IBM designers working on MobileFirst technologies for clients. Photo credit: IBM

As everyone in and around the world of healthcare agencies knows, attracting and retaining good people is an eternal challenge. Of course, the problem isn’t unique to healthcare: Gallup reports 51% of U.S. employees say they’re actively looking for a new job or watching for openings, while 60% of all millennials are eying new employment opportunities this year.

The problem facing healthcare-first agencies is the digital behemoths establishing themselves as industry forces — Google, Facebook, and IBM Watson, among others — offer both glamour and perks, ones that many agencies would be hard-pressed to match. Agencies can talk all they want about their unique cultures and willingness to accommodate employees, but the bottom line is traditional hiring and retention tactics seem unlikely to work when Apple comes calling.

To best assess this competitive landscape — in particular, the agency world’s ability to thrive within it — MM&M talked to a host of academics and other retention experts about the strategies that have worked and failed for companies they’ve advised in tech, consumer goods, and elsewhere.

See also: Retaining talent: How pharma can compete with Google

“It’s really powerful to draw good lessons from other sectors, even if the kind of work they do is different,” says Jeffrey Stanton, a professor at the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University.

Stanton believes there are five factors that make an organization function well. Those factors tend not to vary from industry to industry, he explains.

Salary clearly matters, but it’s not what immediately comes to mind when most employees ponder whether they had a good day. People are key, both the ones employees work with on a day-to-day basis as well as their leaders and supervisors. When leaders and managers model positive behavior, it filters down to the trenches.

Employees are also influenced by how their colleagues treat them. “A company can foster support among co-workers simply by giving them opportunities to interact on non-work matters,” Stanton says.

Growth remains extremely important, Stanton notes. “Most people are looking for a way to be better at what they do, or to expand their horizons,” he says.

Finally, the work itself is perhaps the most crucial element. Is it interesting and engaging? “Here’s where fit comes in,” Stanton explains. “While one person might hate cleaning windows, another might enjoy the autonomy, being outside, the physicality.”

See also: Roundtable: How healthcare agencies can retain and attract A-list talent

But almost any task can be redesigned to make it more interesting. Stanton offers the example of Henry Ford’s assembly line, in which a person stood at the same station doing the same thing day after day. “The folks at Volvo realized that allowing individuals to build the entire car, from start to finish, made a big difference,” he explains. “It gave them pride of ownership.”

Job redesign can be a solution to tedious tasks — and often helps with retention. A job-redesign consulting firm will come in to analyze the jobs and talk to employees about points of satisfaction and dissatisfaction, then recommend changes.

“The key is to have someone in the organization who’ll take the concepts seriously and implement them,” Stanton says.


Elizabeth Malatestinic, a professor of human resource management at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, recently attended a conference in Austin on social-media recruiting strategies. One new direction she noticed: recruiters actively engaging their company’s marketing departments in their efforts.

“The idea is to harness in-house marketing skills to create an image as an employer of choice,” she explains. “People have gotten pretty jaded when it comes to beanbag chairs and nap pods.”

Malatestinic believes companies can use social media more effectively to build their employment brand, much in the same manner they do to promote their product or service brand. Research by LinkedIn and Altimeter shows that companies actively engaged in social media are 58% more likely to attract applicants and 20% more likely to retain them.

See also: Healthcare agencies intensify college recruiting tactics

Of course, it’s necessary for companies to monitor the postings, as well as to engage with those who respond. It’s also important to correct any misconceptions fueled by social media as soon as they appear. “A quick response to Glassdoor reviews, whether they’re positive or negative, will show potential applicants that you care and are engaged,” says Malatestinic.

Because a candidate’s experience can impact an agency’s brand as an employer, people shouldn’t be left hanging without a response after they apply or interview. This holds double for departing employees: When people leave, agencies must make a point of expressing sincere appreciation — especially because those people may “boomerang” and return at some point.

“Those people tend to be good hires because you already know them well, plus they acclimate more quickly than a new hire,” Malatestinic notes.


Thomas Lee, a professor of management at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business, recently co-wrote a paper entitled Managing Employee Retention and Turnover with 21st Century Ideas, soon to be published in the journal Organizational Dynamics, which offers a number of evidence-based insights.

When it comes to the topic of managing millennials, Lee says strategies that traditionally kept employees loyal may prove less effective today. Millennials don’t just work for a paycheck. They want purpose; they’re pursuing development; and they want coaches rather than bosses. And they won’t stay long-term in a job that compromises their other life goals.

See also: Millennial staffers at agencies seek work-life balance and strong supervisors

As much as healthcare agencies talk a good self-analysis game, the annual survey doesn’t cut it anymore, Lee believes. Managers should consider frequent short surveys to capture employee data and see how satisfaction changes over time, which greatly influences decisions to stay or leave.

Open-door policies are on the way out. Rather than expecting employees to come to them with concerns, managers at the companies that do the best job of retaining their top people learn significantly more by spending time with employees at their place of work. This has been dubbed “management by wandering around.”

See also: What pharma companies and agencies can learn from Amazon

Exit interviews shouldn’t just be for the purpose of checking off a box. While these rarely prompt employees to change their mind and stick around, they’re underrated as a tool for gathering information. To increase the likelihood of receiving honest answers to tough questions, agencies might hire external consultants to conduct exit interviews for people they hope to retain.

Finally, Lee suggests fighting Google with Google. He notes informal one-on-one meetings give managers the best sense of employee well-being and provide a useful forum to collect feedback. Guess who can help? Google, whose re:Work site is designed to help employers use data and science to improve their workplace.


Like Lee, Da Yu, a talent-management consultant with Retensa Retention Strategies, favors more frequent surveys to monitor employee engagement.

“We usually take a data-centric approach to employee retention,” he explains. “We encourage a system that supports more frequent and brief conversations.” To that end, his company has helped clients transition from an 80-question annual survey to a 10-question survey every month.

See also: How to get more women in the C-suite, according to IPG, Unilever, and AOL

When interpreting the data, Retensa’s strategists drill down to subgroups, which allows them to customize retention efforts. Drilling down can also provide a boon to the HR budget, since it helps companies pinpoint target populations.

“There’s no one strategy for 5,000 people,” says Yu. “Millennials may have very different opinions toward tech and work flexibility compared to baby boomers.”