Companies may be laying off workers, but most are still on the prowl for top talent.

According to an earlier study (2001) by HR consultancy Towers Perrin, the vast majority of companies that cut staff (73 percent) were still hiring top talent. And forty-two percent had created targeted programs to keep their best performers.

Now, a new study by Towers Perrin reveals how companies hold on those highly prized employees. The research focuses on what 22 successful corporations in 11 industries do to recruit and retain talent, and how they keep employees engaged. (Towers Perrin’s defined “successful” by measuring including financial performance, employee-retention rates, and external ratings such as rewards) The study was conducted through a series of in-depth interviews with senior executives at the companies, including Cisco Systems Inc., Target Corp., and Honeywell International Inc.

“Top companies make talent management a strategic business priority regardless of economic pressures,” said Emmett Seaborn, a Towers Perrin principal, in the survey’s release. “Companies that do it right — tailor their talent management programs to get the right people — deliver value.”

So what are some of the common denominators of those that “do it right?” For one, they have a clear talent-management strategy as an essential part of doing business. A good number of the companies in the study actually have talent-management metrics built into their balanced score cards.

Top companies also make the best of technology to streamline processes, giving executives more time for the more critical one-on-one aspects of recruiting. Effective use of technology also impresses candidates by speeding the application process and giving a “leading edge” image, according to the study.

Another key to talent management is getting employees to “get it.” More than one study has shown that employees who are engaged in the business boost shareholder value (see “Dazed and Confused.”).

One company in the study, Baxter Healthcare, uses scorecards to focus employees on the behaviors that support specific corporate objectives. Other companies use business-education technology to help employees understand goals and how they can help meet them.

For example, “learning maps” are visual, interactive tools tailored to employees at different levels that depict the company’s overall business. At the same time, the maps allow employees to make different business choices in their day-to-day work.

Nap rooms may be a thing of the dot-com past, but perks and benefits that help employees balance work and life are still key to attracting, retaining, and engaging talent. Many of the study participants offer a programs that encourage employees to pursue life outside work.

Consumer-products maker SC Johnson, for instance, is piloting a program that includes a toolkit to help employees analyze how much time is spent on various daily tasks. The idea is to increase focus on high-value activities, and on balancing work commitments with personal needs. The company expects the program will increase engagement and productivity by empowering employees to take ownership of their work and their time, according to the study.

Finally, research shows that making a clear differentiation in rewards for top and average performers has a powerful “halo” effect. That is, rewarding the performance of valued workers is important to all employees.

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