In today’s tight job markets and competitive economy, you need to get and keep the best talent for your business. This should be job #1 for your organization. If you don’t get this right, not much else matters.

There are several important steps to attract and retain key employees. They don’t require rocket science, but it’s amazing how many companies don’t do them and suffer the loss of their best people.

  • Focus on the good employees you already have.

Just as it is easier to retain a customer you have than to find a new one, it’s easier to keep a good employee than to find a replacement. It takes anywhere from one to three months or more to find a new employee. If you use a recruiting firm, the fees are around 30% of a year’s salary. The expenses of finding and training a new employee can easily be tens of thousands of dollars. Consequently, it’s a good investment to spend money to keep key employees happy.

  • Help employees do their best.

Very few people leave jobs where they feel they have the best conditions for success. Complaints about pay or other issues often arise when people aren’t accomplishing what they want.

Discover what each employee needs to do his or her best work. Provide flexibility in hours and procedures so that each person performs optimally. Even in a hot economy with numerous job opportunities, a good performer will stick with a position that is bringing out his or her best.

You can help employees be their best by finding out their work style and important motivators. Ask employees what they need to succeed, and help them get it. Find out what brought forward their best performance in prior jobs. My clients often use computerized profile tools to discover each employee’s ideal working environment and motivational needs. Small changes in working conditions bring big improvements in performance and satisfaction.

  • Maintain high standards of mutual respect and involvement.

People flee hostile bosses and emotionally toxic work environments. Don’t let people devalue employees’ ideas. Keep email from becoming a poison pen society where arguments fester. Weed out managers and employees who don’t support high standards.

  • Create choices in opportunities and benefits.

Employees want to have things their own way. Just as customers don’t want only one size, one color, or one way to buy something, employees want to choose their working conditions and benefits.

Some businesses let employees bid on or request projects within the organization. They’re not stuck in one job. Any employee can rise to the occasion and request an opportunity, even if it is outside his or her established job responsibilities or skills. If employers want to compete with free-lance opportunities, they need to offer choices and flexibility.

Cafeteria-style benefit plans for benefits also enhance satisfaction. Employees pick and choose the health plans, dental plans, childcare, elder care, and other options (including the equivalent in cash) that suit them.

One colleague refers to this as the platinum rule: “Do unto others as they want to be done unto.” In other words, don’t assume that employees simply want more money or a specific type of benefit. Ask them what they really want and respond.

  • Share the rewards of the business.

First and foremost, employees want recognition for a job well done. Take an employee who worked on the project to the client presentation. Make sure they get credit for their work. The expense of an extra participant or time spent away from other work is a fraction of the investment to hire a replacement.

Many employers gain value from giving gift certificates, vacation trips, or other rewards that offer employees public recognition as well as something of personal value. Taking off mid-day for a baseball game may be the ticket for some. Again, ask your employees what things would be welcome rewards to them. Give them choices so that they can pick what’s most valuable to them and their circumstances.

Bonuses, profit sharing, and stock option plans encourage focus on the bottom line and reward commitment. It’s amazing what people will do for a bonus. Financial incentives are not a panacea, however. When the inevitable economic downturns or business slumps occur, these incentives lose their value. That’s why all of the previously mentioned elements are so important.

Attracting and retaining key employees in today’s business environment calls for a radical reorientation of human resource management. Instead of enforcing standard company policies, personnel departments need to view their mission as helping each employee make his or her work life feel easy, effortless, and fun. Similarly, managers need to shape the work environment to optimize each employee’s performance and satisfaction.

Employers who embrace worker choice will succeed. In comparison with the cost of turnover and recruitment, the investment yields great returns.