Advisers say it's important to listen and provide support

A 2010 survey by the staffing and advising firm Robert Half International found that 45 percent of employees planned to leave their roles when the economy improved, a forecast that adds another element of uncertainty to the already challenging  strategic planning efforts of small business owners.

It’s a downside to the steady economic growth many expect will permeate the economy in the coming years — with more companies adding jobs, employers will see some of their valued staff leave to pursue higher pay or other incentives.

Yet while many owners won’t be able to match the financial incentives that will tempt their employees in an improving economy, North Bay advisers said that owners can still enact effective retention strategies without issuing financial perks that stress their bottom line.

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“If you can’t give raises, what can you do?” said Carolyn Silvestri, founding partner of the Santa Rosa advising and recruiting firm, The Personnel Perspective. “I think this is a time when you really have to focus and be creative to make sure that employees understand what their roles are and how they contribute to the success of the business.”

Small businesses are known for having a higher turnover rate than large companies, a churning flow of jobs that can make the sector “an emotional roller coaster for individuals,” according to a 2010 small business jobs report from the U.S. Small Business Administration. Approximately 300 million positions were created or destroyed as small firms aged, opened and closed between 1993 and 2008, with a net growth that represented 65 percent of new jobs nationally.

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For companies surviving that turbulence, owners tend to have a greater incentive to retain employees than large firms, said Erica Huggins, branch manager for Robert Half in Santa Rosa.

“In a small business, employees may sit in several different roles” spanning from human resources to tech support, Ms. Huggins said. Those key employees can leave a large hole when they leave a small business, making them difficult to replace and saddling remaining staff with their responsibilities.

To retain those employees, especially when owners can’t afford increased compensation, Ms. Huggins suggested identifying their goals.

“If you ask your employees what is important to them, they’ll share it with you — it isn’t always salary,” she said.

Many of the North Bay’s employment advisers agree.

“Once you have a good staff, it pays to make sure they stay. Money talks, but employees still walk from jobs for many other reasons,” said Nicole Smartt, vice president of Petaluma-based staffing and HR firm, Star Staffing.

“If they feel heard and they feel respected, you have a greater chance of hanging onto them through the tumultuous economic times we’ve been having,” said Courtney Dickson, spokeswoman for the Sonoma-based Nelson Family of Companies.

In its 2011 Northern California Staffing Advisor, Nelson listed a number of factors that contribute to job satisfaction: job security, benefits, opportunity to use talents, a manageable workload, the company’s financial stability and compensation.

Many of those factors can be addressed through a heightened level of communication with employees, said Ms. Silvestri.

Employers and owners are often compelled to address their company’s business responsibilities on their own, but bringing employees into the fold can help give their work a sense of purpose, she said. While revealing everything about a company’s financials isn’t necessarily best in all cases, greater transparency can help employees understand decisions and instill more confidence in the firm's long-term survival.

Additionally, arranging for training sessions that involve some or all employees can both positively affect employee satisfaction and improve the skills of current workers, Ms. Silvestri said.

 When analyzing workload, Robert Half’s Ms. Huggins said that seeing an increase for employees that lasts for three months is an indication that hiring an additional staff member is necessary.

“If they tell you that workloads are too high, bring in a temp employee or a contract hire. It can help with morale and retention,” she said.

For some small business owners, a current strategic plan might focus on more than retention — a handful of industries, including wine, healthcare and tourism, are experiencing significant growth, Ms. Huggins said.

For those industries, matching their growth goals with an appropriate level of staffing is the challenge.

Several advisers said that, when looking at current employees and considering future staffing needs, owners should take inventory of the skills involved. By doing so, employers will get a clearer picture of their current assets as they plan for what sort of hire might be needed to bridge the gap.

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Recruiting for some fields, like software development, can also be particularly hard in the North Bay.

“I would start looking early,” said Nelson’s Courtney Dickson, “If you’re trying to find top talent at the last minute, it’s going to be challenging.”