Tips for Retention: Engage Early, Set Career Paths and Talk Money

According to a 2013 Gallup poll, only 13% of employees worldwide are engaged in their work. East Asian countries fared particularly badly, where only 6% of employees are engaged. Southeast Asia came in at 12%, which is just below the global average.

“The less functional your role seems, and the less you think you’re contributing to the organization, the more likely you are to be disengaged,” explains Mike Barclay, CEO of Sentosa Development Corporation in Singapore. To keep employees engaged, the company “spends time thinking about how to inject purpose into everything we do.”

“I know that trouble is coming when someone gets married or they buy a condominium or a car. They will come for more money”

Early engagement

Barclay was part of a recent panel discussion on “Reigniting the Passion in Your People and Business – Why HR Matters,” which was organized by Singapore Management University’s Centre for Professional Studies.

When asked about specific measures to keep employees engaged, Barclay mentioned something that an industry peer practices.

“We picked this up from Ritz-Carlton,” he explained. “If a staff member’s early experience in the organization is positive, they are twice as likely to stay five years or more at an organization. We thought very hard about how to give someone a good introduction to the organization.”

“We do this by giving them airtime with the CEO and senior executives, and keep re-engaging with them in the first year. If you do that five or six times in the first year, they will be more likely to stay.”

But even if a company manages to keep an employee engaged during the first year, there is no guarantee they will stay so further down the line.

Another panelist, Shell International Eastern Trading Company’s president, Philip Choi, highlighted the two reasons why employees at his organization quit. “One, a lack of career progression, and two, money,” he said succinctly.

“The thing that is peculiar to Singapore is money,” said Choi. “I know that trouble is coming when someone gets married or they buy a condominium or a car.”

“They will come for more money. If they can’t get what they want, they’ll go somewhere else. The quick gratification to meet immediate needs seems more important than a long-term objective of a career.”

Career paths

He himself stayed on, however. “If Shell had not given me the opportunities to try different roles, I would have moved out of the company,” said Choi, who had nine jobs in his initial 11 years at Shell. “They accommodated me, and I stayed.”

“As a young employee, it’s good to experience different roles within a company because it’s great for the individual. However, it comes at great cost to the company. It depends on the size and diversity of the company, and the willingness to let employees try different things.”

However, Choi also highlighted the need of companies in his industry – petrochemicals and shipping – to have employees with in-depth understanding to generate value, which requires experience. He gave the example of Shell’s selection criteria for employees to take on a global role: they must have proved themselves in two locations over a period of 13 years.

How does that square with the reality that younger employees typically stay in a job for only two years on average before moving on?

“It’s not realistic to tell someone who has just joined a company that they need to stay for X number of years to get a full experience of the organization,” said Sentosa’s Barclay.

“I think it’s about setting career paths,” he added. “First of all, it’s about picking up talent early. We look at employees who have been with us for a year, and if we identify them as being high-potential, we’re prepared to consider them [for a higher position].”

“Many times, employees ask, ‘How far can I go? How fast can I get there?’ I turn around and ask, ‘Do you know how long it takes for us to groom you?’”

 “We’ll sit them down and say to them, ‘Where do you want to be in three to five years’ time? What is the coaching and training we can give you to get you there?’”

Swapping jobs

Another panelist, Neo Tiam Boon, CEO of construction and property company TA Corporation, points out the difficulty of doing such career planning.

“Many times, employees ask, ‘How far can I go? How fast can I get there?’ I turn around and ask, ‘Do you know how long it takes for us to groom you?’”

“We have a big pool of staff and it’s not possible to set a different career path for every employee. We hope to train them and promote them from within, although we also parachute employees into positions to fill the gaps within the company.”

To tackle the tendency of employees to move jobs in search of career enhancement, Barclay had a creative solution to a question from an audience member, an employee of accounting and consultancy firm Deloitte.

Sentosa’s HR team “develops affiliations with other organizations,” he said. “They place these employees with these [affiliated] companies and say, ‘I know you are outgrowing us at this stage. We think you have a long-term future with us, so we are going to make arrangements with this company and second you there.’”

“Imagine the Big Four accountancy having such an arrangement where you can swap jobs this way – collectively you’d probably retain a lot more people within the accounting industry,” said Barclay.

There you have it. To increase the chances of retention, engage the employee early and often in the first year, focus on career paths and career progression and consider job swapping within the organization and with affiliated companies.

And be prepared when the employee inevitably asks for more money.

About the Author

[email protected] is an online resource that offers regularly updated business insights, information and research from a variety of sources, including interviews with industry leaders and Singapore Management University faculty. The resource can be accessed at This article was re-edited for clarity and conciseness.

Copyright © 2014 Singapore Management University. All rights reserved. 

Photo credit: Shutterstock

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