Increasing your firm’s retention

Dec 13, 2020

Positively impact your firm’s retention rates by turning abstract ideas into actionable goals.

Do you have someone in the family known for their home-cooking? I do, and it is nearly impossible to replicate their dish. When I ask for the family recipe, I receive an imprecise response: “Oh, a dash of this” or “Two handfuls of this spice should do it.” Their cooking doesn’t rely on a written recipe, but rather years of experience, spontaneity, and instinct.

When discussing retention goals and initiatives, I feel like I’m having a similar conversation – a mishmash of ideas without a clear answer. You’ve probably heard the same areas on which firms should focus: culture, compensation, incentive packages, recognition, and the list goes on. After working on our retention goals at Sain Associates, I realized how important it is to turn abstract ideas like firm culture into an actionable goal. Here are some ways you can begin to positively impact your firm’s retention rates:

  1. Train and actively support your managers. Your managers are an important part of creating and maintaining company culture. Interestingly, managers also have one of the biggest impacts on your retention rates because they affect their employees’ career growth and job satisfaction, two key factors in retaining good employees. With this in mind, managers need specific training in how to support their employees because often they have the best technical knowledge but are new to managing people. During the training program, you should rely on solid teaching techniques that reinforce learning, and as a former teacher, I have a couple of favorites. First, we can learn from each other through sharing the areas we have struggled with, what we learned from our experience, and how to proactively plan should the situation present itself again. At Sain, we use the term “lessons learned,” and we share our stories of what could have improved our performance as managers and engineers. It is our executive team who first models this behavior, which allows others to feel safe in sharing their lessons learned in a vulnerable environment. Another teaching technique I enjoy is role-playing. By giving managers the ability to role-play, they can encounter a variety of scenarios related to people management, practice how they might respond, and receive feedback from their peers on ways they could have tackled the problem differently.
  2. Talk to your employees. Firm-wide surveys can be helpful in determining where to improve retention efforts, but I am able to find out more when I have a conversation with an employee. In a survey, employees may leave out items because they are in a rush or don’t feel like it is important. In person, employees are more likely to give meaningful feedback on what they love about the company and ways to improve. I encourage you to go on a fact-finding mission with employees with differing tenure. In my first year at Sain, I met with employees to learn what they valued so I could create programs that targeted their interest. I would enter the meeting by having a couple of pre-set discussion questions, but I was flexible to let the conversation go where they take it. Their information also helped me focus on maintaining the aspects they loved and allowed me to recruit for the firm more effectively.
  3. Encourage transparency from leadership through one-on-one relationships and company-wide events. Transparency is a buzzword but for good reason. Our leadership also encourages transparency by holding a company breakfast bi-monthly, where they review the state of the firm, financial data, recognize recent employee successes, and address any other business-related items. In the company newsletter, the firm also shares financial data, including how the firm is performing on a monthly basis. Each year the firm also shares the annual strategic plan with staff, which outlines the firm’s goals. Workplaces without open communication tend to be more toxic – office politics thrive on trading the need-to-know information and there is more anxiety among staff. Direct communication with all staff members can cut down on these issues. Open communication also goes hand-in-hand with building healthy relationships. Our leadership works toward this by sponsoring monthly birthday lunches and other periodic social events, walking around the office to chat with employees, and supporting employees through special life events. Investing time in employees is a great way to ensure that they will come to you when they need you. Employees, including myself, can easily access executives and schedule appointments with them. Because we’ve built a relationship, I am more likely to approach them when there is a need.

Why employees stay or leave involves many factors, which also means there are many ways to increase retention. I suggest choosing one or two goals that can positively impact your retention rate for the next year. Then, focus your policies and programs consistently, and be patient. Some changes take time to see the benefits.

Caroline Young is the HR coordinator at Sain Associates. Founded in 1972, Sain Associates is a full-service consulting engineering firm that specializes in civil engineering, transportation planning and engineering, surveying, construction engineering and inspection, and geographic information systems. Sain Associates is headquartered in Birmingham, Alabama, with additional branch offices in Pulaski, Tennessee and Huntsville, Alabama. Caroline can be contacted via LinkedIn or at

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