Switching jobs can keep your employees from getting bored

Oh, the frustrations of being a manager. You hire good people, you pour time and money into developing them. Then, just when you think things are coming together, they come into your office to share their news. "It was a painful decision," employees will tell you. But the deal is done and they're gone. And there you are with yet another problem on your hands.

In today's job market, some employee turnover is inevitable. People want new horizons or more money. Even when a business is growing, it can't satisfy everyone. In fact, most managers think some turnover and new blood is healthy. After all, new people bring new ideas to a company. But how often can you afford to see your best people seeking their fortunes elsewhere? Tough question, indeed. But some companies have come up with interesting approaches for dealing with turnover. One of them is G.S.I. Transcomm Data Systems Inc., in Pittsburgh.

Transcomm's managers have taken an almost radical position on turnover. They don't accept employee decisions to move on as ordinary events, but view them as management failures -- something good managers should be able to anticipate and organize against. That attitude informs almost everything the $10-million software company does.

Some Transcomm employees get bored and frustrated, concedes president Philippe Beaurain, just as they do at other businesses. But few of them (there are currently 110) simply quit. Instead, they're encouraged to seek changes within the company by redefining their roles. Thanks to the way the system operates, Transcomm doesn't need to recruit as intensively as some of its competitors. "We're able," Beaurain says, "to build on the experience of our employees."

When Beaurain, now 35, became president in the summer of 1985, he was well aware of Transcomm's problems. The company had been losing money and having tremendous difficulty keeping employees. As the new CEO (he had previously been the sales manager), Beaurain wanted to stop the exodus before it undermined the company's credibility with customers.

"Losing employees seemed like such a waste," he says. But what could he do? Given Transcomm's financial state, boosting salaries seemed out of the question. Before they did anything, he wanted to understand the kinds of things employees were frustrated about. So, partly out of necessity, Beaurain began emphasizing the importance of communication. The dialogue between managers and employees has become pivotal to Transcomm's ability to hold the line on turnover, which in four years has dropped from an annual rate of about 25% to less than 7%.

Many CEOs talk about the virtues of communication. Thousands boast of open-door policies with which, in theory anyway, people are encouraged to come forward and make suggestions or discuss problems. The intentions may be admirable, but it rarely works the way it's intended. People are afraid; bosses are busy. But at Transcomm it's part of all employees' responsibility to bring suggestions and problems to the attention of their supervisors. Once a supervisor knows about something, the wheels begin to turn. Employees have become accustomed to speaking up before their concerns become major sources of irritation -- and before they pack their bags. If for some reason people don't feel comfortable talking with their immediate supervisor, they're invited to seek out the company's office manager and corporate secretary, Liz Welsh, or Beaurain himself. "I'm really a personnel consultant," he says, half jokingly. As a sign of the importance he places on this role, he's located his office right off the main lobby.

The policy seems to work. Last fall Karen Tedesco, 29, who'd been with the company for four and a half years, was growing weary of her operations job. She was managing software installations at customer locations, had become proficient at it, but had reached a point where she was eager to broaden her business experience -- either at Transcomm or elsewhere. She didn't stew; she sought out Beaurain to discuss her options. Beaurain tried to persuade her to stay longer in operations, but she wasn't interested. Upon consulting with the appropriate managers, they came up with a solution. After a four-or five-month transition, Tedesco would take her experience and use it in the sales department. "If we hadn't faced this problem," Beaurain believes, "we would have lost her in six months."

Tedesco's case is not an isolated incident. Over the past three years, nearly 20% of Transcomm's more experienced employees have made substantial role changes -- mostly lateral moves at the same compensation. Many of the shifts, like Tedesco's, were for professional reasons, but not all of them. Sometimes it's personal. Last winter, for instance, Alan Koch, a programmer, found that he could no longer be as flexible about out-of-town assignments as he'd been. He had recently married, and his wife objected to extended travel. At other companies, says Koch, 38, "I might have been apprehensive about going to my supervisors. But not here." Over the next two or three weeks, they figured out a reasonable way to restructure Koch's responsibilities. Today he provides support to more established customers who don't require site visits.

Responding to problems -- and doing it quickly -- is the most obvious way Transcomm tries to stay ahead of turnover. But beyond reacting, Beaurain says, managers are expected to practice preventive medicine, too -- to figure out which employees are in danger of getting bored and what the company can do about it. Again, it's a matter of keeping communication lines open. A few years ago, for example, Kelly Gezo, a bright and energetic receptionist, was given the opportunity to move into sales. Initially she was skittish about the idea since she had no technical background or sales experience. But by making the move over a period of two years, she was able to build up the confidence she needed to succeed. Last year Gezo, now 30, was the company's top salesperson.

In a lot of cases, employees aren't interested in major career shifts. But that doesn't mean that they won't enjoy -- and benefit greatly from -- smaller changes. Transcomm's controller, Tom George, 33, is a case in point: he spends a few days a month showing customers how to use the financial capabilities of the company's software product. "It makes for a more interesting job," the controller says. And Transcomm benefits from his broader experience.

No business, no matter how hard it tries, can satisfy everyone, Beaurain believes. ("We'll go further for someone who's performed for three years than someone who's been with us for six months.") But having a channel for discussion, he argues, goes a long way toward solving little problems before they escalate.

In some respects, organizing your business to meet and anticipate employees' needs for growth is both demanding and costly. Knowing that the individuals might want to shift into other areas, Transcomm managers and employees put a lot of time and effort into hiring. (All prospects meet with at least five people before they're hired.) As individuals shift from one set of responsibilities to another, the company needs to invest -- and reinvest -- in training. The learning curve on an employee moving from operations to sales, for instance, is several months. And it's not just that employee. Simultaneously, Beaurain concedes, "you need to find a replacement and get the new person up to speed as well."

But Beaurain is confident that the effort is worth it. Not only is it expensive to bring in new employees from the outside, "it can be very demotivating to the people you have." When employees are already in place, there's a built-in level of commitment.

"As long as we're growing," Beaurain says, "we want to develop as much experience as we can. Before people think about leaving, they come in and talk. Employees don't do that at many companies, but to us, that's worth a lot of money."


How keeping employees motivated can benefit the company

Face it: a lot of people get bored working on the same things over and over. If they can't find new challenges, they'll leave. G.S.I. Transcomm Data Systems Inc. minimizes turnover by letting employees find new jobs within the business. The company benefits in several ways:

* It does less recruiting. By holding on to its experienced employees, Transcomm needs to hire only the people required to support its growth. "A lot of growing companies have to hire two people," says president Philippe Beaurain, "one for the expansion and one to replace the person who left. We only have to hire the first one." Generally, he says, those are more junior people, who are easier to find.

* There's more teamwork. It takes time for new employees to be accepted. Individuals who have been around have proven themselves to their co-workers, says Liz Welsh, Transcomm's office manager. "They may still have a lot to learn. But others are happy to help them."

* There's more depth within departments. Employees who have worked in one department can offer perspectives that might be valuable in another, Beaurain believes. "A salesperson with lots of experience in operations can spot opportunities others can't."

* Customers have greater security. Customers like continuity, the sense that the company and the people they've dealt with will be around. One of the great things about keeping employees in the organization, says Beaurain, is that they're available to customers in a pinch. They might be working in a different area, "but they're here -- only a phone call away."