The IT industry is notorious for its high turnover rate of employees. In fact it has gotten to the point that most companies don’t expect to keep IT personnel for a longer than around 18 months when they hire them. If you’ve ever worked in software or IT you would certainly be familiar with phrases such as “… none of us are gonna be here 2 years from now …” or something along those lines. I believe it has almost become a self-fulfilling prophesy, since no-one expects IT people to hang around for long, most of them don’t.

Of course the industry itself is partly to blame. It is still a very young industry and growing rapidly, which creates a lot of new opportunities and being by nature a fast-paced field it creates perfect conditions for people to “jump ship” whenever the fancy strikes them.

Despite all of this I believe there are many things you as an employer can do to keep your staff for longer and it is certainly in your best interest to do so. The hiring process is expensive and time consuming and you still don’t really know what you’re getting. Most importantly however, domain knowledge is not something you can easily replace. It takes years to acquire business and technical domain knowledge and it should certainly be high on your list of priorities to not loose the employees who already have this knowledge. Especially not to your competitors!

Fortunately the power is very much in your hands when it comes to creating the kind of environment where employees feel happy and never want to leave and I am going to tell you exactly what you can do to achieve this in 7 “easy” steps.

7. Provide opportunity to learn and improve yourself.

Many companies already do this since it is fairly easy to pay for a conference or a book here and there but, you can differentiate yourself even here. Do pay for the conferences and the books, also try organising a training course or two onsite (ask your staff what they would like, don’t just offer a random useless course). Another good idea is providing some company sponsored time on a periodic basis for personal projects/study (e.g. Google 20% time). Try and hire some people who are highly respected in their field, working with a guru is a learning opportunity in and of itself. Be creative.

6. Provide a career path.

It is amazing how many companies don’t pay any attention to this. How do you expect people to stay around if they don’t really know what steps they can take to advance their career if they stay with the company? If you do have a career path for people, then make sure you actually articulate it – that is to say – tell them what the career path is. If there is no career path for a person at your company, they you have some work to do. The more varied career paths you can provide for people the better. This is of course much easier in a big company, but smaller companies can be creative with this as well. Think of different a novel ways how someone can progress their career while staying at your company. Maybe it is time to open a new office somewhere or shake-up the board a little bit with some fresh blood or perhaps getting a new partner on board is not such a bad idea. There are plenty of ways, listen to what a person wants and find creative ways to meet those goals with them. Many will appreciate you and your company just for trying. The thought really does count!

5. Hire people who are better than you and make sure they do the same.

This one is crucial as it will directly affect number 4 as well. Never settle when you’re hiring, even if you have to reject hundreds to find the right person, you will not be sorry in the long run. Hire people that you would love to work with and if one of their responsibilities is to hire other people, make sure they are also doing the same thing. By doing this you will create a group of people that will naturally want to “gel”. Conflicts will be easier to resolve, and most conflicts won’t lead to enmity. You will also be not only maintaining but improving the skill levels in your company and since you’re hiring for retention you will ultimately be the winner as these great people advance up whatever hierarchy you have and themselves hire even more awesome people to work with. John C. Maxwell explains how this works in great detail in his book “The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership”. I don’t necessarily agree with everything he says but his core logic is certainly sound.

4. Foster a friendly and open atmosphere.

If you have a handle on number 5 this one should be a cinch. However do keep an eye on it. You need to handle conflicts if they develop and do actively make sure that people are socialising outside of work. More bonding happens in 30 minutes at the pub than you could get from weeks if not months in a work environment. The socialising thing doesn’t just apply to your people, it applies to you as well, after all you’re part of the group. People love to work with their friends, make sure they have the opportunity and they will want to hang around as long as their buddies are hanging around too.

3. Be flexible.

It is not the 19th century any more. The world is a fast, connected and busy, lots of stuff is happening all the time. Your people might want to be involved in some of this stuff. Such as – oh I don’t know – spending time with their family, or going on an extended holiday or maybe running a burrito stand on Friday afternoons. Who knows what they might be into? If you can be flexible enough to accommodate these little quirks, not only will people be happy and grateful, but if yours is one of the few companies that can offer them the kind of flexibility they need, who do you think they’ll want to work for? The funny thing about IT work is that it is there 247, it doesn’t have to get done between 9-5 on any particular day; it can get done in all sorts of different ways. You just need to be open to them.

2. Provide interesting work.

I am well aware that you can’t always control what kind of work is in the pipeline. However, the work itself doesn’t have to be inherently interesting as long is the way you execute the work is interesting. You can be building the next great spreadsheet application or accounting package, but if you use interesting and new technologies, let people experiment and don’t hold the reigns too tightly, it can become the most fun and exciting project that people have ever worked on. Numbers 3, 4 and 5 can also contribute a lot to how the interesting the work is perceived to be by the people doing it. In short, being a control freak is bad, keeping up with the latest and greatest in IT is good, being open to using the latest and greatest in novel and interesting ways is best.

1. Pay your people what they are worth.

How many companies do you know who just won’t shut up about how they hire the best people (just about all companies I guess :))? Well, news flash, if your salaries are commensurate with the average market rates, your employees will most likely be commensurate with the market average as well, unless you get lucky. Good people demand good pay, more than that, good people deserve good pay. A really good developer for example can be 2, 3 even 5 times more productive than an average one (maybe even more, there are studies on this, use Google to find them). So you should certainly be able to afford those extra few thousand if the productivity increase you are gonna get will be in the orders of magnitude higher. Am I right? Regardless, if you want to retain good people you have to pay more than most other companies are willing to pay. Otherwise people will just go and work for those companies that do pay more; it’s the smart thing to do after all.

All of these are very much common sense, right? Well, you will find that most employers can’t provide all seven and most can’t even provide three (it is so hard to part with money, even when it is for the greater good). Of course the most important one is number 1 :). If you do nothing else make sure you have number 1 covered, be warned however, that by itself it will only get you so far, unless it is supported by at least some of the other points, 1 will have only a marginal effect on your level of IT staff retention.

Endeavour to provide all seven points and you will be extremely surprised at what it does to your retention rate. People might even want to – god forbid – have a career at your company. At the very least your IT staff will hang around for longer and you will find that as word spreads, you will slowly get the better people applying for positions at your company. I don’t need to spell out the benefits of any of this, they should be pretty self-evident.

One final note, sometimes the best thing for someone is to go try new things and find new challenges, for whatever reasons. Do support your staff as much as you can if that is the decision they make. That doesn’t mean you don’t try to change their mind, but if the decision is final, do your best to help and support them. This will leave your relationship with that person with a positive “emotional bank account” (I borrow that phrase from “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey which is a great book by the way). This – of course – means that you will find it that much easier to hire that person again down the line should the opportunity present itself. It is only common sense.