6 Steps For Keeping Your Amazing Office Team Together

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The classic 80s movie, "9 to 5," depicts managers and executives as sexist and obnoxious male dictators who treat their female administrative staff as second-class citizens not worthy of respect, recognition or promotion. Thankfully, perceptions of administrative professionals have changed dramatically as they continue to bring a variety of critical skills to their employers and are often the backbone of an organization.

While many managers may think that their administrative employees are easily replaceable in today’s job market with so many people still unemployed, losing a talented administrative professional is still costly.

“A good executive admin will cost no less than one half of their annual salary to replace,” says Chason Hecht, president of Retensa, an employee retention consulting firm based in New York, N.Y. “In all likelihood, if they're good and they're operating the well-oiled machine of an executive office, then it could cost two or three times their salary to replace them. Most executives know this, which is why they pay executive administrative staff as well as they do. They want to make sure they stay when they find a good one.”

Leigh Branham, founder of Keeping the People, Inc., based in Overland Park, Kan. and author of “The 7 Hidden Reasons Employees Leave: How to Recognize the Subtle Signs and Act Before It's Too Late”, agrees that for a entry-level administrative professional the cost of losing them is about 50 percent of their salary.

Losing a skilled administrative professional is also costly in terms of lost productivity.

“You have a decline in productivity when you have to hire a new administrative assistant while they get up-to-speed,” Branham says. “The way you calculate that time is in the first month, they’re probably about 20 percent as productive as the previous person was. So you have to calculate 80 percent of their salary as a cost during that first month; and then the second month it would go down to 60 percent, and the third month 40 percent and so on. Presumably by the fifth month, they are as fully productive as the person they replaced. Lost productivity cost is something that a lot of companies don’t take into account when they think about turnover costs.”

If the high cost of losing your talented administrative staff has you convinced to work to retain them, here is a six-step plan for keeping them long-term.

Step 1: Create a Plan

Kristine A. Sexter, senior consultant at WorkWise Productions, a consulting firm that teaches organizations to recruit, develop and retain talent based in Tulsa, Okla., says that all organizations should have a retention plan in place.

“One of the things I find as I work with companies of all sizes is that leaders are very strategic in many facets of their business; they have marketing plans, sales plans, and consumer satisfaction plans. But when asked to identify what the single most expensive aspect of running their business is, they say it’s their employees. Then when you ask them if they have a retention plan, they don’t have one. It just makes no sense that it’s the single most expensive part of doing business, but yet you’re winging it.”

Sexter says that a good retention plan profiles the type of employees who excels in your company. Then once you know who you’d like to hire and/or retain, it’s vital that senior leaders are held accountable for implementing the plan and ultimately reducing turnover.

Step 2: Identify Star Players

The next step for retaining administrative staff is to identify those stellar employees that you actually want to retain, because not everyone is a top talent, Hecht says.

“Certainly not everyone makes such a valued contribution to the organization that they should be invested in,” Hecht says. “So identify who to retain. Ask yourself which administrators in your group have the skills and abilities that you want now and going forward. Once you identify that population, then you can target solutions better. It's worth investing the time and energy to do so.”

Step 3: Conduct “Stay” Interviews

Hecht says that once you’ve identified your star employees, it’s time to begin having strategic conversations with them.

“You want to ask the people that you want to retain three questions: Why did you join? Why do you stay? Why would you leave? These critical questions identify the motivations for most people in their career,” Hecht says.

Hecht says the first conversation should happen within your administrative staff’s first 30 days on the job.

“There should be a ‘pulse check,’” Hecht says. “Some organizations do this formally as a ‘new hire survey.’ They identify in a two to four week period what's working for them so far and what's not and if how the organization was presented is in alignment with what their experience is.”

It’s also important to communicate regularly with long-standing administrative employees. Sexter advises managers to conduct “stay interviews” quarterly with staff you’d like to keep on board instead of waiting until it’s too late.

“A lot of companies tell me they do exit interviews, but I’m here to tell you exit interviews are all ineffective because that employee wants out, and they’re going to tell you what they think is going to make sure they get a good reference. They’re not going to tell you the truth,” Sexter warns. “They’re not going to tell you that they think you’re a jerk and that’s why they’re leaving.”

Step 4: Sing Their Praises

Branham says another key reason that administrative professionals leave their position is a lack of feedback from company leaders. This is reflected in IAAP’s 2013 Benchmark Survey. Click here to see the complete survey.

“Employees leave because they don’t feel valued, so keep your eyes open as a manager for the things that they do such as when an administrative assistant works late hours to finish a proposal that’s due the next morning,” Branham says. “Be sure you go to the person and say, ‘Thank you for staying late and getting that done. You got it done really well. We presented it to the client and the client loved it.’ It gives people the sense that their jobs are meaningful and important.”

Step 5: Offer Competitive Pay

Employees don’t just like to hear that they’re doing a great job, they also want to be well-compensated for their hard work.

“If one administrative assistant is doing the same job as another and not making as much, they’re going to find out about it and it’s going to become a difficult issue in the organization,” Branham warns.

Make sure you are paying people as much as they can make outside of the organization as well. Internal and external pay equity is extremely important as an element of feeling valued.

Step 6: Follow Up

Simply asking for feedback on what will keep employees happy is not enough. Consistent follow up and taking action on feedback is the glue that holds your retention plan together.  Anytime you ask any employee for their advice or input, whether it be through employee satisfaction surveying, the simple act of just asking that employee is, in and of itself, a retention strategy because employees want to know that you value their input and their opinions.

“The worst thing you can do is do nothing, like you don’t ever bring it up, you don’t ever address it, it is as if it didn’t happen. That sends a signal to your staff that, really, you’re just going through the motions that some consultant told you to go through and you really don’t mean it,” said Sexter.

While you don’t have to act on every suggestion or request, you must let your admin know that she/he was heard and given fair consideration. Double back with your employee and let them know you investigated their concerns. If you can’t do anything about them, such as give them a raise at this time, you can give them an explanation.

It’s important for managers to actively take steps to improve employee retention because as the economy improves, it’s going to become more of an issue. Don’t lose sight of the care and feeding of your best people in the office.

(This post originally appeared as an article in the October 2012 issue of OfficePro magazine. Denene Brox is a Kansas City-based freelance writer.)

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