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Retaining key employees in times of change


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Retaining key employees in times of change

Many companies throw financial incentives at senior executives and star performers during times of change. There is a better and less costly solution.

Too many companies approach the retention of key employees during disruptive periods of organizational change by throwing financial incentives at senior executives, star performers, or other “rainmakers.” The money is rarely well spent. In our experience, many of the recipients would have stayed put anyway; others have concerns that money alone can’t address. Moreover, by focusing exclusively on high fliers, companies often overlook those “normal” performers who are nonetheless critical for the success of any change effort.

Our work with companies in many sectors (among them, energy, financial services, health care, pharmaceuticals, and retailing) suggests there is a better and less costly approach to employee retention—and one that will serve companies well as they merge, restructure, and reorganize to seize strategic opportunities as the economy picks up. It starts with identifying all key players, but targeting only those who are most critical and most at risk of leaving. These people are then offered a mix of financial and nonfinancial incentives tailored to their aspirations and concerns. A European industrial company applied this approach during a recent reorganization and found that it required only 25 percent of the budget that had previously been spent on a broad, cash-based scheme. What follows are three suggestions for companies with similar hopes of keeping their top talent without breaking the bank.

1. Find the “hidden gems”

HR and line managers need to work together during times of major organizational change to identify people whose retention is critical. Yet too often companies simply round up the usual suspects—high-potential employees and senior executives in roles that are critical for business success. Few look in less obvious places for more average performers whose skills or social networks may be critical—both in keeping the lights on during the change effort itself as well as in delivering against its longer-term business objectives.

These “hidden gems” might be found anywhere in the company: for example, the product-development manager in an acquired company’s R&D function who is nearing retirement age and no longer on the company’s list of “high potentials”—yet who is crucial to ensuring a healthy product pipeline; or the key financial accountant responsible for consolidating the acquired company’s next financial report. Even if the employees’ performance and career potential are unexceptional, their institutional knowledge, direct relationships, or technical expertise can make their retention critical. In one merger we recently observed, certain sales support personnel who filled orders and took inventory turned out to be just as important as the star salespeople.

Once HR and line managers have generated a thoughtful and more inclusive list of key players (usually 30 to 45 percent of all employees), they can begin to prioritize groups and individuals for targeted retention measures—in our experience, 5 to 10 percent of the workforce. The key is to view each employee through two lenses: first, the impact his or her departure would have on the business, given the focus of the change effort and his or her role in it; and second, the probability that the employee in question might leave.

When a European industrial company conducted this exercise, it mapped the outputs on a risk matrix. The results were sobering. The company had been launching a new centralized trading unit—requiring almost all traders and their support staff to relocate, with half of them heading to another country—and was steadily losing people. The risk matrix revealed that another 104 people were likely to leave. Among them were 44 employees who were critical for the success of the trading unit. To be sure, some were traders but most were IT, finance, and administrative staff with unique knowledge of the unit’s systems.

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