Igniting Workplace Enthusiasm

Keeping Employees And Keeping Them Happy


Sep 15, 2010


Keeping employees, and keeping them happy

Right compensation, giving staff praise and recognition are vital

By Robin Chan

Mr Peter Handal, who heads global training firm Dale Carnegie and Associates, says that while employee turnover may seem inevitable, when staff do leave, the best thing a company can do is to take time to find out why and learn from it. -- ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG

IT IS no secret Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong earns far more than the President of the United States, but as far as workplace expert Peter Handal is concerned, Singapore is right on the money.

Mr Handal, who heads global training company Dale Carnegie and Associates, cuts through the controversy that often surrounds the issue to zero in on the central principle: People have to be paid correctly.

"I understand that the Prime Minister of Singapore makes probably five times what the (US) President makes, and I think Singapore is right and the US is wrong" he said.

The US$400,000 (S$535,000) annual salary of the US President is 'really out of whack with what a CEO (chief executive officer) of a large organisation would make', and 'he should make a lot more', he adds.

In any organisation, the employees should be paid properly, no question.'

Singapore's ministerial pay is an oft-debated subject. Salaries are calculated using a formula that takes into account the pay of top executives in the private sector.

Compensation is something all organisations - whether governments or private sector companies - have to both grapple with and ultimately get right if they are to retain talent in an ever-competitive world.

This is especially so in Asia, where economies have pulled rapidly out of the Great Recession. Singapore, for one, is on course for stellar growth of 13 per cent to 15 per cent this year, while China's economy is tipped to hit double-digit expansion again.

Employee turnover is going to exert tremendous pressure on companies, notes Mr Handal, who spoke to members of the American Chamber of Commerce here recently.

In a global report by recruitment and human resources services company Randstad, firms cited the need to fill vacancies created by higher employee turnover as their top HR challenge.

In the past few months, the labour market here has tightened significantly. At one end, electronics companies are ramping up overtime to meet ever-rising demand, while the two integrated resorts are squeezing the supply of service staff.

There were 26,500 jobs added in the second quarter, making it the fourth straight quarter of gain, while the unemployment rate in June was a steady 3.3 per cent.

This has raised the spectre that the country will experience the same high levels of job turnover last seen in the boom years leading up to the financial crisis. And that is not necessarily a good thing, Mr Handal says.

From the individual's point of view, the psychology today is that people will have lots of jobs in their lifetime. It is not the disgrace it used to be to change jobs every two or three years,' he says.

But from the company's perspective, it is really expensive. It costs a lot to train people, to get them into the company's culture, to get them to be producing. For somebody to then say, 'I learnt everything you taught me, goodbye', that is really a big blow.

The other cost is that it really damages the moraleand the success of the company. Because if the company is just one of those places where people come and go, then they are not really going to be engaged in what they do and. as a result, productivity is much lower.'

He says that although companies realise there is a connection between engagement and productivity, which leads to increased sales, better team-building and less turnover, they do not always know how to make it happen.

The secret, Mr Handal says, lies in myriad things, apart from just paying staff enough, and includes softer skills such as giving them praise and recognition.

To create engaged employees, you need to have a career path, the employee needs to see an opportunity to move up in the organisation, have more responsibility and be able to do different things,' he adds.

We also believe in recognition. That is a major way of engaging - it makes people more productive and keeps them at the company. Just saying, "You did a nice job", people really like that.

It may sound simple enough, but the obstacles intensify when taking into account different cultures, the influence of technology and generational gaps.

In Singapore, where many offices are set up by American and European companies, team-building becomes a real issue because of the diverse cultures, he says.

Technology, too, has changed the way communication is done in the office, making it harder for managers to engage their staff.

"The more people get used to their mobile phones, computers, or text messages, the less comfortable they are dealing face to face". he says.

Another obstacle is that Asian culture also does not lend itself to doling out praise generously.

Giving somebody honest and sincere appreciation, in my opinion, is universal,' Mr Handal says.

But it is a fact that in Asian culture, people are much more cautious about doing that. That doesn't mean it is less effective, it is just a littler harder to do because people are not used to it.'

He cites surveys done during Dale Carnegie classes across 86 countries the company is in.

We ask, 'What do you think of the trainer? What do you think of the results?' If we look at our Asian results, compared to in Europe and the US, the American results are off the charts. Asia is below,' he cites.

Asian culture is such that when we ask, 'Is somebody doing a good job?', they say  "yes'" and give it a five out of 10. In Europe they will say  "yes'"and give it a seven. In the US, it is a nine.

And more so now, people do not just want to be told what to do, he adds. 'Command and control' leadership does not work anymore unless the company has an extraordinarily gifted leader.

Today, people just don't want to put up with that,' he says.

While employee turnover may seem inevitable, when staff do leave, Mr Handal says, the best thing a company can do is to take time to find out why and learn from it.

Try honestly to see things from the other person's point of view, he advises.

Some companies are known to get hostile, feel betrayed and react without trying to understand what the employee is thinking or how they are feeling.

But the first thing a company should do is to understand why it is happening and what is wrong'.






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