Creating a culture of retention

Aug. 1, 2000

With the turnover rate hovering between 25% and 50% each year, companies must proactively address the issue of employee retention.



As the president of Catapult Systems, I'm often asked about our company's core competency. Most people expect that I'll answer "e-business," developing robust scalable enterprise systems or some other industry-related jargon. These are things that we do, but they are not our core competency. Catapult's true core competency is finding, attracting, and retaining the most qualified people in our industry. That's it. This focus has given us an employee retention rate of 86% over the past six years. In fact, our turnover rate last year was half that of the national average.

What has helped Catapult and what can work for your company is refocusing on your most valuable assets-your employees. You must put your employees out in front. You must do everything in your power to find, attract, and retain the very best people. I am constantly amazed that companies still do not understand this very basic principle.

I find it even harder to believe they cannot see-from a financial standpoint-that it's far more expensive to go out and find new employees than to keep the ones you already have. At Catapult, the minimum amount we spend to hire a new employee is $15,000, but losing a single employee can cost us as much as $50,000. Imagine the effect that a high turnover could have on a company's bottom line!

So how do you find, hire, and retain the best and brightest employees? It's all in how you think about your valuable resources.

Use the right resources. If you're looking for a technical person, it only makes sense to use the Internet. Build a dedicated recruiting department and staff it with your best people. Make sure your entire interview process is first class and each interviewer knows what to look for in each candidate.

Call on your existing employees to help you find the right candidates and reward them when they are successful in helping to expand your team. Don't cannibalize your market. If you focus all your recruiting efforts on your competitors, everyone loses.

Life is just too short to have to work with people you don't get along with. Take the time during the interview process to get to know who the candidates are, what they like and dislike, their style, their sense of humor, their energy level, their work ethic, and their personality.

Rethink the way you look at a person's qualifications. Don't just evaluate levels of experience, where that person has worked, and their accomplishments. Get to know that person and find out if they will fit into your company's culture.

As you're checking out whether you think an employee is a "good fit," be sure to tell them as much as you can about your culture. Spell out your expectations. Let them know if you exercise a lot of oversight, or if you prefer a more hands-off approach. Be honest and precise about your expectations of them.

Now that you've gotten these great employees in the door, what's next? This may be the most important time spent in your company.

At some point, you have to realize compensation is just not enough. There is always someone willing to pay a higher salary, and compensation packages are compensation packages, so there is very little you can do to differentiate yourself on that level. Every company has their 401(k), paid vacations, stock options, bonuses, awards, training, tuition reimbursement, and the like. Something else must differentiate your company from the competition if you are going to keep employees coming back.

At Catapult, we ask ourselves every day, "What is it that employees really want?" Here are just a few of the things our employees have told us:

  • A company that has strong values.
  • To be ecstatic at work.
  • To be treated with respect.
  • A challenging environment, both professionally and personally.
  • To be part of a team.
  • A chance to speak up and be heard.
  • Meaningful work.
  • A company where they can have a life as well as a job.

Having listened to our employees, we know that they want to do what they love. We know that they want to work with people who are their friends. We know that people who play together stay together, and we try to provide an atmosphere where all of this can happen.

Our employee "enculturation" process begins as each new recruit attends a one-day "boot camp." At first, my military fatigues might raise an eyebrow, but as I go through the paces, the newest members of our team quickly learn what being part of the family is all about. We spend the day going over Catapult's Golden Rules:

  • Show up on time.
  • Say please and thank you.
  • Do what you say you are going to do.
  • Finish what you start.
  • Ask questions and listen.

At boot camp, we talk to each other about ourselves, our lives, our hopes, our families, the company's vision, and the way we work. At the end of the day, we're a unit-a team that trusts each other to make the right decisions.

We introduce our new employees to Catapult's "Five Rules of Empowerment," and ask them to apply these principles to every idea and initiative they have:

  • Is it right for the customer?
  • Is it right for the company?
  • Is it ethical?
  • Is it in line with the company's core values?
  • Will you be held personally accountable?

I tell them that if they have an idea to make the company better and they can answer "yes" to these five questions, they should go ahead and try it. Don't ask, just do it!

My greatest satisfaction comes from seeing a new idea-I knew nothing about-work for the company. That's empowerment. Our employees know that we trust them to make these decisions. They know that at Catapult, we learn and grow from our mistakes, but are not fired for them.

We also place a high priority on enjoying life outside of work. For example, we have a "Fun Committee" of volunteer employees whose sole responsibility is to find ways for our employees to enjoy their time together away from the office. We also arrange family trips to amusement parks, organize happy hours, watch movies, sponsor sports teams, and provide a basketball court and onsite game room for recreation.

Each employee that we recruit is assigned a mentor to help them and their family adjust. We set up support groups to help people that are new to the area find doctors, schools, and other services.

We include spouses and significant others in our activities to strengthen our company's family culture even further. We respect that the company hires not only the employee, but also their family, as well. We want to extend our reach to the family members to make them feel a welcomed part of the company and to embrace our vision. It only makes sense that if an employee's spouse is happy, the employee will be happy, as well.

As Catapult grows and continues to open new offices, we will need to increase our recruitment, training, and retention efforts. We are committed to continuing our boot camp and even plan to expand it. We will continue to focus on ways to help our employees enjoy their time both in and out of the office. We will continue to value every Catapult employee as an integral part of our company and celebrate them for their ideas and input.

Of course, this won't be easy. Some employees will leave because they're no longer comfortable with the size or direction of the company, but that's only natural. We will continue to thank those who make a contribution to the company, including granting a three-month paid sabbatical for rejuvenation after seven years of service.

In the end, job satisfaction-not compensation-is what keeps employees for life. While compensation may play a strong role in attracting talented information-technology professionals to your organization, it's not the number-one factor in long-term employee retention. Money can only "buy" someone for about 12 to 18 months. After that, employees look for something more fundamental-they want to wake up every day, get out of bed, and say to themselves, "I can't wait to go to work today!"

Sam T. Goodner is president and founder of Catapult Systems Corp., a Texas-based provider of e-business and client/server solutions. He can be contacted at

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