Keeping employees happy and engaged is no easy task – just ask an HR professional or business leader. The amount of information on employee retention alone is enough to testify to the complexities of employee satisfaction. Of course, turnover and retention are hot topics right now, and for good reason. According to a Jan. 2013 CareerBuilder survey, 32% of businesses lost top talent in 2012 and 39% believe they’ll lose top performers in 2013. The survey also found that 25% of workers expect to change jobs in 2013 or 2014. That’s one out of four positions that will suffer from the lost productivity and high costs associated with turnover. And all of those stats spell trouble for employers.

The problem, though, isn’t that leaders haven’t found the connection between satisfied employees and low turnover. The issue lies in the complexity of matching what employees want with what employers can, and will, provide. The list of factors involved is daunting, with pay, benefits, culture, scheduling, and promotions, being just a few. Top employers incorporate these factors into their internal strategy, while other businesses usually just address a few. But recent research is drawing attention to one specific element within the engagement equation that’s been largely overlooked, much to the detriment of employers.

What Employees Want
Workers, and especially the high achievers, don’t just want an employer who will compensate them for what they already know. They want an employer who will help them learn and achieve something new. Employees realize that remaining stagnant in today’s workforce is career suicide, and they are looking for companies that understand this reality and are prepared to help them grow. Unfortunately, many are coming away disappointed with their lack of opportunities to build their skills and expertise.

A Harvard Business Review article published last year highlighted a study that focused on high achievers and their career. The three researchers “asked young managers what their employers do to help them grow in their jobs and what they’d like their employers to do.” The managers’ answers revealed a large disconnect between the employee development workers are getting and the employee development they really want.

The Harsh Consequence
With the retention crisis already on their doorstep, employers are not in the position to just overlook this point of contention. As Loree Griffith, principal with Mercer’s U.S. Rewards consulting business, points out within the paper showcasing the results from The 2012 Attraction and Retention Survey, “Employee loyalty has been eroding the past few years due to companies’ responses to the economic downturn. Actions like layoffs, pay freezes, and limited training opportunities have created an evolving employment deal for employees due to uncertainty about what is expected and how employees will be rewarded.” And employee development is directly connected to turnover.

When CareerBuilder asked workers what would entice them to remain with their employer, 35% said an increase in training and learning opportunities, 22% said an academic reimbursement, and 21% said more specific career paths and promotions. The September 2012 Talent 2020 global employee report from Deloitte, a group of advising and consulting firms, found the inverse to be true as well. When employees were asked to choose the top three factors that would lead them to search for a different job, “lack of career progress” came out on top at 27%. Even the study highlighted in Harvard Business Review had similar findings, with the researchers concluding that “dissatisfaction with some employee-development efforts appears to fuel many early exits.”

Mixed Responses
The correlation between providing quality employee development and increased retention has not been lost on some employers. Mercer’s research showed that some of “the most prevalent non-cash reward programs implemented by organizations over the past 18 months include… formalized career paths (22%) and internal/external training (22%).” But there are still a large number of businesses that are missing this connection.

When considering why so many employers are lacking in their employee development efforts, the researchers featured in the Harvard Business Review article came to this conclusion: “Employers are understandably reluctant to make big investments in workers who might not stay long. But this creates a vicious circle: Companies won’t train workers because they might leave, and workers leave because they don’t get training.” Unfortunately, in this scenario, the employers are the ones that ultimately lose out.

There are many different reasons for employee turnover – some of which are more difficult to address than others – but employee development shouldn’t be one of them. At a time when top talent is such a hot commodity, it’s more important than ever that companies invest in their employees and help them grow. And in the long run, the employers will benefit just as much as the employees.

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