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The Great Escape: Retaining Talent in a Recession

If ever there was a time for organizations to secure their top talent it's now in fact according to KPMG's recent poll of nearly 200 senior executives of UK firms, 83% of respondents said human capital was the key to maintaining an edge over competit

by Karen Bull
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As belts tighten, budgets get slashed and redundancies loom, how can HR ensure that its talent doesn't drain away with its profits? It's time to think creatively, says Verity Gough.

If ever there was a time for organizations to secure their top talent it's now – in fact according to KPMG's recent poll of nearly 200 senior executives of UK firms, 83% of respondents said human capital was the key to maintaining an edge over competitors. And under the current economic conditions, having the edge is one way of keeping your head above water. But how can HR make sure that as the war on talent heats up, theirs doesn't up and leave?

Desperately seeking talent

The first stage, says HR strategist Steve Foster, is to think about who you are worried about losing: "Are you really concerned about your senior managers leaving or actually is it those people doing the solid jobs and have the specialist skills right across the organization?" he asks. Rather than presuming that the most critical staff are the high earners, talent can be found across organizations, and it's up to HR to locate it.

To this end, evaluating your employees’ skills is one of the first ports of call, says Liz Bavidge, diversity expert and director of the Fair Play Partnership. "HR has a crucial role in helping people see a future," she says. "I keep coming across organizations where good people are leaving because they can’t see a future for themselves there – and it’s nothing to do with the recession. Perhaps it is a traditional hierarchical organization or you have to be a certain sort of a person to do that kind of job but that’s how organizations lose their best people."

She suggests HR looks at redefining job descriptions, to see what other skills employees have and see if they can be used in other areas. What’s more, she urges HR to take note of who accepts early redundancy packages: "They could be the ones who are going to set up their own companies, they are the ones with the skills that you want to be keeping," she says.

Honesty is the best policy

According to Maria Yapp, CEO of business psychologists, Xancam, being clear about the business’ future is crucial – those organizations that put up a wall of silence can send the office rumor mill into overdrive.

"It's not about fudging or withholding information about the state of the business," she says. "The leadership team needs to be clear on what their strategy is to handle the economic climate and the competitive environment and then they need to then communicate that clearly and repeatedly so the people in the business are confident that the organization knows what it is doing and that it has a future."

Yapp believes one of the key things HR should be concentrating on is challenging the sort of talent they are going to need. "Knowing what the company strategy will be and the approaches, talents and behaviors required are essential," she says. "They might be very different to those that made them successful in the last ten years. Companies have to be prepared to make some tough decisions because even someone who has been a good, consistent performer for years might not have what it takes to survive a more competitive environment."

The knowledge crunch

With the focus now shifting from a traditionally held view of talent being located in the high echelons of the organization, HR needs to be cannier about spotting who can push the business forward during the tough times.

Bavidge says creating a strong coaching culture is an effective means of detecting people’s latent skills, as well as helping staff feel valued and nurtured. "That's where people develop their skills - that’s where you find the potential, it all comes from a learning environment which helps keeps the organization healthy, and of course costs a lot less than expensive training programs," she says.

The skills gap that companies are going to be left to fill when the so-called baby boomer generation retires is also a pain point for HR. "Organizations need to start mapping out the skills that the younger generation are lacking," says Foster. "It's very easy to get caught up in the costs, and act irrationally when the pressure is on so organizations have to make sure they don't throw the baby out with the bath water."

And if redundancies are on the cards, HR should not necessarily look at culling this skills-rich demographic. "Retaining the wisdom is important," agrees Yapp, "This is a global recession and although different things are driving it, some of the lessons from past recessions will help," she says.

Bavidge believes that this is a golden opportunity for HR to start thinking creatively about how to retain these essential skills. "You don’t necessarily have to keep that person on full time," she says. "Can you use them part time, in a consultancy capacity, can you use them to train others with their skills?" she says.

Taking the long term view

As retaining talent becomes increasingly important, HR's role also becomes more defined. Instead of simply managing its people, it now has to start thinking outside the box when it comes to making the most out of its existing workforce. "We need people to be seen as a bundle of skills; and organizations need to be very clear about the future, even if it's five years off, by telling its people that they are its biggest resource, and asking them: how can we make the most out of you?" says Bavidge.

"We shouldn't have to have a downturn to start questioning who the best performers are but sadly we often know more about the physical things than we do about our people," adds Foster.

"It's not about the bottom line, it's about your people, your process, your stakeholders," agrees Yapp. While we can look to the past for ways to ride out the recession, it's now time for HR to turn its thinking on its head.