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Can You Decide Who Is (and Isn’t) Business-Critical In Your Office?


LAST UPDATED: April 7, 2023

Much like parents and their kids, although we shouldn’t have favourites (in the office), we definitely do. Sometimes it’s just people that you get on with more easily, or individuals that make your life easier. If you’re a more senior member of staff, maybe it’s those that you think are the hardest workers in the room… the people bringing in the money. 

Now how about a difficult question – if things got tough at work, are those the individuals you’d want to keep on?

In many companies, decision-makers are far more likely to retain or incentivise their best performing salespeople and senior members of staff. From the outset that makes sense, those people appear to keep the business ticking over so if anybody should stay it should be them. Right? However, research has indicated that overlooking the rest of your team is actually a much more costly approach – leading corporations to spend as much as four times more than required without even holding on to members who really are crucial in keeping operations running. Furthermore, the money wasted on retention of staff less than critical could ultimately have been utilised in helping more people keep their jobs!

So, when your company falls on hard times, what’s the most effective way to identify who is business critical?

  1. Diamonds in the Rough

Major organisational change has struck (think: restructure, relocation, downsizing). Resist the urge to round up the usual suspects; the sales team favourites, pals from the leadership team, a few candidates you feel the business is invested in. Consider instead those deemed less extraordinary but who – in reality – keep the lights and/or possess unique insight on how the business runs.

These people might come from anywhere in the business – an Account Manager close to retirement who didn’t make the shortlist but who is crucial for their understanding of the industry, or someone from the Finance Department who helped develop the payroll system. You might be surprised to find that even though these individuals' performance is nothing to rave about, their technical expertise, experience and relationships make them invaluable to the company. With that in mind, it’s not so ridiculous to suggest that those supporting your favoured high-fliers are just as important.

Once you’ve compiled (in collaboration with senior management and HR) a more thought-out and inclusive list of relevant personnel, you can begin to map out a targeted retention strategy. Try to review these individuals from two perspectives. Firstly, the impact their absence might have on the business, and second, the odds of that person opting to leave. An old McKinsey report from 2010 relays a European industrial company going through a similar process due to relocation. The industrial company found that among 104 of the team likely to leave, 44 were business critical – predominantly from administrative, IT and finance departments.

  1. One Size Doesn’t Fit All

Appreciating that different things motivate different people is key in mapping out what your retention strategy will look like. You won’t be able to offer the selected 15% of your employees the same thing and expect them to be content. If this is a time of crisis, for your teams or for the business, you must show compassion and empathy. Try to understand what concerns individuals have, and what the business can do to support them. 

Engage in genuine person-to-person conversations. You’ll find that some people are driven by their careers and simply want to know if their position will be secure in the future, who they’re going to report to, and how their role might change. Others will want to understand the bigger picture – how this might impact their family, their relationship, or simply their commute. 

In the example of that same European industrial company, a targeted approach saw 25% of the cost invested in financial incentives that saw 80% of key staff willing to relocate with the business. Incentives included increasing the base rate of pay, help finding schools, career guidance for partners, language classes and remote work arrangements.

  1. Money Isn’t Everything

Believe it or not, discussions or a mapped out progress plan are equally valid and just as valuable when it comes to retaining staff – particularly if finances are tight. 

Opportunities to move onwards and upwards in a person’s career are powerful incentives, whether in advertising, creative or tech sectors. You can utilise mentoring, clear targeting, or contractual agreement over a longer period of time to set people up for progression, which frees up funds for necessary immediate financial incentive.

In summary, in dealing with employee retention – during crisis or otherwise – you should not be so quick to make ruthless decisions on who is business critical. Additionally, a calculated and well thought out strategy utilising monetary and other incentives will not only make the money you do have go further but ultimately work more effectively to meet the needs of your team.

Remember that incentives aren’t solely useful in times of hardship. They’re just as useful in the day-to-day operations of business – meaning that the connection and genuine conversation from Point 2 is something leadership should be doing all the time. Get to know and understand the people that you work alongside, and you’re likely to see the impact in all aspects of the business.