Do you have common interests with your employees?

Employers are frequently complaining that their employees are job-hopping frequently. We have seen different reactions to this trend of transience, such as attempts at binding the employee contractually (for example, minimum periods or paying wasted costs, but these may have enforceability issues) and providing various benefits such as stock options or an endless array of snacks in the office. As far as we can see, these don’t have the desired effect of retaining employees.

Perhaps the title of this article is misleading, but I don’t mean to suggest that these problems can be resolved by simply having the same hobbies and pastimes as your employees. Being able to go on forever about certain Korean dramas at lunch or talk about your sporting weekends at the water cooler won’t make employees stay, because that assumes that the employee values the social connections in the present job more than the potential benefits of working elsewhere.

To sum up the proposed line of thought:

  1. What is the employee interested in?
  2. What are the methods which I can and am willing to use to motivate the employee?
  3. Are there clear and objective ways of measuring whether these methods have the desired motivational effect?

(Readers who have encountered the tenets of principled negotiation may find this thinking process familiar.)

The current visible trend of employees hopping every few years to maximise salary assumes that all employees aim to maximise financial gain or to climb the corporate ladder, but that is merely a generalisation or salience bias. There are many possible interests to uncover, such as

  1. Desire for social connection – some people may want to belong to a team which they can have smooth working and social relationships with.
  2. Desire for autonomy – some people want to exercise their agency and decision-making skills.
  3. Desire for recognition – some people want to feel acknowledged, which could manifest in different ways, such as words, gifts or actions.

Personal interests will vary greatly – our parents’ generation valued stability, new parents want to have time for their children and younger people may feel the pressure to earn more and quickly save up in the face of rocketing prices and interest rates. Unlike a business transaction, an employee’s interests would be more fluid depending on which stage of life they are in, therefore affecting their willingess to be bound by a single employment relationship.

Employers can offer various incentives and disincentives, but unless these measures meet the employee’s motivations, and that both parties can clearly track whether the other is upholding their side of the bargain, time and money is simply flowing down the drain. It is easy to assume that other people share similar interest in the same environment, but judging at how employers are bemoaning that their employees are not aligned with them, clearly these assumptions are no longer reliable.

So I always recommend to my clients that they have a quick chat to make sure that the other side is of the same mind, or they would have spent time and money structuring an agreement that the other party would not sign. At best it may cause some delay, at worst the cost is entirely wasted. Establishing the common interest is the necessary first step to a fruitful relationship.