Hands up if you’ve had a sneaky look at a recruitment website or the jobs section of your professional press this week? If you have, you certainly weren’t alone. The first Monday in January is widely known as ‘national job hunt day’, with recruitment firm The Bounty Network estimating that more than 11 million people started the search for a new role this week.

It’s easy to understand why so many employees might want to hit the search button on what for many was the first day back at work after an extended break. Two weeks off gives people plenty of opportunity to think about how much they are dreading getting back to the daily grind and to resolve to do something to revitalise their career in the New Year.

Now if you’re an HR manager or director of an SME you could be forgiven for shifting nervously in your seat at this point. At a time when economic conditions are still tough, a mass exodus of staff is just about the last thing any business needs. Research from recruitment firm Robert Half shows that UK HR directors believe as many as one in five of their employees will be looking to jump ship this year. Nearly 80 per cent of those questioned were particularly concerned about losing top performing staff, whose departure could have a real impact on growth and productivity.

Of course it’s a fact of business life that however well you treat them, staff will come and go and it’s not always possible to hang on to your best performers. Forward-looking businesses recognise, however, that investing in people – and making efforts to engage them – can help maintain a stable workforce, which in its turn will drive business growth. In a recent survey of 500 of the UK’s fastest growing businesses, the majority of respondents said they planned to continue investing in staff, even when money was tight.

It’s probably too late to stop a really determined employee heading for the door – but there are ways you can improve your chances of hanging on to your best people. These are our top five suggestions:

Share the vision

People like to feel they are working for a business that’s going places – so if you want them to stick around you need to keep them up-to-date with your plans. Don’t keep your strategy a secret from the wider workforce. If employees don’t know what your vision and objectives are they will find it difficult to see how they fit in over the long term or to get enthused about the part they can play in helping you achieve your aims. A positive, can-do culture can also be a powerful engagement tool. Adopt a solution rather than problem-focused approach from the top down and the enthusiasm will soon filter through to employees.

Give regular feedback

If you don’t tell people how they are doing they won’t know whether you are pleased with them or not. Use regular performance appraisals – as well as informal check-ins – to identify what people are good at and could do more of as well as areas where they may need development or support. The latest performance management software can help you keep track of discussions and make sure that what’s been agreed gets actioned. If people can see the business is noticing and appreciating what they do and giving them the support they need, they will be much more motivated to stay.

Talk about careers

Managers tend to shy away from talking about careers, particularly at a time when no-one can guarantee what’s around the corner. Career conversations can be particularly challenging in SMEs, where there may be limited opportunities for upwards promotion. If employees are to stay with a business, however, they need to feel they will be able to develop beyond their current role. It’s important not to over-promise of course, but keep the lines of communication about progression open and you will be much more likely to hang on to your top performers. A people management software can help with this.

Focus on development

Showing an employee you are prepared to invest in their development sends a powerful message that you value their contribution and want them to stick around for the longer term. Use performance appraisals as an opportunity to find out what kind of development an individual wants and how this fits in with business needs. You may find, for example, that someone is interested in developing new skills that are not directly relevant to their current role, but which could help the business grow into a new area or increase its ability to move people between teams when required. Training doesn’t have to be expensive – there are plenty of low-cost ways you can help staff grow.

Show people you value them

Sometimes, people leave jobs because they don’t feel appreciated by the business they work for. Often this happens because it’s easy to just let a high performer get on with their job. Managers know they will do what’s required, so they tend to focus their efforts and energies on employees who aren’t performing well or who need support. Make sure you don’t overlook your talented employees or assume that they don’t need as much praise or encouragement as others. Regular praise for a job well done, public recognition of their efforts or even a simple thank you can do much to keep people’s spirits high and make them feel valued.

What strategies do you have in place to make sure you retain your best people? We’d be interested to hear your ideas and experiences.

Erika Lucas author image

Erika Lucas

Writer and Communications Consultant

Erika Lucas is a writer and communications consultant with a special interest in HR, leadership, management and personal development. Her career has spanned journalism and PR, with previous roles in regional press, BBC Radio, PR consultancy, charities and business schools.