Employee Retention Re-Defined: How to Keep People (Whole)

Ernest Hoffman

As a pastor-turned-management-consultant, I see many places where hot-topic interests of faith communities and organizations intersect. Retention is one intriguing area that rises to the top. You read that last sentence right; the words “intrigue” and “retention” actually appeared together, and if you stick with me until the end of this blog, I think you will agree.

In faith communities, retention gets a bad rap – it sounds more like “maintenance” than “mission,” which gives it little appeal. All the while, our faith stories speak of the lengths some are willing to go to in order to keep what matters to them. Take, for example, the story of a shepherd leaving 99 sheep behind in search of the one who didn’t stay. Or a woman who feels compelled to get the whole neighborhood together for a party when she found one coin out of ten that she almost lost for good. Or a father whose son “quit” the job of being a son (we call that voluntary turnover where I work) because he saw it as the only way he’d ever really live. In each of these stories, a call to action far supersedes reaction.

In the world of business, the importance of retaining strong talent has never been more prevalent. More and more frequently, my clients are not as concerned with knowing if our tools are going to facilitate optimal performance. They want to know what our tools can do to help them keep the employees they invest in. They want to see a difference in turnover. Yet effective retention goes so much deeper than bottom-line turnover; it’s more accurately described as the art of sustaining meaningful relationships over time. It’s a practice we need to reclaim that has long been neglected.

Retention Re-Defined: Beyond Turnover

Turnover is nothing more than a single outcome of poor retention; one of many possible outcomes. When we examine turnover, we are merely doing a postmortem autopsy on something that has already ceased to exist. How relational is that? Retention, in turn, is the investment we make in keeping existing relationships alive and fulfilling for all involved. It is proactive, not reactive. The work of retention continues on in a dynamic, complex, and evolving way – or it doesn’t – but that distinguishes it from turnover, which reflects an either/or decision that often occurs at a single point in time. Let me be clear – retention goes beyond people staying and filling seats – it reflects what we do to help those around us come alive and remain engaged with what they are doing.

How to Keep People (Whole)

A significant amount of research exists to highlight factors that contribute to people staying with the organizations and faith communities they identify with. Five major themes emerge in the research around retention and the foundation of each is investment in relationships:

  1. Help people do what they love and love what they do – Most studies agree that the number one reason people stay is because they enjoy what they do. Discover what people’s passions are and help them connect these passions with their work. An employee’s passion for community engagement could be channeled into projects that benefit your organization while increasing their level of engagement.
  2. Focus on the end, not the means – The pursuit of fulfilling goals often comes at the cost of momentary comfort.       Where this is the case, assist people in framing their present struggles in terms of broader-reaching goals that will make the struggle worthwhile. For example, we can be revitalized in our efforts to navigate resistance to change when we are reminded of the positive benefits the change will bring about.
  3. Focus on the means, not the end – Sometimes, we need the opposite. The end-goal can seem overwhelming, and to find our vitality, we need assistance focusing on a smaller piece of the goal we can achieve. Lead people in sharpening their focus. Break complex projects down into manageable units with shorter time frames and measurable progress.
  4. Foster meaningful connections with others – Experiencing a sense of community is vital. Receiving acceptance and providing support are two of the most fulfilling and life-giving things we can do. Drive retention by being an intentional connector. Invite a colleague to join you for lunches or events where they can broaden their base of support.
  5. Appeal to how far they’ve come – It is easy, at times, to lose sight of how much we’ve invested and accomplished along the way. Remind individuals of how much progress they have made and highlight their achievements as a means of recognizing their potential to stretch even further.

Of course, this implies that people are whole to begin with. If they aren’t, and I suspect this happens often, just imagine the impact these practices could have on steering them towards a greater sense of fulfillment! You could be the reason someone’s more alive than they were when they started working for you or your organization!

A New Definition Deserves a New Starting Point

Historically, retention efforts start when there is some indication that a person is at risk for leaving an organization or faith community. This results in a reactive strategy that, in many cases, only further reinforces negative thinking. A hopeful and proactive alternative to this consists of starting the work of retention the moment someone arrives. Maintain a regular and open dialogue where you are asking questions such as these:

  • What new passions, interests, or concerns do you have that would be helpful to know?
  • If you could do anything in this community/organization, what would it be and why?
  • What can I be doing to ensure you feel alive and fulfilled?

Follow up on people’s responses by taking action that demonstrates how serious you are about facilitating their ongoing engagement.

In reality, strong retention efforts have multiple starting points. It should not be assumed that the individual is happy in their current role unless they indicate otherwise. Multiple efforts should be made to check in and assess how someone is feeling. Create a safe environment – both in terms of location (e.g., offsite) and how you show up (e.g., non-defensiveness, empathy) – where the person will feel comfortable sharing their genuine feelings and concerns. Follow up on what you talk about to express appreciation for their willingness to share. As a general rule, if you can’t remember the last time you had this type of conversation with a particular person it’s time to reach out.

Making Retention Personal: Turning Over a New Leaf

Promoting retention is bound to be a struggle for you unless you personally experience a sense of fulfillment and being alive. To accomplish this, develop an ongoing awareness of how engaged you feel in the work you are doing. From there, identify colleagues and mentors who can guide you in creating a reality that optimizes your sense of fulfillment and happiness. Be forthright in advocating for experiences that align with what excites you. Remember – when you’re at the top of your game, everyone wins.

It is time for faith communities and organizations alike to turn over a new leaf and prioritize effective retention rather than allowing it to be an afterthought. In the broad scheme of things, it is those who stay who will have a far greater impact on outcomes than those who leave and we don’t just want to keep them, we want to keep them alive and well.


ernest hoffmanErnest Hoffman is a Management Consultant with PRADCO, a company that specializes in assessment for hire as well as employee training and development. He has also been an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America for nearly 10 years. Ernest has a Ph.D. in Industrial Organizational Psychology from the University of Akron and a Master of Divinity degree from Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Bexley. His work is a published in a number of outlets, including Academy of Management Review, Leadership Quarterly, The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, and The Oxford Handbook of Leadership.

Ernest’s area of expertise is leadership identity development and he takes pride in going where there is no path and leaving a trail. Ernest can be contacted at ehoffman@pradco.com.

Comments are closed.