Avoiding Association Staff Turnover

How To Keep Valuable Staffers On Board

Helping Employees Feel Valued


When Susan Avery of the International Association of Plastics Distribution said her organization has created an amazing array of employee benefits, she wasn’t kidding. The following are just a few of the ways the group keeps employees feeling valued and happy:

1. It pays for employees to stay fit with two options: weekly in-office yoga classes and a Fitbit initiative.

2. Dogs are allowed in the office, something that happens once every other week. “We have attracted a group of dog lovers, and the stress relief dogs can bring to the office is amazing,” she said.

3. The IAPD allows for flexible office hours. Avery’s attitude is: “If staff are watching the time clock, you usually have more serious performance issues.”

4. The IAPD offers a casual dress environment unless official meetings will be taking place in the office. “There is no point in making staff spend the money on dry cleaning,” said Avery.

5. Birthdays, work anniversaries and other major events are celebrated by bringing in lunch or breakfast.

6. A cowbell is rung whenever something good happens like recruiting a new member, closing a big sale or completing an important project.

7. The office closes early before a holiday weekend, after its major meetings and between Christmas and New Years.

8. Continuing professional development is a priority.

9. The IAPD provides a generous health-insurance program, paying 100 percent of employees’ medical, dental and long- and short-term disability insurance. The association also pays the first $1,000 of an employee’s insurance deductible.

10. While a formal staff bonus plan and salary increases are offered, Avery also gives small token bonuses (about $300) during the holidays.

Attracting and keeping well-trained and motivated employees is absolutely crucial for all businesses for several reasons: Valued and motivated employees increase productivity, they boost morale, make for a better workplace and considerably reduce employee turnover. But this is an especially important issue for nonprofit associations, which always seem to struggle to match salaries offered by for-profits. What’s the key to success, then? Finding ways that will keep your employees productively engaged. Before we talk tactics, though, it’s important to acknowledge that because every employee is unique, no one benefit or program type is going to have the same impact on everyone. That’s why it is so essential to provide a broad array of programs.

David Poulos, chief consultant for Granite Partners in Sparks, Maryland, underscored this when he told me, “Each person responds to motivators differently. Sales, sponsorship and trade show sales people are more internally driven, motivated in part by the thrill of the kill and the accompanying compensation as a measure of success. Administrative, financial and operations folks tend to appreciate flexibility and job recognition—sometimes a thankless job done well—showing how what they do every day contributes to the good of the order.

“Public recognition at meetings, in the office and at off-site functions goes a long way towards keeping employees happy and on track. Why do you think the ‘employee of the month’ concept has been around so long? It’s public, it’s personal, it’s praiseworthy and others see it as something to strive for, especially if there are monetary or soft perks attached, like a parking spot up close to the building. In short, some attention from the top, in various forms, is positive reinforcement of an individual’s commitment to an organization, and it’s public, ” said Poulos.

Thus, managing staff turnover effectively requires association employers to create an overarching strategy that recognizes the intrinsic value each person can bring to the enterprise. That strategy must also reflect aspirations of a workforce that is diversifying at astonishing speed. Organizations that understand all this are places where you will find innovative personnel and some exciting management ideas in place. What follows is a smörgåsbord of ideas. Not all are suitable for every association, but that’s not the point. Before you reject any of these ideas, ask yourself two things: 1. Am I the best judge to render an opinion about this idea? 2. How might we tweak this idea to become relevant for our group?

Showing Employee Support. The average tenure of employees at the Greater Birmingham (Alabama) Convention & Visitors Bureau is 17 years, according to Mike Gunn, its vice-president of sales. This is astonishing when compared to the average tenure of American workers: 4.6 years, according to this year’s reports by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Gunn attributes his CVB’s lengthy average staff tenure partly to the creation of an employee action group several years ago; the group plans a variety of quarterly events that range from fun and recreational outings—a night at the ballpark, chili cook-offs or bowling—to serious learning opportunities that address issues like preventing identity theft, managing your money and self-motivation. Gunn believes the program shows all employees that the Greater Birmingham CVB really cares about its staff.

The Austin, Texas, headquarters of Builder Homesite Inc., a technology company in the homebuilding industry, houses a multiuse recreation room the size of, and every bit as sophisticated as, a typical high school gym. It includes a basketball court, a Ping-Pong table, stationary bikes, weights and a rock-climbing wall. The facility speaks volumes about BHI’s commitment to the health and well-being of its workforce.

Susan Avery, CEO of the International Association of Plastics Distribution in Overland Park, Kansas, passionately advocates the importance of providing employees with an enlightened workplace, as is evident with its numerous creative programs. These include everything from health initiatives such as in-house yoga, Fitbit devices and allowing dogs in the office on a scheduled basis to offering work-time flexibility that incorporates home work days and long lunches. (See sidebar.)

“We have really created a team culture and staff feels appreciated,” Avery said. “I make it clear also that family comes first and am always flexible when someone needs time away or when family emergencies arise.”

In addition, she said that staff members help her select candidates who “mesh with our culture and who are competent,” which helps keep current members involved as well as feeling positive about new hires. “It is refreshing to come to an office where people are laughing and playing but also working very hard,” said Avery. “I believe that if you treat employees as individuals, pay them as much as you can, strive to create a positive working environment and make them a priority, they will reward you with their best work.”

Like Avery, Cathy Breden, chief operating officer of the International Association of Exhibitions & Events, is a proponent of creating progressive employee support and recognition programs. While the IAEE has adopted many of the same ideas embraced by the IAPD, Breden noted a unique annual IAEE tradition: The organization takes employees to an upscale Dallas mall where each receives an envelope containing cash with strict instructions to spend it all on something for themselves. Later that same day, the staff assembles at a restaurant and everyone reveals the present they’ve bought. “It’s always lots of fun and a nice way to show everyone how much we think of them,” Breden said.

The Gift of Time Off. Business tycoon Richard Branson made recent news when he announced he planned to offer employees unlimited vacation time, an idea that has been wildly bounced around in many circles. And it comes at a time when American workers are taking very little time off. A recent survey by the U.S. Travel Association discovered that American workers today take off an average of just 16 days annually, the lowest average in nearly 40 years. In an interview with CBS, Roger Dow, the organization’s president and CEO, said, “There’s something we call work martyrs—Americans are working more and enjoying it less.” The fact that they’re working more isn’t benefiting them, the study showed, but is, in fact, contributing to more stress both at home and in the workplace.

Vacations are an entitlement that too many employees forgo these days, something that many employers are struggling to manage. Informed association employers know that employees who do not take adequate time away from work are much likelier to suffer burnout, low morale and even depression. Breden said that several years ago, as a way to encourage employees to use their earned time off, the IAEE adopted a use-it-or-lose-it policy.

Some employers have been taking more extreme measures to get employees to take their vacations. This topic has been discussed as far back as 2012 when a Forbes article by Jenna Goudreau (“The Vacation Paradox: Why Some Companies are Paying Workers To Go Away”) discussed how companies such as Netflix, Evernote, Zynga and FullContact have encouraged their employees to get away from work with bonus cash offers of as much as $7,500 or unlimited vacation time as long as their work has been completed. While these concepts might sound too radical for most associations, it is also a trend worth monitoring.

What impresses me most about these employee-retention and motivation concepts is just how sensible they are. Engaged employees improve productivity and morale and that makes for a particularly healthy organization.

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