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How to Retain Front-Line Employees

You must first understand what motivates them

Helen Young Hayes //September 3, 2019//

How to Retain Front-Line Employees

You must first understand what motivates them

Helen Young Hayes //September 3, 2019//

Last month, I wrote about how to recruit more engaged and loyal front-line employees. This month, I’m taking a look at how to retain those essential workers. As I’ve mentioned, turnover is expensive: total hiring costs for a $15/hour employee amount to over $9,000, according to the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM).  And last year, employers spent a whopping $600 billion on turnover, with 77% of those costs being avoidable.

Keeping your winning front-line employees saves hiring costs short-term, but is also a winning long-term strategy, because according to SHRM research, outside hires take three years to perform as well as internal hires in the same job (and internal hires take seven years to earn as much as outside hires are paid).

When it comes to retaining good front-line employees, understanding what motivates them is important. The good news is that entry-level employees are motivated by the same factors as mid- and senior management—purpose, clarity, appreciation and career advancement.

A Strong Sense of Purpose

Studies show that front-line employees are more engaged when they have a sense of purpose about their work. For example, one of the employers we work with manufactures body protection armor. Rather than seeing their new role as simply handling pieces of inanimate objects, our placements are proud to play a role in protecting our soldiers in the line of duty.

Starting Off on the Right Foot

Making sure employees understand the company’s culture is a great way to cultivate loyalty from day one. Your onboarding process is the perfect forum for this discussion and provides an opportunity to explain how you operate and why in a way that will make your hire feel instantly engaged and excited to join.

Ideally, orientation should also provide an employee with an instant grasp of the how and the why of their role. According to Gallup, employers who implemented strong onboarding programs saw a 53% increase in employee engagement and a 44% jump in culture.


A new national survey by Comparably reveals that having unclear goals was far and away the largest cause of work stress. How to clarify goals: set individual and departmental targets, give timelines and provide feedback—both positive and negative—along the way. 

Speaking of Feedback

Sixty-five percent of workers want more feedback from their managers. At Activate, we employ Radical Candor, a management philosophy based on Caring Personally while Challenging Directly. We describe feedback, not as failure, but as data that will turbocharge your growth and development. And we coach our placements to ask for weekly feedback: what am I doing well? What can I do to improve next week? By asking for (and responding well to) frequent feedback, our placements can adjust their performance and master their jobs more quickly.


While money is clearly a big motivator for employees, recognition can also play a role in retention. In a recent survey of 200,000 employees globally by the Boston Consulting Group, respondents said that appreciation of their work was the top factor determining happiness on the job.

Appreciating employees can take a variety of forms – from thank-you notes for hard work to recognizing employees through awards and other public venues to offering opportunities to work on more project rather than task-focused assignments. The key is creating a formalized program that recognizes employees regularly.

A Path for Growth

Research consistently shows that a lack of career development is a key driver of employee attrition.  A Randstad survey of 11,000 U.S. workers found that a shortage of career opportunities was the No. 1 reason cited for leaving a job.  Whether it’s a pathway to management (trainer, shift leader, supervisor, manager) or a pathway to technical proficiency (increased credentialing and subject-matter expertise), your highest-performing entry-level employees want and need career-pathing to stay engaged.

Improving retention of your front-line employees is crucial to the success of your organization. Cracking the code on employee retention and engagement is good business.

Helen Young Hayes is founder and CEO or Activate Workforce Solutions, a talent acquisition agency that creates pathways to self-sufficiency through successful, sustained employment.