Focus on Retention

Learning Objectives

After completing this unit, you’ll be able to:

  • Identify options for addressing an engagement issue.
  • Summarize steps and strategies for having a disengagement conversation.
  • Describe different types of compensation options that you can leverage to keep valued employees on board.

Get to the Bottom of the Engagement Problem

If you’ve ever ridden a bike, you’ve probably had the experience of the chain coming off of the chainring: All forward movement stops, and you’re suddenly at a standstill. To get the chain and sprockets reengaged and all of the components working together again, you have to do one of three things:

  • Fix it yourself.
  • Ask someone you know to try their hand at it.
  • Take it to an expert to get things back on track.

Surprisingly, you can take the same approach when getting disengaged employees engaged again. You have to figure out what has caused things to get off track and then take the necessary steps to get things back on track.

Sure, it’s probably not the most enjoyable part of being a manager. It’s often going to present unexpected challenges. And sometimes you have to bring in an extra pair of hands (your manager) or an expert (HR business partner) to help. But taking a proactive and collaborative approach is the best way to get things running smoothly again. Okay, with that in mind, let’s get to fixing.

Start the Disengagement Dialogue

So you’ve reached the point where you’ve had 1:1s, tried casual conversations, sent emails, and seemingly used every tool in your arsenal of engagement. Yet your report is still disengaged. What now?

It’s time to have an honest, open dialogue about disengagement. This conversation can be challenging for both you and your team member. It’s important to keep an open mind and prepare what you are going to say in advance. “Easier said than done,” you might be thinking. Well, here are some tips to get you started:

  • Set context. Make sure that employees know where they fit into the organization and why their role is important. Also let them know that you, as their manager, value their efforts. Talk about why you’re having the conversation so that they don’t feel unsure about the purpose of your discussion.
  • Ask questions. Strike a balance between personal and work-related queries to uncover potential engagement blockers. Use these questions to drive the conversation:
    • Tell me how things are going. What’s not working?
    • Would you like to work on a different project?
    • What do you like about your work?
    • What brought you here, and what keeps you here?
    • Think of a time that you’ve been completely engaged in what you were working on. Can we bring any aspect of that into your current work?
    • What is it that you want out of your career?

A man and a woman having a discussion

  • Provide examples. Discuss specific and applicable incidents or projects. Having a selection of concrete examples is helpful, especially if you think the employee is surprised by your concern.
  • Reference the past. Consider referencing comments from previous engagement conversations. Showing them that you’re monitoring their concerns and actively looking to address them is a big engagement booster!
  • Listen. Pay attention to your employee’s responses, take notes, and communicate that you are invested in finding a solution. By looking for the source of their feelings, you can likely address their unhappiness.

Need more tips? Here are a few ways to translate employees’ common frustrations into actionable changes:

What They Say
What You Can Do
“I feel lost on my career path.”
  • Explore why they feel this way.
  • Engage in a career conversation by formalizing a development plan.
  • Explore whether a mentor might help.
“My work is never noticed.”
  • Ask for examples of when this has happened to get context.
  • Consider assigning them a project with greater external visibility.
  • Explore if small-group recognition—such as quarterly awards or regular meeting-based thanks—would be meaningful.
“I’ve been doing the same thing for too long.”
  • Ask them what they’d like to be doing.
  • Identify opportunities to broaden their projects.
  • Find training or development opportunities for a new skill.
“I’m not sure if I’m good at what I do.”
  • Explore why they feel this way.
  • Provide positive feedback and encouragement on their performance, if applicable.
  • Arrange for a Great 360 assessment.
“I need a change of pace.”
  • Ask them to explain more about what a change of pace means to them.
  • Explore the possibility of changing projects.
  • Consider referring them to other lateral positions within your company.
“I’d like to become a manager.”
  • Arrange a Great 360 assessment to help identify their strengths and growth areas.
  • Find leadership and management trainings to attend.
  • Let them act as your backup when you go on PTO.
  • Identify opportunities where they can develop management skills, such as leading a cross-functional team or managing a summer intern.
  • Help them conceptualize what it means to be a manager and how this transition will impact their day-to-day work. Then identify a mentor who can give them a realistic job preview.
“I quit.”
  • If applicable, ask what’s compelling about a new opportunity and assess if that’s something they can get here.
  • Gather information about the new position.
  • Contact your HR business partner following the meeting to strategize next steps.


