Sunday, April 06, 2008

Keeping Your Employees

Here's a shout-out to Chadi: You stole a week of my life writing about one question. You absolutely owe me a beer.


OK. In the last several posts we've covered a lot of "employee" ground.

So you've hired an employee. Then you learned to fire an employee. Then you learned to hire more good employees.

The next question is: How do you keep those people?

After all, we're in a business where people are very tempted by money.

So, assuming that you don't have piles of cash in your storage unit, how do you keep people without simply handing them money (which builds zero loyalty)?

We've gradually built a system where we build a team that supports one another, works well together, and helps each other advance.

There are two perspectives here. First, what does an employee value? Second, as an employer, how can you build a place where people choose to work?

Whether you like it or not, it costs money to train people to do things your way. They have to learn your PSA system, they have to learn to use your checklists and your procedures.

Generally, for any given task, an employee has to go through four stages:
- Learn it
- Watch someone do it
- Do it while someone watches
- Do it on your own

That, times every important thing you do, equals a lot of hours. So the bottom line is: You're putting a lot of time and money into training a new employee -- no matter how good they are.

So it's cheaper to keep someone than to find someone else.

We do several things to try to be the employer of choice for our techs:
  • We try to create an environment that's fun and where technicians can learn new things. No one is pigeon-holed doing the same thing forever.
  • We offer medical benefits. After the three month probation, employees are eligible for medical benefits. The price varies by age, but a group plan starts in the $120-150 range per employee per month.
  • Employees can earn salary increases by passing Microsoft exams. An exam is worth $1/hour increase. That's about $2,000 a year. No limits.
  • We pay for training books, practice exams, and the actual MS exams.
  • We have a bonus system tied to how well the company does every quarter.
  • We do things as a group. We brew a company beer. We have quarterly lunches.
  • We do a "Final Friday" training each month. We buy lunch and spend 3-4 hours teaching each other about various new technologies, or the latest version of existing technology.
  • We use a rotating system of being "on point" (handling new requests and scheduling), so all techs learn some of the skills needed to start managing operations.
  • We give technicians opportunities to learn new things. Rather than giving all the high-level jobs to the highest-level technician, we give everyone a chance to learn the cool new stuff.
  • We provide virtual "sandboxes" where technicians can do whatever they want. They've all loaded SBS2008 multiple times. They've all been hands-on with Server 2008 and Exchange 2007.

In technology, we don't have to create a fast paced environment. That seems to be the nature of the beast. Overall, we put attention on having fun, doing things the right way, learning new stuff, and being professionals.

We also take measures to lower stress. We don't let clients abuse our employees. We have phone and email policies that take a layer of stress out of the environment. We put a lot of emphasis on slowing down and doing a job right the first time.

The interesting thing about a ticketing system is that, if you use it, you have a list of every single thing that needs to be done. And that allows you to hand a job to a technician and tell him "You don't have to worry about anything except the job you're working on right now. That long list is being worked by the team. We'll give each task the attention that's due. Do this job very well and then move to the next job."

We get two common questions about our benefits.

Question 1. Isn't Medical insurance expensive?

Yes. And no. If you simply offer up the first 1-2 hours of technical labor each month to providing medical benefits, you've still got a lot of month left. In those terms, medical is pretty cheap.

And I don't know about your state, but our workers' comp is about 6% of income. So, for a tech earning $60,000/year, we pay $300/month for NOTHING. I'd much rather take that money and buy an over-the-top medical plan that covers massages and haircuts than to flush it down the WC toilet. I believe the worst on-the-job injury we've had is a paper cut opening software.


Medical insurance is a little expensive, but it brings tremendous peace of mind to employees. And because most people in this business do not share that perspective, it makes your business a bit more attractive.

Question 2. Aren't you afraid that a tech will pass a bunch of exams, get an MCSE, and be gone?

No. Think about it this way: If someone passes seven exams, they will have increased their hourly rate by $7/hour. That's almost $15,000 per year (not counting overtime).

It also means that person has managed to learn a whole lot of great stuff. So they get cool assignments and are generally more valuable to our company. Plus, the number of exams you've passed increases your share of any bonus payouts.

(Of course there's a whole new exam structure. But it doesn't change anything for us.)

I've received a great deal of thanks from employees because we encouraged them to step up in professionalism and take their careers to the next level. And, as I mentioned in the comments to the last post, the only employee who's walked away was because he studied for a master's degree and moved on -- not because he passed a bunch of Microsoft exams.


The bottom line is: It costs money to keep good employees and to nurture them. It takes effort to be a good employer, to have a challenging, fun place to work. But you can't flip a switch and create a team. You build it every day, every week, every month.

When people come to work Monday talking about the fun they had on Saturday, that's a great sign that things are going well.

I don't think anyone in our company will retire working for KPEnterprises. That's just not the world we live it. But I do think they all want to be here today. And today they all want to be here tomorrow.

It's an ongoing process. Like any other relationship, you need to be flexible and work on the things that make the relationship work. Relationships are not based on selfishness.

We keep good employees because they get decent money, decent benefits, and a decent place to work. And, together, we enjoy doing what we do every day.

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