The more companies that I work with, the more that I am seeing a major difference between the ones who have low employee turnover and the ones who have a high employee turnover.

The best contractors set rules of conduct, make sure those rules apply to everyone from top management to the truck driver, and make sure employees’ needs are addressed.

Here’s an example from outside our industry. I met Mike Abrashoff, a captain in the Navy, at a conference I attended. He used a very simple technique to lead his ship (USS Benfold) to the top naval prize in war games contests.

Captain Abrashoff took command of the USS Benfold in 1997. The “top brass” in Washington, DC, looking from the outside, saw a ship that was meeting budgets, Naval standards, and thought there was nothing wrong. However, Captain Abrashoff found a very different ship.

Insider's view

When he took command, he found a crew that had poor morale, sexual harassment issues, and racial tension. By using the technique I described above, he eliminated these problems and one of the best ships in the Navy was the result.

This is the image he painted for us (and these are his words). He described his ship as a tree. The top monkey (i.e., Captain Abrashoff) sits on the top of the tree. His executive officer and other senior staff sit on branches right under him. The next branches have the next ranking level.

These continue with lower and lower ranking people sitting on lower branches until you get to the largest branches filled with the crew members who don’t supervise anyone. In most companies (and what Captain Abrashoff found when taking over the ship), the top monkey (and monkeys looking from the outside) look down and see smiles. The monkeys on the bottom branches look up and see a-holes!

The way that Captain Abrashoff changed the image of those looking up was to set strict rules of conduct while asking each and every crew member what his goals were and how they could improve conditions on the ship.

Don't just listen: follow through

He listened. He made sure that the ideas were implemented by his “middle managers” and that whenever possible, he helped the crew members attain their goals.

Some of the unusual programs that were requested and that he set up were SAT review courses so crew members could go to college when their tour of duty was up (the SAT exam was held while they were on duty in the Persian Gulf). Other classes included those the crew was interested in, and helping with volunteer organizations while they were in port.

The crew helped decrease ship expenses by 25% — saving us, the taxpayers, tens of millions of dollars. Remember, these were the crew’s ideas. He didn’t have to come up with them. He only had to listen and implement them.

Even though there were some “unusual expenses,” productivity and morale increased dramatically.

I know of contractors who set up flexible working hours, sponsor GED classes in their shops so their employees can get their high school diplomas, license review classes, classes on personal finance, and many other non-traditional training classes that their employees want and participate in so they can improve themselves.

In today’s business environment, you have to care about the personal as well as the business side of an employee.

Yes, they have to understand what is expected of them and what the company stands for. However, it’s a two-way street. They have ideas which can help you if you’ll listen to them. They will also stay with you longer if you listen to their needs.

If you want lower turnover, you have to listen to their suggestions for improving the business and themselves.

It’s a simple but effective idea to reduce turnover and attract new employees. All you have to do is ask, listen — and implement.