If your employee brings up having accepted an offer from another company, ask, “What’s appealing or interesting about your new opportunity?” You can use this information to better understand what is motivating this employee—and perhaps others—to leave.

As a manager, it’s your responsibility to schedule follow-up meetings and check in on your employees’ progress, especially when they are disengaged. We know it feels like just another thing to add to a jam-packed schedule, but opening this dialogue shows them that you’re dedicated to keeping them on the team and care about their well-being.

At the end of the conversation, if your valued employee is still unhappy, it’s time to “phone a friend” for help. And for the record, this step is not a sign of inexperience or weakness. On the contrary: Your HR business partner or more-senior manager can help you work through a host of important considerations by:

  • Reviewing past performance information to identify strengths that could be applied to new projects or roles
  • Identifying lateral opportunities within the company
  • Reviewing growth and development opportunities
  • Conducting a “stay interview” using the questions found in the “Ask Questions” section earlier in this unit

You can approach the employee with more information and options to work toward retention. Following this conversation, if an employee still feels dissatisfied, it might indeed be time to find a new opportunity. To gauge this, it’s time for another honest conversation, but this time it’s with yourself.

Here are the factors to think about:

  • How well has this individual performed?
  • Would customer relationships be at risk if the person left?
  • Is there another employee who could successfully step in if needed?
  • How much does this person influence colleagues?
  • Would the loss of this person have a negative impact on others?
  • How difficult and costly would it be to find a replacement for this employee?
  • How important are the skills and knowledge this employee has?
  • Do other employees possess the same skills and knowledge?

With answers to these questions, you can better decide whether to use retention tactics or let the employee go. Letting someone go isn’t easy, but it’s essential to move the individual, team, and company forward. If there’s a valid reason for one or both parties to move on—whether it’s performance- or fit-related—it’s the right solution. Be sure to engage and consult next steps with your HR business partners before you make this decision.

Alternatively, if keeping this valued team member on board is a high priority, it’s time to think about how to make that happen.

Pulling Retention Levers

So, let’s say you’ve spoken with your HR business partner and the senior leaders on your team, and everyone agrees that keeping this teammate is a must. Getting buy-in from your HR business partner and senior leaders is important because you want to present an aligned, agreed-on option to the employee in a retention conversation. If you offer your employee options that HR or your managers are not aligned with, disappointment, anger, and a looming sense of unfairness might ensue.

If the employee has been a major contributor and the manager sees that tremendous growth potential, salary adjustments or retention bonuses might make sense. Here’s a breakdown of compensation options and when they might be appropriate:

Compensation Option
What It Is
It’s Appropriate When...
Salary Adjustment
Merit-based salary adjustment for a valued employee who has demonstrated growth potential
  • Responsibilities have increased.
  • External market conditions call for an adjustment.
  • Salary is out of alignment with peers doing the same job at the same level.
Spot Bonus
One-time bonus payment for outstanding performance
An employee has excelled on a project or specific work effort.
Retention Bonus
One-time bonus payment to retain top talent
An employee has specialized skills, relationships, and expertise that are critical to the business.
Reward of stock shares for top talent, employees in broad scope, or critical roles.
An employee is top talent or in a critical role where retention is crucial to the success of the business.


An important study by Make Their Day, an employee motivation firm, found that most employees are more motivated by kudos than compensation. Eighty-three percent of respondents said that recognition for contributions was more fulfilling than rewards or gifts.

Remember to consult with and get approval from the following people before moving forward with any of the above options:

  • Your manager
  • HR business partner and finance manager
  • Compensation manager

Additionally, your HR business partner or finance team probably have a defined cadence for considering these options. That means it’s even more important to align with them before making an offer to your employee to ensure that you can deliver on your promise in a timely manner.

But wait, there’s more! Don’t forget that you can improve compensation packages with social- and wellness-based levers, including:

  • Time off
  • Flexible working hours
  • Sabbatical options
  • Employee assistance programs (if your company offers them)

Remember, compensation is more than what you take home at the end of the day. In a retention conversation, these additional options also can make your direct reports feel more supported because of your sensitivity to their personal needs.


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