March 14, 2017

I once had a boss who was concerned that his employees didn’t view him as fun and spontaneous. I believe he had good reason for this concern—he was pretty uptight and terrified to step out of his comfort zone.

In other words, his employees had pigeonholed him accurately. (To be honest, I’m of the opinion that employees usually do.)

So he decided to show his employees that he was really a fun guy who could live in the moment and do astonishingly cool things when employees least expected it. One day, he called all of us out of our offices and informed us that we were all going for ice cream.

Together. Right then, right there. Drop what you’re doing, because we’re going.

The four-block walk to the ice cream stand wasn’t the longest walk I ever took, but it seemed like it was. The experience gave me that feeling of “You-will-have-fun-and-you-will-like-it!”

Everyone received their ice cream, whether they were hungry for it or not. Everyone smiled so the uptight, regimented boss would approve of our oh-so-spontaneous happiness. Everyone talked to each other about how cool this was.

And when we returned to work, we went back to the same environment we had known before the ice cream stunt. Why? Because no one bought it for a second.

I’ll give the boss a little credit for trying, but the problem with his gambit was that he was trying to sell his employees on a notion that was simply worlds away from reality: that the boss was a super fun guy, and this was a super fun place to work.

You only had to be there a few days to know that wasn’t the case. And as an employee retention strategy, it failed spectacularly. Why? Because the boss totally misread what people were looking for as reasons to stay.

No one wants a job that’s dull, repetitive and rote. However, work is work. A little fun in the mix is a plus, all things being equal. But you can keep employees on board without necessarily making work “fun.”

In a retail environment, you’re not going to make employees rich. And at certain levels, they will only be viable until they reach the point in their lives where they need to support families. So you know you can’t keep people forever strictly on the basis of their compensation. But during the period of their lives when a retail job makes sense for them (those who don’t aspire to long-term retail management careers, that is), there are other things you can give them that make the job worth keeping.

A few examples:

Make thinking part of the job. Just because an employee is not a manager, doesn’t mean he or she should never be allowed to exercise judgment or make a decision. If they’re allowed to stock shelves and ring up purchases but have to run and ask a supervisor for just about everything else, you’re hardly giving them an opportunity to make a substantial contribution to the success of your store. And I’m not talking about putting out a suggestion box. I’m talking about anticipating situations in which a quick and wise decision will meet a customer’s needs and put the store in a better position to succeed and then teaching employees how to think and act in those situations.

Train the people to know your store; every pet store is not same. Sure, you all basically stock the same items, but everyone who ever founded a store had a unique philosophy and set of goals. Those should be among the things that make your culture, your priorities and your method of operation unique to this day. Your employees may or may not have retail experience, or even pet retail experience, but have you taught them the unique mission of your business and how they can help you achieve it?

Give individuals a vision of their own personal success. Like I said, many of your employees will not be long-termers. They’ll go onto professional careers in other fields or they’ll discover a different calling in their lives. That’s not a knock on your store—that’s just how life is. But even if they’ll only be with you for a short portion of their lives, you should have a plan for how their success working for you should bring real-life, tangible rewards. Whether that’s a combination of greater responsibility, more money, new experiences or something else, employees are far more likely to give you their best when they can envision what ultimate success will look like for them.

Be creative. How can you reward your best people? And once you’ve thought of a way, don’t let the apparent limitations of the retail environment stop you from actually doing it.

Seasonal hiring increases can also present an opportunity. It gives you a chance to look at potential new members of the team. You tend to think seasonal hires will be with you in November and December and then out by January. But they might be a better long-term fit than some of your current employees, and if it wasn’t for seasonal hiring, you might never discover that.

Employees want to be challenged to do good things. They also need to be trained and equipped to be efficient and productive. So challenge them, train them and reward them.

Some will still leave—that’s life. But how many premature departures can you prevent by embracing this approach? A lot more than an awkward trip for ice cream, I can promise you that.

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