How To Retain Your IT Employees For Longer

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 24/7, 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.

  • Andy D

    All of those are pretty much right. Being in the position of working for an IT company and also being responsible for hiring new technical staff I have found that rather than all of these coming into play all the time it tend to be a combination of a few.

    For some the money element is not as important, I know quite a few people that are happy with an average wage so long as the work is interesting and they enjoy their workplace i.e. points 2 and 4.

    I do wish bosses would take more notice of point 3 thought. They seem to think that IT people can only get there job done 9-5 like most office staff. Forgetting that a lot of the work cant be done during that time because it would mean shutting the rest of the company down while the servers are off!


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  • Exactly right. I have worked in IT for close to 15 years and have been in Network / Database admin jobs as well as IT manager. The hiring process was the most important part. I needed to find people that worked with me, and against me. What I mean is that I need a challenge from my employees, so that they know their word is heard.

    Money and career path are also very important.

    And finally the biggest one, I needed to allow my employees the ability to come in late, since we work every night. We had to be in for 8am and leave at 5pm then do the real work at night. So we could be up until the wee hours of the morning and then need to get up for 8am, once I was manager I scheduled all the night work and allowed that employee to come in at noon.

    Great post,

    BTW – Found you from Remarkablogger.

    ~ Jim

  • We’re *how much* percent water?

    Are these listed in your order of importance? It’s just so hard to find an employer who values even half of these enough to actively provide them. When you’re responsible for hiring people and keeping them hired you need to know enough about them to know which of the above are important to them because you’re probably going to be pushing it to provide even two. Just remember to take an interest in those around you. You can do your job well and make life miserable for everyone else, or you can be a part of something that is just a little bit more than a job…

  • i want to join your company man! :(

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  • I would drop everything and travel across the earth to work any place that instituted these seven points.

    I would work until I died.

  • softwaredevelopment

    great site!!some common sense ways to make people happier at work, and make them not want to leave. thumbs up!!

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  • I had a corproate wellness compnay and this stuff is so true everyone needs it in the workplace

  • Tugg Speedman

    Easy to say, difficult to do. _That’s_ why the IT lifetime per employer is so low.

    The job attracts those who like working with machines and systems. But the bulk of the job isn’t doing that so much as handling the mismatch between systems and people. And because of time and schedule pressures to consistently deliver something real to the business, the work never ends.

    Pay people what they’re worth? Few companies–for any of their non-core employees–do this. Unless your skill is directly tied to the company’s key revenue source, you will be a non-core employee.

    Interesting work? There may be that, on occasion, but your worth to the business is in keeping the business running. Most of the time, that’s not ‘interesting’ in the way that you mean above.

    Flexible? It may happen, but if so, it’ll be mostly by accident. You’re in IT, people in many different departments depend on you. Those departmental work cycles vary. When Finance needs you most, HR may need you less. When Support needs you most, Legal may need you less. Nevertheless, their varying cycles of need pretty much ensure that you will constantly be responding to one set of rising departmental needs all of the time. And if you’re in the middle of a core product development cycle, the intensity will rise for all departments.

    Friendly and open? As in the real world, you’ll get a mix. Some people are naturally open. Others can be persuaded. Still others will refuse. If you need a disproportionate mix of the latter type in your group (perhaps because they’re the best at their job), you’re not going to have a friendly group (at least as perceived from the outside.)

    Hire people better than you? Human insecurity, the dearth of real talent, and the pressure to fill critical open reqs, combine to make this a non-option in most environments.

    A career path can work–for a few. The inevitable narrowing of managerial and technical hierarchies within any company mean that only a few will grow through the ranks.

    Opportunities to learn and improve? Many large firms offer very weak training–most of it is useless ‘compliance’ training–which is a turnoff for the dedicated. Most decent training is expensive–either in terms of the registration price, travel, time away from work, etc. Even if you try to train in-house, you’ll need to use your best people to train (otherwise the value of the content is useless to attendees), and they’ll need to develop training materials, refresh it, debug it, test it, etc.

    Yes, I do admit I’ve pointed out all of the negatives in my response. But these are altogether too common. _That’s_ why IT turnover is so high. These won’t change. _That’s_ why IT turnover will stay high.

    • Thanks for sharing your views, I can’t argue with most of the things that you say.

      However I do believe that taking a defeatist attitude towards the problem solves nothing and helps noone. Sure most of the things I mentioned are tough to do, but the are certainly worth striving for. Rather than saying “well there is nothing I can do so I am not going to try”, you should instead do everything in your power to reach the goals that I outlined, you may not even get close on some (or even most), but your employees will appreciate the trying, and you may get further than you think.

      I look at it this way, you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, and that’s true in everything in life. If you never try you will never know what you may have achieved, and how difficult something is has nothing to do with it.

  • Agh!! everytime i finish reading a post, I click on an interesting link for another post! I’ll stay here forever!! :P

    • I really appreciate you saying that. It is really very gratifying when people enjoy what you write.

  • Jason

    Some nice points. I don’t necessarily think forcing people to socialize after work is a winner. Especially at the “pub”? What about the folks that don’t appreciate alcohol and smoky environment? I have a family and am a grad student and run my own side consulting business. Being pushed into sitting with the same blokes that I see 50 hours a week doesn’t sound appealing.

    One thing you didn’t mention…stop propagating the fear of losing your job to offshore outsourcing. Nothing is a morale killer than the daily burden of worrying about your job going to India.

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  • It’s very important that you make your employees feel comfortable and happy with their work because it inspire them to be better persons and employees all at the same time.