In the war for talent, top engineers are finding themselves in the cross hairs. What can companies do to retain them and keep them happy?
By Erin Earle
Engineers are the backbone of our organization. They build the products, tools and infrastructure that give LinkedIn's 500 million members access to the world's largest professional network. So as you can imagine, finding and retaining top engineering talent is always at the top of our priority list.
Back in 2015, LinkedIn found itself in a position familiar to many tech companies today -- we were in a war for talent. Competitors were aggressively recruiting our top engineers. We needed a new strategy to better assess the flight risk of our top engineers and a plan of action to change the outcome.
As it turns out, the answer was simple: Help engineers feel the love.
We needed our senior leaders to both recognize our engineers' contributions and understand their aspirations to ensure our employees would stay excited about their future at LinkedIn.
We called it the "Love Bus Tour" -- the practice of scheduling proactive career conversations with senior leaders to truly listen and engage with employees, far ahead of any decision to leave. By the end of 2015, attrition for those engaged with the Love Bus Tour (8 percent) had dropped significantly lower than attrition for the rest of the engineering organization (13 percent).
Here's what we learned from our journey:
Leverage internal ownership and expertise to deliver the right training
Retention isn't an HR-only initiative. The engineering leadership team played a central role in the program's success, from hosting workshops, to reinforcing messaging, participating in training, initiating career conversations, and reviewing analytics.
We started our program by securing buy-in from 200 managers, inviting them to a "Managing in a Competitive Landscape" workshop where Kevin Scott, LinkedIn's senior vice president of infrastructure, discussed the difficulty of getting top tech talent in the first place and shared his own career story. He emphasized the role of managers and senior leadership in inspiring employees to keep contributing at LinkedIn.
As a follow-up, we partnered with our learning and development team to create scientifically-based training, introducing managers to cutting-edge motivation research and how it relates to career conversations. This material, along with role-play career training with peers, better prepared our managers to build deeper connections with their teams.
Identify and engage your top performers
We began by prioritizing top performers from the previous year, and met with more than 300 employees. We facilitated conversations between these engineers and senior leaders across the company, from director-level on up to our CEO.
To ensure consistency in each of these conversations, we highlighted these five points:
"You're on our radar" -- emphasize that their commitment to excellence is noticed.
"Thank you!" -- be grateful for their contributions.
"You're critical to us" -- convey their importance to the organization.
"My door's open" -- remind them that questions or concerns are always welcome.
"Tell me why LinkedIn?" -- ask what keeps them at LinkedIn.
Simple, zero-cost thank-you's go a long way -- many of our engineers wound up sharing the recognition they received on social media.
Partner closely with data analytics to inform decisions at every step
In addition to the right training, a strong retention program requires the right data to monitor success. With our analytics partners, we developed a standard form to capture the key elements of conversations with employees.
During career conversations, our leaders used this form to track which actions, if any, would help each employee feel valued, measure their flight risk, and gauge the impact of a departure on the business.
What we learned led us to make major adjustments to our thinking. We found we could drill down on flight-risk factors in subsets of employees, analyze the information, build talent plans for our top performers, create scorecards for each employee, and ultimately address specific issues with each employee to keep them happy and motivated at LinkedIn.
A forward-thinking project like this requires serious discipline from both HR and the leadership team.
Once we identified and acted on the areas of improvement needed in our manager training program, we saw an increase in positive employee engagement trends across the board. Participants in the semi-annual employee survey in 2016 reported significantly higher manager effectiveness compared to the previous year, as well as compared to non-participants.
Once again, engineers who participated in the Love Bus Tour had better outcomes. The program worked because it reinforced the message that we care and we're listening.
Parting thought: love really is the answer
Building an effective employee retention program took time and effort, but the results were well worth it and they're applicable to other companies looking to improve retention. In 2016, we expanded the program to all engineers.
The Love Bus program is a reminder that employees want to feel cared for at work. Taking an interest in them through meaningful career conversations and supporting them in achieving their career desires is a low-cost way to do that, and an effective way to retain them.
Erin Earle is vice president and HR business partner for engineering at LinkedIn Corp. in Mountain View, Calif.