THE KEY to Retaining Frontline Employees

Employee turnover costs real money. For low salary, high turnover positions, the impact can be as much as 16% of annual pay – or about $5,000 to replace someone making $15 an hour. That’s not to mention the drag on your company’s reputation and the strain on supervisors and managers who much constantly contend with a stream of inexperienced team members. Fortunately, a low-cost solution might be found in the behavioral theories of Abraham Maslow.

Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist and a pioneer in the field. Unlike his contemporaries who focused their research on various psychological disorders, Maslow took an interest in the psychology of people who were well-adjusted, accomplished, and content with their lives. It was his opinion that this was the natural human state and that people progressed toward this end along a very predictable set of steps.

Maslow defined these steps as a “hierarchy of needs”—a pyramid with five levels. At the base of this pyramid are physiological needs such as food, shelter, and sex. Next up on the pyramid comes the need for security and safety, followed by a need for interpersonal relationships, followed by a desire for esteem. Finally, at the top of the pyramid, a person could reach a state of “self-actualization,” where they could feel content that they were living at their highest potential.

Maslow theorized that human beings spend their entire lives attempting to work their way up this pyramid, and that progress to the next level will always be interrupted when a need on a lower level goes unmet. He also theorized that very few people ever make it all the way to the top of the pyramid because they are routinely faced with difficulties in meeting lower level needs, such as the needs for security, belonging or self-esteem.

As supervisors and managers of people, it’s important to realize that the people in our organizations are no different from those who Maslow studied and that most adults look to their work environment to meet many of these basic human needs. Especially in businesses that are heavily commoditized, where there is little opportunity to coerce unhappy employees into staying by offering generous compensation packages, it is an organization’s ability to recognize and meet the needs of security, belonging, and self-esteem that can most effectively drive retention.

Meeting an employee’s need to feel safe and secure at work takes many forms including providing adequate training and equipment. Competence is the enemy of anxiety and knowledge is the enemy of fear. The more we can do to ensure our employees are capable of performing the tasks expected of them, the less anxious they’ll feel. The more knowledge and perspective we can provide about their roles within our company and our company’s role within its industry, the fewer fears they’ll have about the unknown.

Once our employees feel secure in their roles, we can concentrate on offering them opportunities to feel like they are part of a caring community. At a minimum, supervisors and managers should know each employee’s name and enough about them to ask thoughtful questions about their lives outside of work. Beyond this, organizations can recognize birthdays, anniversaries, and other milestones. They can offer volunteer, sports, and other social opportunities, as well as a host of institutional signals of caring such as help lines for employees who may be experiencing personal problems.

Finally, we can meet our employees’ needs for self-esteem and achievement by offering realistic opportunities for advancement as well as recognizing good performance on the job, both formally and informally. The need for achievement and esteem is also met by overcoming reasonable challenges. It feels great to push just beyond your comfort zone and come up with a win. You can offer your employees that feeling regularly and strengthen your business at the same time. Just be sure that challenges have a reasonable chance of success and that the penalty for failure isn’t too great or you’ll push your team back into a mode where they’re struggling to feel secure again.

As supervisors and managers, the key to retaining employees is to remember that they are all people first and employees second. Just like us, they’re looking to feel safe and secure, to know they’re surrounded by people who care about them, and to earn a few kudos now and then. If we can provide an environment that recognizes those basic needs, we’ll find that we’re way ahead of the game.

Christopher Koch is a training consultant and President of ZoneOne Locating. He is past president of Nulca and worked on both the 2009 and 2015 revisions to the Nulca Professional Competency Standard. He can be reached by email at or on Twitter @kochauthor.


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