updated 1/8/2004 3:16:43 PM ET 2004-01-08T20:16:43

With the job market showing signs of strength, small business owners need to start thinking about their relationships with employees and whether they need some improvement.

Human resources consultants note that workers tend to look for jobs in the early part of the year, and the growing economy at the start of 2004 is likely to encourage more employees to seek new positions. Business owners who don't want to lose staffers need to assess how satisfied their workers are.

"They need to really take the temperature of their people, to sit down and have a face-to-face," said Leigh Branham, owner of Keeping The People Inc., an Overland Park, Kan., human resources consulting firm. "Ask how things are going, how do you feel about being here."

And this is the time to let workers know that they're valued. "Make people feel welcome, honored, respected," said Gayle Weibley, an executive vice president at Right Management Consultants Inc. in Philadelphia.

Of course, paying attention to relationships with workers isn't something to be done only in January and February. Employee retention should always be a priority because it's a key part of being in business.

But with 2004 just days old, bosses have a chance to ask workers about what they'd like to do in the coming year, and to let them know what opportunities might be available to them.

"A lot of times management may not think about things coming down the pike that might be opportunities for people," Branham said. "But if they (workers) knew about them, it might be exciting for them."

Business owners can make the mistake of focusing on their star employees. Branham said they should also consider the needs of workers that he called "the steady, solid citizens."

"They often get overlooked. If you lose them, then you realize, we don't have anybody here who can do this," he said.

Weibley said employers should also consider the entire culture of their workplace and determine if it makes workers more likely to stay. The goal is "a place where they really feel good about working," she said.

She said owners should aim at creating a sense of camaraderie in their companies. That will benefit the business in the long run.

"You're building not only an economic advantage and a psychological advantage, you're building a productivity advantage," Weibley said.

It takes some awareness of employees' needs _ individual and collective _ but not much money to accomplish. Bringing in breakfast once a month and celebrating weddings and birthdays are all ways to help build a positive culture.

A little appreciation can go a long way. Weibley said she makes a point of saying good night to the people who work for her, and to thank them for things they've done during the day.

She also recommends company owners hand out the paychecks, with an accompanying thanks.

Another suggestion from Weibley is to be flexible about time off. For example, give a staffer an afternoon away from the office to take his or her children to the zoo. Co-workers, knowing that they'll have the same opportunity in the future, won't mind covering for colleagues, she said.

Both Weibley and Branham urged owners to communicate more with employees, letting them know what's going on with the business.

"Spend a lot of time talking about what's going on in the business, helping them to feel included," Weibley said. "Listen to their points of view ... and solicit diverse points of view so people don't feel disrespected."

The point of all of this is to make workers feel more of a connection with the company where they work, a connection that will make it less likely that they'll want to leave.

Branham said he's found that "the real reasons why people leave have more to do with push than pull" _ employers don't do enough to keep their employees, and often do things that make them want to leave. It's true that another employer can lure a worker away with enough money and/or opportunities, but leaving is harder for employees to do if they are happy.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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