring programs of broadening managers’ perspectives.  Tell me about your own mentoring experiences.

Holtom:  I chose the University of Washington’s PhD program in order to study with Terrence Mitchell and Thomas Lee, who were working on an Unfolding Model of Voluntary Turnover.  They became friends, co-authors and remain my mentors.

We now know that reciprocity works in nearly all cultures.  Being asked for help and being valued for your insight and experience is flattering.  But reciprocity theory shows that by making the effort and extending help, you increase the sense of connection and your perception of the other person’s value. Mentoring can benefit the organization, but it makes the mentor and the mentee feel better about themselves and about each other. With Terrence and Thomas, working with them and having them as mentors, has made me a better person.

Thank you.

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