How To Retain Top Performers: Tips & Tricks for Furloughs or Pay Cuts


It is a business reality—at some point, you will need to make difficult decisions to improve your company’s health. If your business is like many affected by COVID-19, you may need to decrease payroll budgets through furloughs and pay cuts. 


But even as you wrestle with decisions of how to cut the budget, you must also plan: how will you retain your top performers through these tough times, so that when the tide turns, you'll have the best staff already on hand to lead the recovery? 


Here are 10 best practices for keeping your top performers after a business crisis: 


  1.   Be transparent.  When you have to tighten your budget, be upfront with all of your employees, even those not directly impacted. Explain the reason for the changes and the process. If the change is temporary, let them know how long it will last and what happens afterward.  


It's not easy to acknowledge that your organization is having financial difficulties, and it may be uncomfortable to face your employees' tough questions, concerns, and emotions head-on. However, by being truthful and forthcoming, you reinforce trust, even during uncertain times. 


  1.   Be human.  How you treat employees during a crisis will affect your organization long after the crisis is over. Be empathetic to employees going through a tough time and let them know you care about them regardless of the employment decision. This emphasizes their value and softens the blow of furlough. Help smooth the transition to reduced hours or pay with benefits assistance, access to mental health and wellness providers, and local and federal resources for job searches or financial assistance.


  1.   Develop a re-boarding process for the employee returning from leave.  Being furloughed, even for understandable reasons, still creates stress and distrust in an employee. On the employee's first day back, the manager should welcome them back (via video if employees are working remotely), express appreciation that the employee chose to return, provide confirmation of salary and benefits, discuss the future goals, and plan periodic check-ins. Investing in this process will help even a seasoned employee get back up to speed after a furlough. 


  1.   Increase flexibility with benefits.  When your company is strapped for cash, it may be hard to offer employees more benefits. But there may be more solutions than you think. Consult with your plan administrator to ensure your current plan is meeting employees' needs as closely as possible. Are there low-cost options you can add that deliver value, such as mental health benefits? 


Some valuable benefits may not necessarily be “big ticket” or high-dollar items For example, working from home long-term, working flexible hours, or having additional personal days gives employees more flexibility without costing the company a lot of money. 


  1.   Focus on engagement During a crisis, you need to focus on finding immediate solutions, but it is also critical to keep employee engagement at the forefront. Research shows that companies with engaged teams had 59% less turnover. As a bonus, these teams were 21% more productive, and the companies had 22% higher profits.


  1.   Keep recognizing employees.  Recognition is an inexpensive yet powerful way to help employees feel appreciated. One survey found that 63% of employees who are frequently recognized are less likely to look for a job. Recognition doesn't have to be an expensive endeavor, but, like any feedback, it should be timely and meaningful. Provide recognition in the way the employee wants to receive it (i.e., some want kudos in front of all of their colleagues on a Zoom call, while others prefer a private congratulatory email).


  1.   Stay consistent with performance management.  When times are uncertain, it is essential to keep all employees on track, especially your top performers. The goals that you set during the last annual review may be completely obsolete in the current business environment. Instead, frequent, informal performance discussions where goals and progress can be quickly adjusted as needed.


  1.   Identify career development opportunities.  Your top employees may be loyal, but they still want to know how the current downswing will affect their career development. Just as you must stay consistent with managing performance, you also need to find ways to help your top talent grow.


They could mentor or be a mentee within or outside the organization, join a cross-functional team, work on a project to help accelerate the organization's recovery, or learn a new skill. Find out what sparks their interest and be creative in finding options.


  1.   Address employee burnout early.  During this time, you may rely more on your top talent--especially if you downsize and give them more responsibility. But beware of your employees' mental wellbeing. Even in "normal" times, burnout affects employee retention. HR leaders attribute burnout to up to 50% of turnover, and with COVID-related stress, burnout — even among your top performers — will increase.  


  1.   Be a role model for resilience.  Leaders who show strength in the face of pressure and failure teach their teams to be resilient. This resiliency helps build positivity, decrease stress, and retention.


While these tips focus on retaining top performers during and after a business crisis, you should always use these practices. The best way to keep employees is to treat them like the valued team members they are--at every point in their journey, whether your business is booming or bust. 


Contact us to learn more about using HCM tools to improve your employee retention.


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Pamela DeLoatch

Pamela DeLoatch

Pamela is a freelance marketing writer who specializes in Human Resources and HR technology. With 16 years of HR and writing experience, combined with a journalism degree and an MBA, Pamela delivers compelling content that engages the audience and effectively conveys the marketing message.

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