Honing hiring and benefits strategies now will give employers the edge as the economy heats up. By Martha Lynn Craver, Associate Editor January 24, 2010 Companies worried about losing critical employees may have good reason to be. Some savvy firms are already trying to pick off the cream of the crop, and when the job market improves, more workers will gratefully seize the opportunity to jump ship. “Now is the time to make a preemptive strike to hang on to the most valuable employees,” says Ravin Jesuthasan with Towers Watson, a consulting firm.No company should think it’s immune. A recent survey from The Conference Board shows that 22% of workers want to switch jobs as soon as they can—a painful prospect. Recruiting and training a replacement plus the loss of productivity can cost up to three times a wage earner’s annual pay. Employees with important skills will leave first. Later on, the floodgates will start to open, though probably not until the jobless rate falls to 7% or so. That’s not expected until 2012 at the earliest. Now is the time for companies to take preventive steps, even while asking staffers to do more for less. Waiting until a worker who is pivotal has an offer from another firm is probably waiting until it’s too late. Advertisement Firms can take some relatively easy and low cost steps: --Show you care. Offer flexible hours and telecommuting options. Say “thanks” and “well done” whenever they’re deserved. Give some extra days off or offer gift cards and bigger discounts on your own firm’s products. “Employers need to show the love—job advancement, leadership and support and recognition are high on employees’ lists of what’s important to them,” says Jeff Schwartz of Deloitte. --Take an interest in career goals and emphasize training opportunities. If promotion slots are few, offer lateral moves that allow workers the opportunity to broaden their knowledge and increase their skills. --Keep promises, if at all possible. If a pay freeze or cut came with a pledge to catch up later, do it. Or at least explain why you can’t now and when you might. “Companies that don’t keep their promises will see even more dramatic losses,” says Ray Baumruk of Hewitt Associates. Advertisement -- Reduce unnecessary tasks—maybe make monthly reports quarterly instead. -- Save what cash you have for the most important people on your staff. That may be a line foreman rather than a vice president. Think productivity, experience and the availability of a replacement when deciding who gets a bonus. Remember the other side of the coin: Now’s a good time to fill staff holes and to plot a hiring strategy so you can compete when you’re ready to add more employees. Money will always be the primary lure, but a good approach needs more. If you have a prospect in mind, home in on his or her personal goals and needs. Be willing to offer flexible work schedules, training and advancement potential. Some workers hunger for informal dress codes or the occasional right to bring a child or even a dog to work. Introduce prospects to fellow employees who can seal a deal by telling them your company is a good place to work. Show you’re financially secure, if that’s the case, so workers won’t worry about the long-term viability of a move. Advertisement Take generational differences into account. No one size fits all. What attracts a 20-something technology whiz who hates being tied to a desk can be very different from a seasoned baby boomer’s wants. Flexibility in schedules and in tasks assigned, autonomy, company stability and more are part of the package. For weekly updates on topics to improve your business decisionmaking, click here.