When you’ve got one, you know it: that one employee who doesn’t just do the best work, but also pushes the other staff to do their best work. The Michael Jordans of your office—the people who, when they’re on the court, elevate the level of play. The only downside to these superstar employees is that they can be hard to retain. Your competitors may target them, or they may be working toward starting their own businesses, perhaps even in your field.
So, how do you know if your best employee is thinking about moving on?
1. Consider the way you treat your superstar employee. Your mama may have told you to treat everyone the same, but in this instance, your mama was wrong. We treat our best clients better than our regular clients—we give them privileges and benefits that other clients don’t receive. The same should be true of your best employees. Whether you invite your Michael Jordans to a barbecue at your house, or you reward them in another way, you need to make it clear how valuable you consider those staff members.
2. Observe patterns. We’re creatures of habit. We follow the same routines, use the same little sayings, and socialize with the same folks. If you pay attention to your employees’ routines, you’ll be able to notice when something changes. If your star sales rep’s performance suddenly plummets, something could be going on. If your assistant starts showing up late every day, he could be looking to move on. Be observant.
3. Pay attention to hints. Criminals frequently leave behind a string of hints—angry emails, threatening phone calls, etc.—before they commit their crime. Dissatisfied employees sometimes drop hints that they’re looking to make a change. After that employee is gone, you may look back and remember the way they planted the seeds of their impending departure. Don’t ignore these signs. Address them right away.
4. Watch your best clients. If the sales volume from your best clients starts dropping, despite the fact that your best salesperson still handles those clients, you may be dealing with an employee who’s moonlighting and scooping your customers. It may take a little detective work, but keeping tabs on sales and why they’re dropping can clue you in to an employee who’s being less than loyal.
5. Watch for use of private email or equipment. If employees suddenly start using their personal email accounts for contacting clients, or if they begin working from their personal laptops, rather than the company computers, it’s possible that they’re hoping to cover their tracks. Those employees could be soliciting your clients.
6. Pay attention to your employees’ family lives. Marital problems, serious illness, kids in trouble … all of these family matters can indicate changes to come in your employees’ lives. I’m not suggesting that you pay attention in order to interfere, but you need to be informed so you can prepare and support your staff if necessary. Making reasonable accommodations so your star employee can handle family problems can make the difference between retaining and losing that employee.
7. Take preventative measures. If your staff is well-compensated, challenged and fulfilled by their work, they’re far less likely to look for employment elsewhere. Periodically assessing your office morale can pay dividends. You’ll have the opportunity to correct any deficiencies on your end and head off departures that could have been prevented.
8. Watch for short vacations. An employee who takes a single day off here and there may very well be using those days for interviews. It can be useful to take a peek at social media to see if you can pick up any hints. Facebook status updates like “Interview went great. Fingers crossed!” clue you in to what’s going on when your employee’s gone for the day.
Some of these signs make it seem like I don’t trust my employees, and in reality, nothing is further from the truth. I’ve learned—both as an employee, and now as an employer—that trust begets trust. You may occasionally get burned by someone with questionable motives, but generally trust is mutual and mutually rewarding.
Finally, sometimes even the best employees move on. If they’re determined to leave, my advice to you is to let them go. I’ve made the mistake of trying to use money to keep an employee around longer than he wanted to be, and while it delayed his leaving, it didn’t stop it. He hung around a while longer, at a higher wage, but his heart wasn’t in it. He was disengaged, and he wasn’t the stellar leader that he always had been. I would have been better off letting him go when he resigned, rather than trying to buy his loyalty a little longer.
A version of this article was originally published on May 7, 2014.
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