Ever hear the old phrase in real estate…”location, location, location”? Well, employers must embrace this same mindset to attract to retain talent. Several recent articles from CNN Money, CNBC and USA Today all cite the recent survey from the US Department Labor, which notes that currently there are more jobs available than workers to fill them. This is something the US economy hasn’t experienced in at least 20 years. Additionally, the unemployment rate is the lowest it’s been since 1969.

An obvious answer may be to increase wages to lure new talent and keep current staff. However, if you don’t have qualified candidates, increasing wages won’t matter. Once you do hire that great candidate and pay them slightly more than your competitors, what happens when they leave after only a few months of service? My suggestion is that it may not be your wages, but it may be your culture.

People don’t leave companies, they leave managers

Most HR professionals have heard the phrase, “people don’t leave companies, they leave managers”. I take it a step further. People leave because of the culture, not usually because of one specific manager or because they just don’t like the company, but because they don’t like the overall culture. I once heard an executive say “we need a culture here”. My response, you do have a culture, you just may not like what you have. It was very telling to hear this from a C level employee since culture is created from the top. Your culture, good or bad, defines your organization and is the key to employee recruitment and retention strategies. If you think your organization doesn’t have a culture, it likely means the one you have isn’t a great one.

I once started a position at a very large, well-known organization. The first day, I cheerfully exclaimed to my friends “I’m never leaving this company, it’s great”. The company offered outstanding benefits, excellent pay and even a signing bonus….to me, an HR professional. Sure I’d offered many a signing bonus to various professionals, but generally they were in operations, produced revenue or had a very desirable niche skill. So to get a signing bonus as an HR professional was music to my ears.

My dream job turned out to be anything but

Unfortunately, once I got into the trenches and saw the culture, I was in disbelief and devastated. Mind you, this awakening only took a short time to discover. How could this great big company with all these amazing perks be so horrible? My dream job turned out to be anything but. Needless to say, I left pretty quickly. As an HR professional with over 20 years of experience, I’m typically not a proponent of “job hopping”, but at the time, it was quite easy to find another opportunity. And I learned the hard way many years ago, life is too short work in a miserable environment. While my new job offered less pay and far less benefits, it had a supportive, collaborative culture, where I felt valued. In 2008, I would have been happy just to have secured a job with a stable company offering great pay, but not in today’s world. As jobs are even easier to find these days, your employees will also find it easy to leave if your culture isn’t one of inclusion, empowerment and cohesiveness. Your retention will continue to decrease, regardless of the pay increases or benefits you offer.

Company culture, how do you improve it?

So, how do you improve culture? First you must do a temperature check. Find out how your employees feel about their environment, their co-workers and their leadership. Find out what you do well and what you don’t do well. Ask your employees for ideas on how things can improve. Yes, most every employee will say they want more money, I mean, who doesn’t? However, don’t think just throwing money at the problem will improve the culture. Giving everyone a pay increase will provide a temporary uplift in morale, but that will be fleeting.

You can ask your employees for their opinions in a number of ways. Surveys, small focus groups, one on one meetings or stay interviews, are just some examples. I will caution you that meetings, whether in small groups or in larger meetings, need to be conducted by someone your employees trust. An immediate supervisor of employees is not a good choice to lead these types of meetings. Employees must feel safe in providing honest feedback for it to be meaningful, and they must be assured no retaliation will take place, should they have negative comments. Most importantly, regardless of how you choose to solicit feedback on culture, you MUST then acknowledge their responses and take action. Even if the action is telling the employees “no, we can’t install a kegerator in the break room”, you need to let them know you heard them and take action on feasible suggestions. For those things that can’t happen, tell them why. The more you involve your employees in the process, the better likelihood of improvement.

Transparency is also a key employee motivator.

Employees want to know how their jobs impact the business. They want to know the company’s vision and their role in that. They want to be part of the future of the company. They want to know what’s in it for them. I’ve seen firsthand how impactful it can be when a company executive is present at an occasional department meeting, addressing front line staff, giving a general update on the company and any planned updates, expansions or activities. Remember, culture comes from the top down. As a result, your executive team must also understand the importance of culture and understand they must champion it.

When your employees feel valued and can see their importance within the organization, they are generally far more loyal and likely to go above and beyond to help be part of the company’s success and growth. This equates to greater retention and quality performance, which means happier employees and a stronger organization.