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Why Re-Recruitment is the Key to Improving Employee Retention


If you make it to the in-person interview with Fog Creek Software, you’re in for a treat. Picture this: they fly you out to NYC and meet you at the airport with a limousine. A uniformed driver whisks you to the coolest hotel you’ve seen, right near the fashion district, with models in the lobby and complicated bathroom fixtures that are surely plucked from the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. In the hotel room, they have a hospitality package for you with a suggested walking tour of the city written by Fog Creek staffers, a branded T-shirt, and a DVD documentary on the company. After your day of interviews, they invite you to stay in the hotel for two more nights at their expense so you can explore the city before the limo takes you back to the airport to fly home.

And get this: all that is for a college summer internship. Fog Creek’s CEO Joel Spolsky means business when it comes to finding and hiring the top 1%.

Clearly, companies go to extreme lengths to recruit top talent. According to statistics, more power now lies in job seekers’ hands: unemployment in San Francisco this year is at a 15-year low of 3.5%; 128 of 387 US metropolitan areas now have unemployment rates of 5% or lower; 36% of employees hope to leave their job within the next 12 months; and new grad hiring jumped by 16% in 2015.

We’re approaching an era marked by a shortage of talent. The economy is turning around and unemployment is falling into the single digits. Throw in the rise of social media and the increased ability it allows recruiters to locate talent, and companies are growing vulnerable to not only losing the war for talent, but even more alarming, losing the talent they already have.

We talk a lot about recruiting, but recruitment efforts are worthless if your company is a revolving door for employees. When you previously hired, you went through extensive interviews, background checks, persuasion – probably not to the extent of Fog Creek, but still a valiant, time-intensive effort. Now that those hires have been with you awhile, do you take them for granted? More importantly, do they think you take them for granted?

It’s a simple concept, but there needs to be more discussion in the business world about the importance of continually recruiting existing employees. Companies spend a lot of time and money externally recruiting top talent, but they can’t stop there. Once you make a hire, it’s more important than ever to keep showing them why they should want to work at your organization. You need to keep winning them over from competing firms. It’s essentially a different way to think about employee engagement. Apply your best strategies in external recruiting to your top current employees. By creating that kind of differentiated workplace, chances are you’ll draw in some new stars as well.

Turnover costs can be huge. Between posting a position, reviewing and pre-screening applicants, interviewing, finalizing decisions, and onboarding/training, hiring a new employee can cost thousands of dollars – some estimates are as much as $18k. Be careful not to frame it to your employees defensively, as if safeguarding them against headhunters. Lest we forget how that went in Silicon Valley this year, with tech companies paying $415 million in settlement fees for their illegal anti-poaching deal. But do show your employees you appreciate them and want to keep them because if they want to be there, that means positive impact on everything else as well.

Keeping the talent you have offers tremendous return on investment. Why don’t we do it more often? Maybe we think we’re too busy, or we don’t consider the consequences of how much time and effort we could save by slowing down enough to get it right the first time.

On the whole, we are not a people of preventative measures. Diseases, exercise, savings, employee retention – not our strong suits. More people insure their iPhones than their lives, even if they have two kids. Only ⅓ of Americans are saving for retirement, only 10% of whom think they’re saving enough. If we ask you to choose between bananas and chocolate as an office snack a week from now, many of you will choose bananas. But when we actually get there, 74% of you who chose bananas will change your minds and eat chocolate instead. A Harvard Medical School study of 79,000 men over 20 years found that men who consumed cooked tomatoes 2-3 times a week had a 50% reduction in their risk of developing prostate cancer. Tomatoes are a good source of lycopene, which is antiangiogenic, meaning it inhibits cancer’s ability to spread. Diet accounts for a huge portion of environmentally caused cancers. Why don’t we eat healthier? It’s physically possible to lose weight, to save more, to eat tomatoes. It’s not that our goals are impossible, it’s that we lack the self-discipline to stick to them. Our present selves are stronger than our future selves – we think we’ll do one thing, but in the moment, we do another.

Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo, leader of the notorious Stanford Prison Experiment and expert witness at the Abu Ghraib trials, has done significant research on the psychology of time. All of us automatically, unconsciously divide our experiences into time perspectives, which influence every decision we make. There are six time perspectives. Present-oriented people focus on the immediate situation, what other people are doing and what they’re feeling. Within that, they can be present-hedonistic, focusing on the joys and liberties of life, or present-fatalist – little they do matters because life is controlled by fate. Past-oriented people base decisions on memories and what has happened to them before, and they can be past-positive or past-negative. Other people focus consistently on the future – anticipated consequences and cost-benefit analyses. Within that, they can be future-oriented, setting goals, or transcendental-future: life begins after death.

