How can companies retain talented employees?

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Despite the problem, many businesses are ignoring the obvious solutions to counter it. Image: Unsplash/Sarah Todd

Sarah Todd
Senior Reporter, Quartz
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  • Attracting and keeping talent comes top on a list of CEOs' biggest worries.
  • But 'building a more inclusive culture' comes much lower down the list - and could go a long way to solving the top issue.

In today’s tight job market, business leaders spend a lot of time worrying about how to hire and retain great employees. But a new report suggests they’re strangely inattentive to the very changes that could go a long way toward solving the problem.

A new Conference Board survey (pdf) of 1,520 executives, including 740 CEOs, confirms that, globally, the chief concern of CEOs is attracting top talent and keeping their best performers on board. “Demand for highly talented employees now exceeds supply in most mature economies and, as a result, job openings are more difficult to fill,” the Conference Board notes. Indeed, competition for talent was the top stressor for CEOs in the US, Europe, Latin America, and China. (Only Japan had a different top concern: developing “next generation” leaders.)

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Yet the survey also reveals that CEOs seem to be thinking about their talent problem in a vacuum, placing far less emphasis on things that could go a long way in helping them hire and retain excellent staff. For instance, they only ranked “building a more inclusive culture” as number 10 on their list of concerns. Creating more effective performance evaluations was number 11. Workforce diversity ranked 14th. And equal pay for equal work landed all the way down in 16th place, suggesting either that CEOs think they’ve got that problem solved (they almost certainly don’t) or that they simply don’t care much if women and minorities get paid fairly or not.

How CEOs rank their companies' top internal priorities

The top 19 concerns for CEOs Image: The Conference Board C-Suite Challenge 2020

It’s possible that the CEOs ranked issues like inclusivity and equal pay lower on their list because they think they’re already in good shape on those fronts. If so, they’d be repeating a pattern identified by the Boston Consulting Group in a separate recent survey of more than 16,000 employees in 14 countries around the world. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, senior BCG partner Matt Krentz explains:

"Half of all diverse employees stated that they see bias as part of their day-to-day work experience. Half said that they don’t believe their companies have the right mechanisms in place to ensure that major decisions (such as who receives promotions and stretch assignments) are free from bias. By contrast, white heterosexual males, who tend to dominate the leadership ranks, were 13 percentage points more likely to say that the day-to-day experience and major decisions are free of bias."

People who are less likely to experience bias based on their identity aren’t necessarily the best judges of whether bias is a problem. And this blind spot can prompt companies to lose exceptional people, as highlighted in a Wall Street Journal piece about efforts to retain more women and people of color in the advertising and media sectors. Verizon chief marketing officer Diego Scotti told the Journal, “If you don’t create the conditions for people to stay, you can do an amazing job at hiring and then people aren’t going to stay.”

The new year is a time when a lot of people review their priorities for the months ahead. Perhaps it’s time for CEOs to do a little re-prioritizing of their own.

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