Is your business well positioned to keep the people who matter most?

Regrettable loss of talent.

This was a phrase I heard recently and for some readers it will be something you are all too familiar with.

Closed borders, coupled with the state sector pay freeze, overlay that with the private sector willing to pay whatever it takes.

For some sectors, regrettable loss seems inevitable. Non-sector-specific, loss also arises when people sit around their kitchen tables trying to manage work with home schooling and juggle financial pressures arising from the partner’s reduction in hours. The final straw is an email demand from a co-worker, who in between Zoom calls has organised every aspect of their house and photo albums, because their only additional lockdown demand is how to survive without their favourite barista.

There’s nothing like a pandemic to make you think closely about the work you are doing and the people you are doing it with. Indeed, for some it will prompt consideration of if they even want to do it at all. And with that, a call is placed to a recruitment firm to test what’s out there and from that moment, your firm is now in a competition for talent.

Let’s assume in this contest that we put financial recompense to the side. That we accept it is a negotiation point. Beyond money and various benefits offered, what does employment inside your organisation look like and are you positioned well to keep the people who matter most? Importantly, how do you know?

The most dangerous negotiation is the one you don’t even know you are in. Your board papers should be rich with information that enables you to develop an understanding of your organisation’s culture and its commitment to its people. From there your questions can help identify areas for further focus.

You might have some type of scoring system, an employer net promoter score or some other mechanism to take a pulse check of your employees. Consider what the trends show and look at the participation rate. There is nothing like a bit of anonymity to have the truth laid bare. What is your turnover rate, how has it changed and have you satisfied yourself that management has considered exit interview data appropriately.

Diversity is a hot topic. As a board, you might even discover some unconscious bias — have you considered what it means and if it’s adequately addressed? How about your chief executive’s remuneration compared with the average fixed and lowest remuneration inside the business? Is that a ratio you have considered?

We scream safety but whisper health. What does your employee assistance programme data look like and has your company sought to build resilience through appropriate training opportunities? Covid is demanding; people are tired. Now is the time to really think about wellness.

What about talent development? Does that training spend seem adequate when you peruse the budget? Is investment solely reserved for those who show leadership potential — accelerated learning, rich, rewarding experiences that the masses are not privy to?

Or maybe your business recognises that disruption and the pace of change requires everyone to continually upskill. Has management created an environment where lifelong learning is championed through the ranks and teams coach each other to grow and succeed? Innovation if allowed can arise from anywhere inside a business.

How is service recognised and celebrated? Loyalty may have evolved with few now in a job for life, but does tenure mean anything inside your business? How about those that go above and beyond? Are they identified and celebrated with their achievements recognised among their peers?

Has flexibility been embraced and barriers removed, where practicable, to enable a balance between office and homework environments? When movement between alert levels occurred, did your business empathise with the juggle families faced? Did they carve out no-meeting zones between noon and 2pm so families with children could pause and take a breather? Upon the Prime Minister’s announcement and people’s return to work did your business thank and acknowledge the perseverance shown by employees in uncertain times as they juggled their increased power bill among other working-from-home demands?

Finally, look at your bottom line, the number of widgets you sell, whatever shape that takes. Has your full-time-equivalent number adjusted or did shareholder value rise a little faster because, well, you know, ‘people are lucky to have a job right’? Wrong. Maybe today, you are lucky to have people. That includes the executive you see month after month.

Your job is not to send management away with an impossible task list to complete. Your job is to support your chief executive and to lead by example. So my advice is endeavour to live without regrettable losses. Lay the foundations of culture and commitment to people in every action you as a governor take.

And encourage your management to take the actions which mean you remain the company people choose to work for.

 - Trish Oakley is chairwoman of the Otago-Southland branch of the Institute of Directors (IOD). This article is her opinion only and not intended as governance advice. The IOD is the professional body for directors and is at the heart of New Zealand’s governance community.

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