What’s the optimal time profile? High on past-positive, moderately high on future, moderate on present-hedonism, and always low on past-negative and present-fatalism. Past-positive gives you roots, connects you to your identity. The future gives you dreams to reach new challenges. Present-hedonism gives you energy to explore your situation and the people around you. Essentially, you want to be able to look back with contentment, look forward with hope, and believe you can affect change in your circumstances. The ideal perspective is intuitive, but the ability to identify and consciously shift which perspective you and those around you are using is a remarkably simple and powerful thing.

So as an employer, relating to your employees, all this psychology offers important insights – it can help us strategize how we continually recruit our existing talent and how we structure our organizations for employee engagement. Think about some of the key things top performers want:

1) Steady engagement or excitement – present hedonism.

2) Challenges and lofty goals to work toward – future orientation.

3) Significant impact, to be able to look back and say this was my legacy – past positive.

Chances are your best people already have these optimal time perspectives, or something close to them. It’s your job to foster those thinking patterns and create a framework in which they thrive.

So, we explored the importance of continually recruiting existing employees, and some psychological insights that can help us do that. Here’s how you can apply those time perspectives to keep your employees engaged and thriving at your organization:

Happily, time perspectives and self-discipline are like muscles, and exercising them actually makes them stronger. In our brains, we have neural networks made of neurons communicating with other neurons in circuits, and we can create and affect these circuits for ourselves. The more we employ certain thinking patterns, or neural circuits, the more impetus those circuits have to run again with less external stimulation. So what is first a conscious decision can become rewired as an unconscious circuit when repeated. Our minds are highly sophisticated “seek and ye shall find” instruments – we’re designed to focus in on whatever we’re looking for. If I seek red in the world, then I will find it everywhere – maybe just a little at first, but the longer I stay focused on it, the more I will see it.

In short: continually recruit and engage your people by building these optimal perspectives into the framework of your organization and employee mentalities. By helping them build excitement for where they work, anticipate more challenges and accomplishments, and reflect with satisfaction, you can actually strengthen those neural circuits and keep winning your employees over.

Energize the present. Tap into the present-hedonistic perspective by exciting and engaging people with the joys of what’s happening now, and the liberties they have to affect their situations.

  • Give resources, responsibilities, goals, and freedoms. Less control, more space for creativity and growth.
  • Life event programs. The lines between our personal and professional lives no longer exist. Celebrate life events, be it newborn children or personal goals or other big wins. Draw in those personal things, be real people, do life together.
  • Employee marketing. Market to your employees as strategically as you market to customers. Cater to and treat them like the top priority they are.
  • Exposure to leadership. Provide opportunities for employees to learn from successful leaders and teams within the company, to energize each other for continued improvement, mashup preexisting ideas, and mobilize resources.

Anticipate the future. Amp up the future-oriented perspective by giving people things to dream up and work toward.

  • Development programs. Develop people for what’s next, even if what’s next is not at your company. Many people, especially millennials, expect to be developed. It enhances loyalty, builds legacy, and increases knowledge.
  • Internal mobility. Keep possibilities open and conversations candid when it comes to maximizing talent potential in your organization. Companies oftentimes find their best candidates in their own backyards.
  • Feedback. Give both positive and negative feedback – ambitious, high-performing people love learning how they can improve and get to the next level.
  • Perks and benefits. Don’t assume what employees value – ask! Flex time, parking spaces, childcare, vacation, bonuses…there are plenty of creative ways to reward and engage people.

Reflect positively about the past. Root mentalities in the past-positive perspective by acknowledging impact, gratitude, and legacy.

  • Recognition. It doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive to be effective. Write letters, make coffee, give a high-five – even an unexpected, unscheduled, sincere “thank you” in the break room could do the trick.
  • Cheer. Create ways for people to encourage, congratulate, and appreciate each other. Camaraderie is wildly impactful. Root for the team.
  • Talk. Some call it a “stay interview,” but it doesn’t need to be that formal, and it certainly should be more frequent. Just talk with your people about their experience with your organization, what they’ve learned and accomplished, what their interests and ideas are. Talk about their goals, their perceived impact, their proud moments. But most of all, let them know how they’ve contributed and why you value them.

Your top talent is outstanding for a reason, and if you’re not re-recruiting them, someone else might be. Use present energy, future goals, and positive reflections to your advantage. Strengthen those thinking patterns to keep winning your employees over from competing firms and keep showing them why they should want to work for you. These preventative, neurologically-proven tips will help you keep employee engagement alive.

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