Most managers think that employees quit for pay-related reasons. There is research that supports this view, but it’s equally easy to find experts claiming that resignations mainly happen for other motives.

Lack of growth and advancement opportunities, limited coaching and feedback, a mismatch between the job and the person, or stress from overworking. These are just some of the motivating factors you will see mentioned.

Looking for general trends in the global workforce across all industries, however, will not get us very far. So if staff turnover is something that keeps you awake at night, you need to focus on understanding why employees leave your organisation.

The simplest reasons for people leaving our organisation range from discovering that the role did not suit them to getting a better offer elsewhere. The former typically applies to a linguist we have employed in a project management position and the latter to a translator enticed away to an in-house position at a content-owning client company or an EU institution. We have a higher staff turnover in our translation and project management teams, whereas fewer people resign from management or middle-management positions.

But we also lose people who like what they do and who say it would be hard to find a nicer company to work for. Many of our leavers want to move away from the UK, usually returning to their native countries. Some have gone back to academia for further studies, including PhDs. And others want to set up as freelance translators and have more control over their daily schedules. This usually happens when their family grows and their private life needs more flexibility.

I have looked at the figures long, hard and often, and I cannot see any single cause of resignation that we could directly remedy as a company. What we must do, then, is build a culture of motivation and reward that helps us hold on to our best people for as long as possible.

On motivating

Frederick Herzberg’s two-factor theory suggests that there are factors in the workplace that cause job satisfaction and other elements that cause dissatisfaction.

The former are called ‘motivators’ and include achievement, intrinsic interest, responsibility, advancement, opportunity to do something meaningful, decision-making and sense of importance.

The latter are called ‘hygiene factors’. These generally don’t motivate staff, but if they are lacking or entirely missing in the workplace, employees will be demotivated. Hygiene factors include company policy, admin practices, supervision, interpersonal relationships, working conditions, salary, job security, fringe benefits and holiday.

An ideal company should have a high degree of both motivators and hygiene factors. If you have high hygiene factors but low motivators, your people will merely work for their paycheque. If the motivator factors are high but the hygiene factors low, the job is exciting but the salary and conditions won’t withstand competition. And if both motivators and hygiene factors are low, the workforce won’t be motivated and there will be many complaints.

This means that once you have a competitive compensation package in place offering flexitime, remote-working options, pension plan, health insurance and potentially a profit sharing scheme, and you have created a decent HR structure and effective internal communication, you need to turn your attention to the factors that really give your employees a good reason to stay.

On commitment

We live in a world where job-hopping every couple of years is becoming commonplace, and even desirable.

Among millennials, hopping from job to job is no longer a sign of disloyalty. It does not necessarily point to an inability to hold down a job or get along with colleagues. And yet, some recruiters say it is still easier for an older person with a steady employment history to find a job than it is for a hopper in their 30s.

This makes sense. Staff turnover is highly disruptive – especially in an environment like ours, where we try to focus on building long-term partnerships with clients as well as keeping up with fast-moving industry-specific technology and a changing marketplace.

Our team leaders spend a lot of time finding, training and mentoring new colleagues, and our teams face frequent reshuffles of tasks and workloads to accommodate temporary shortages of skills and expertise while newbies get up to speed.

Staff turnover is also expensive. An Oxford Economics and Unum report in the UK in 2014 declared that it takes an average of 28 weeks for a new employee to reach their optimum productivity level (OPL). Given the comprehensive nature of client-facing project management in our industry, this is certainly the minimum for translation company PMs.

The logistical cost of replacement is said to average at around £5,000 per employee. This figure includes advertising the role, processing the applicants, assessing tests, interviewing, and arranging cover until the replacement can start.

The cost of bringing newbies up to their OPL, however, could be five times greater. Combined with the circulating reports that over 50% of people recruited to an organisation will leave it within 2 years, it makes chilling maths for employers.

What attracts a candidate to a particular job is often different from what keeps them there. Today, employees are looking for a career path, growth opportunities, comfortable company culture, diverse responsibilities and a work-life balance.

They want to pursue their dreams. They have a passion for creativity. They don’t want to be told to just do their job. They want to be involved in casting the vision and working on high-brain-power tasks. People who feel like stakeholders are likely to stay longer.

On rewards

As with staff retention, money comes to mind first when thinking about rewards.

Financial incentives in translation companies, however, tend to be reserved for executives, salespeople and account managers – roles that are seen to be making the biggest difference to the bottom line. It is less common to pay bonuses to linguists and project managers, unless the business has set up a company-wide profit-sharing scheme that all employees participate in.

But not all perks and incentives are monetary.

We consider it important to reward STP’s long-serving employees. After certain milestone years of service, our people receive additional paid time off plus other awards in recognition of their commitment and loyalty to the company. We also have a policy of acknowledging work anniversaries on Yammer, our internal communication platform, with a personal, publicly shared message of thanks and praise.

This year, we also experimented with a campaign of honouring the more intangible daily staff contributions that do not get enough appreciation. For instance, we launched an internal customer service contest among our project managers to acknowledge the scope and complexity of their work.

We wanted to applaud them for carrying out their tasks in a friendly, cooperative manner, for showing initiative and for going the extra mile in their fast-paced, high-pressure working environment. The winners were given trips to international translation industry conferences where many of our clients convene.

The element of surprise

I have found that rewards tend to work best when they are unexpected. As soon as they become a regular, predictable part of the remuneration package, they seem to lose a lot of their motivational value. On-the-spot rewards are most powerful when given immediately after the achievement, and public recognition always beats privately given credit.

In the past two months, I have heard two motivational speakers quote the same research by Sam Glucksberg on the effect of offering rewards. The research they referred to indicates that rewards are good motivators for achieving narrow, focused tasks, but not so good for larger, creative ones.

Routine, rules-based work occupies our left brain, whereas conceptual tasks with no clear set of rules or solutions use our right brain. When working on tasks requiring innovative solutions, religiously applied rewards were in fact shown to lead to poorer performance.

This is because to succeed in right-brain tasks, you need intrinsic motivation – the inner drive to do things because they are important and interesting. For these right-brain tasks, trying to entice people with a carrot or threatening them with a stick simply does not work.

A different kind of incentive

Training and personal growth opportunities are good motivators. Last month, we paid for the 16 members of our management and middle management teams to go through the Insights Discovery personality profiling, consisting of an online assessment and an onsite workshop.

Apart from the obvious self-understanding benefits, the key takeaways from the day included understanding how cohesive teams work, how each of us comes across in our interaction and communication with others and what our ideal work environment might look like.

The investment will deliver results when we apply these strategies to our collaboration and remember how to work with each person most effectively. But the session also served as a reward, aiding the individuals in their personal and interpersonal growth.

I keep smiling at my own profile, and it seems that my team does, too. In the section titled ‘Barriers to Effective Communication’, it recommends the following:

When communicating with Anu:

  • Do not question her motives or competence.
  • Stick to business at all times.
  • Be ready to leave quickly.
  • Do not wait for praise or recognition.

“Well we knew that already, didn’t we?” my team said.

“You are more of the ‘isn’t the task itself reward enough?’ orientation, after all.”