Attracting “Free Agent” Employees

Give talented people reasons to come work for you.



By Steve Safier, Senior Client Partner, Leadership Development and Human Resources Center of Excellence, Korn Ferry Hay Group.

Unless you ignore sports completely, you probably know that in November the Chicago Cubs, the long-time lovable losers of baseball, finally won the World Series after a 108-year drought.

But here we are, the first week of January, and the Cubs have already made several changes to their roster; including recruiting a new center fielder, telling one of its starting pitchers that his services were no longer needed, and letting their top relief pitcher leave for a team willing to pay him more. The Cubs front office recognizes that to sustain its success the team will need a different combination of talent in 2017 than it did in 2016. The players, who for decades fought for the ability to pursue better job offers from other teams, are mostly okay with this.

What’s going on with the Cubs should sound familiar. Like in baseball, gone are the days when someone expects to stay at one employer for an entire career. For their part, most companies can’t offer a great deal of job security because of rapidly changing business cycles, dramatically elevated levels of competition, and pressures placed on the firm’s profitability by Wall Street and other stakeholders. (Job security isn’t great in baseball either; of the 45 players who suited up for the Cubs in 2016, only 5, or 11 percent, were with the team three years earlier.)

In response, many employees now treat themselves as free agents, looking to gain experience in one place, then moving to a new company when they find a good opportunity. In fact, according to a 2016 LinkedIn study, the number of companies people worked for in the five years after they graduated has nearly doubled over the last 20 years.

While the idea of keeping an entire work team together forever sounds great, these days it’s just not realistic. However, you can help create win-win situations by making your company attractive to the new talent you need; while making a good effort to keep the talent you already have. Some of these ideas will be obvious; others, not as much.

1. Get a clear picture of what’s needed and wanted.
Success as a company depends on understanding the types of skills needed to fulfill the company’s mission. Develop a workforce plan based on current and future business needs and determine what it will take to keep your valued employees.

For instance, a global life sciences company sought help from Korn Ferry with strategic workforce planning for its mission-critical regulatory affairs staff in Europe. It decided to develop roles to work across all phases of the product life cycle, reducing the company’s reliance on specialists in individual areas.

2. Develop human resource programs that can motivate each segment of the employee population.
It’s likely that new people coming into a company have differing demographics, backgrounds, career objectives and personal goals. This will challenge the “one size fits all” type of HR found in many companies, so consider some options tailored to different groups.

For example, offer elective training in lieu of a portion of the company bonus program. Let those employees for whom development is more important than money decide for themselves what rewards they want. This notion is similar to the flexible work arrangements offered by 80% of companies surveyed in a 2015 study by WorldatWork and FlexJobs.

3. Build realistic and transparent excitement around the brand and company.
CEOs and other company leaders shouldn’t try to build unquestioning employee loyalty and assume long-term tenure. Instead, talk about the company’s mission and accomplishments and emphasize the role that people play while they’re employed with the company.

In fact, purpose-driven organizations generate superior performance, greater stakeholder satisfaction, and increased sustainability. According to a recent Korn Ferry study, such organizations in the Consumer sector achieved a compound annual growth rate of 9.85% compared to their peers’ rate of 2.4% in the S&P 500 Consumer Sector from 2011 to 2015. Engage employees with mission and purpose, and recognize that they will stay with you as long as it makes sense for them.

4. Offer career counseling to employees that go beyond their current employer.
This idea is a little more subtle. Managers are encouraged today to have development planning discussions with their team members. Rather than beat around the bush, talk openly about the probability that the subordinate may leave the company at some point. Then, reverse engineer the discussion: what can the current company offer, by way of training or on the job development, that’s good for the employee’s future and good for the company? In other words, structure a realistic win-win scenario versus an uncomfortable discussion involving hidden, even competing, agendas.

In the 21st Century, winning teams will never stay entirely the same from year to year, whether they pitch baseballs or pitch products. Let’s recognize this and build more wins for all involved.