What does it take to retain your best people and keep them happy?

By: Bill Zolis

If you drive along any commercial street in Canada right now, one thing that you’ll notice is that just about every restaurant, store, garage or factory that has an outdoor message board has some version of “Help Wanted” or “Now Hiring” posted on it.

This is the most visible effect of “the Great Resignation,” as we discussed in a previous blog.

But what we’re seeing on Main Street is just the tip of the iceberg. The same thing is happening at workplaces across the country and in pretty much ever sector of the economy. Most people agree that the pandemic, the disruption to the way we work and, to some extent, the income replacement programs that were put in place temporarily are big factors, but they are not the only ones.

Turnover is higher than it’s ever been before, and the Great Resignation is far from over, according to the Human Resources Professionals Association. In fact, they say, 37% of Canadian workers are open to the idea of changing jobs this year.

This creates two problems for employers: first, the disruption of being short-staffed; and, second, the considerable cost of recruiting and training new employees. And it costs a lot. When I tried to pin down a number, I found just about every amount you can imagine. I won’t go into the details, but some reputable sources say 33% of the annual salary of the position at the low end, and one says 217% of annual salary at the high end, depending on the amount of training and so on. So, okay. It costs a lot of money to replace a worker!

Recruitment and retention of employees have long been big priorities for many workplaces and a major focus for benefits plans – especially now that the work force is so much more mobile than it was a generation ago.

Why do people leave their jobs?

A better question might be, What does it take to make them stay?

Why do some high performers stay in a given job with a given employer? What is it about these workplaces that makes them happy and keeps them moving forward?

We’ve touched on this topic before, in terms of the well workplace, and building comprehensive benefits, and my research on the subject turned up a great many studies and surveys and guidelines that I’ve boiled down into a Top 10 list. I’m not going to swear by the order, but I will say that a lot of surveys and studies over the years have come to the conclusion that “money” is usually in second place after “recognition.” In any case, here is the list, in answer to the question, What is it that people want most from their jobs (and that will make them want to stay)?

  1. Recognition within the workplace (and community) and respect for both themselves and the status of the jobs they hold.
  2. Salary, benefits and other remuneration. Okay, salary is a given and benefits are mentioned high up on every employee survey I’ve seen. One interesting thing about benefits on employee-satisfaction surveys is that they often come up under multiple categories – salary and benefits, or work-life balance, workplace culture, and even fairness.
  3. Work that is interesting, varied, and challenging, and that makes full use of their abilities and qualifications – with the opportunity to stretch and grow.
  4. Freedom to make decisions and take responsibility. One definition of workplace stress is basically “responsibility for a problem without the power to fix it.” Employees need to have both the responsibility and the power and resources to get the job done.
  5. Flexibility in the performance of the job, and a good work-life balance. Work-life balance is, in many ways, more about the individual than it is about the job. How does one manage time and work and home life? But there is a line – and some workplaces push up to and over that line in the demands that it makes on its employees. In the long run, that’s just not sustainable, and people will either burn out or leave.
  6. A good relationship with their boss. This is key. Conversely, many people in the surveys I saw listed “bad relationship with boss” as a main reason for quitting. But, clearly, a supportive and perhaps even mentoring relationship with one’s superior can have a huge impact on the quality of one’s working life.
  7. Fairness. Employees need to have a sense that the workplace culture is based on an assumption of fairness – that things are fair or, if they’re not, that steps will be taken to make them fair. This covers a lot of ground, whether it’s pay, or equity and diversity, or promotions, or opportunity. But there has to be a feeling that “we do the right thing here” and of shared values with the employer.
  8. A good relationship with co-workers, and a culture that is based on friendly collegiality.
  9. Security. There is one’s own job security, and there is faith in the survival and continued prosperity of the employer. Again, conversely, a feeling that the employer was going under was listed as a reason why many top people started looking for new opportunities.
  10. Learning and career development opportunities. For the high performer, this is an expected part of the job, not an add-on perk.

Funny thing is – if employers were to treat every employee as if he or she were their most valued high performer, a surprising number of them would take up the challenge and become just that: high performers in a high performing workplace.

And turnover would not be much of an issue.


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I really appreciate comments, ideas, suggestions or just observations about the blog or any other topics in benefits management. I always look forward to hearing from readers. If there’s anything you want to share, please email me at bill@penmorebenefits.com.

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