A job used to be a long-term relationship that most of us stuck with through thick and thin. But times have changed, and employees often feel that the only way to move up is to move on. For small firms, the loss of a key staff member can be devastating - so what can you do to keep your staff happy and faithful?
"A couple of years ago, in a small business I was running, I took on an assistant to help with the administration and development of the business," recalls entrepreneur Paul Kruzycki. "She was a godsend. She took a load of weight off my shoulders, and allowed me to get a lot more done.
"She became a major part of the business," he continues. "But then she got an offer she couldn't refuse."
The assistant left as the three-person firm was preparing to launch a new venture, and the busy Christmas season was also approaching. The employee, as many do, lost interest during her notice period.
"It had a major impact. I had to do a lot more work, and we had to put some of our plans on hold. I felt very let down. I was quite upset," Paul confesses.
Why do employees move on?
The departure of a key employee can be devastating to a small firm, crippling the operation and damaging morale. Sadly, high turnover in the current employment market is a fact of life, with employees more willing to move on quickly than in the past.
Bad management or a toxic working environment is often cited as the reason why staff choose to move on from their role. However, the decision to move on may be nothing personal towards the business or its owner - although it can feel as though it is.
Experiencing a range of different working environments is seen as a key way for ambitious workers to develop their skills and quickly progress to more senior roles.
There is also a trend in the modern workplace for employees to prioritise work-life balance to a greater degree then in the past. Staff members might decide to leave to take a career break, to retrain, or to take up a position with shorter or more flexible hours that work around their other commitments.
Finally, if the firm is going through tough financial times and cutbacks are being made, employees may worry that their jobs are at risk - prompting a search for a new, more secure position elsewhere.
Coping with the impact of losing staff
Larger businesses are able to absorb losses more easily than smaller ones, besides having more resources to persuade staff to stay. But how can small firms protect themselves against damaging departures?
As it happens, the loss of his assistant wasn't all bad news for Paul, who was struggling to meet staff costs. "It saved me going to her and asking her to take a cut in hours," he explains, adding that he took on a part-time employee as a replacement.
"But I tightened up our personnel procedures so that when someone leaves I know my rights and they know theirs, as well as their obligations to the business. It makes the transition a lot easier."
Whilst being small can make you more vulnerable to losses, there are steps you can take to minimise the impact. Most importantly, try to ensure that no member of staff is indispensable by spreading responsibilities across the team. Train staff so that everyone has an understudy who knows everything about their job.
Keeping staff happy can also make people more loyal - to the business and to their colleagues - making it less likely that they will want to move on.
If an employee is truly indispensable, key person insurance may help you to cushion the financial blow if they leave, or are unable to work through illness.
Employee communication and staff loyalty
Small and medium-sized firms may not be able to offer the same kind of structured career path as a corporation or the same financial rewards. But they can give staff less of a "cog in the wheel" working experience. Showing a commitment to developing their skills and letting them experience different roles, with a view to progressing up the ladder, can go a long way.
Communication is also crucial. Talking to staff and giving them the opportunity to raise concerns and contribute suggestions can help resolve niggles before they become problems, and provides a greater sense of personal investment in the success of the business.
Paul sees the value in taking a personalised approach to staff management, with an emphasis on communication: "I've always said 'If there are problems, come and talk to me first'," he says. "It costs a lot in time and money to lose somebody. I think a lot of people underestimate how important staff retention is."
Talking openly with employees is an approach that has worked well for Dorchester-based bpl solicitors, where 30 staff weathered harsh measures to survive tough economic times. According to director Mark Stimson, it was honesty about the firm's financial situation and the sacrifices required for the firm to survive that helped keep people on board.
"Those who stayed proved their continuing loyalty by sharing the pain with us, and accepting suspension of benefits and a salary reduction," he recalls. "Our financial options are limited, but it seems that openness is key."
Maintaining professional relationships with staff
Openness with your staff may be vital - but avoid over-familiarity. Paul Kruzycki cautions against becoming personally attached to your staff. "You've got to keep a professional distance," he advises. "It's potentially incredibly difficult to have to discipline someone you've grown too friendly with."
Is staff loyalty a thing of the past? Certainly not - but employers of all sizes can no longer take loyalty for granted. They may have to earn it by offering a personally rewarding environment where staff feel valued, and prioritising open communication.
If things do break down or an employee decides to move on, sensible measures can protect your business against the impact.