Staff Retention Programs


The American University of Myanmar™ is committed to the retention of staff who significantly contribute to the success of the university.  However, it does not believe that a single university-wide staff retention program is in the best interest of staff.  This is because the nature of the work performed in and the demands on individual units of the university vary widely.  Consequently, the University encourages unit heads to implement a staff retention program best suited to their units and employees.  This document is a guide to developing an effective staff retention program.


In their book on employee retention, Love ‘Em or Lose ‘Em (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2014), Beverly Kaye and Sharon Jordan-Evans ranked the top reasons employees remain where they are:


(1) Career growth, learning, and development
(2) Exciting and challenging work
(3) Meaningful work, making a difference and a contribution
(4) Great people
(5) Being part of a team
(6) Good boss
(7) Recognition for work well done
(8) Fun on the job
(9) Autonomy, sense of control over my work
(10) Flexibility, for example, in work hours and dress code
(11) Fair pay and benefits
(12) Inspiring leadership
(13) Pride in the organization, its mission, and quality of product
(14) Great work environment
(15) Location
(16) Job security
(17) Family-friendly employer
(18) Cutting-edge technology


This is a list of what matters to employees, which is a key point in incentivizing the retention of staff.


1. Elements of a Successful Incentive Program

General Principles of Retaining Staff

In a recent research study, personal congratulations by managers of employees who do a good job were ranked first from 67 potential incentives evaluated.  Second was a personal note for good performance – written by the manager. Simple approaches provide some of the most effective strategies for retaining staff. Other fundamentals include:


Know your staff.  Ask what they value and what motivates them.
Give feedback.  Specific, on-the-spot praise is good. “Praise in public; criticize in private” demonstrates respect and achieves results.
Partner with staff in achieving their goals. Ask employees about their career goals and offer related assignments whenever possible.
Educate employees about the “business” of the department and the university. Such learning can be fulfilling for employees, and can make them more valuable assets.
Keep employees informed and involved with the big picture at the university and within the department.  Seeing how his or her role serves the greater mission increases his or her feeling of connectedness at work.
Use rewards that have mutual benefit, such as skill training and professional development.
Use monetary rewards sparingly, and always in conjunction with feedback, personal recognition, etc.


An effective retention program enhances the employee’s intrinsic sense of accomplishment, contribution, involvement, and satisfaction. Rewards that facilitate this usually relate to the mission and values of the organization. Incentives linked to AUM’s mission might include:

Professional development
Release time to attend training sessions
Release time to volunteer or participate in campus events
Career advancement opportunities
Career counseling
A culture of open communication


Together with verbalized appreciation, these opportunities say loud and clear to employees, “Your contribution is highly valued, and your quality of life matters to the university.”

Monetary rewards often do not produce long-term retention.  In fact, some research shows that reward programs which solely emphasize cash incentives can actually “de-motivate” staff, by changing the employee’s focus from his or her inner sense of accomplishment and contribution to attaining the “carrot” of the incentive award.


2. Employee Involvement
Supervisors can help employees broaden their perspective by regularly discussing strategic issues, and by supporting involvement in campus organizations, committees, and training programs.  With a broadened viewpoint, the employee better realizes how his or her job supports the mission and vision of the university.  An employee’s feeling of “contributing to the whole” enhances his or her sense of belonging and satisfaction.


Times of economic constraint present supervisors with financial challenges as well as an increased sensitivity to employee morale.  Focusing motivation efforts on enhancing the employee’s sense of contribution and involvement can be an effective way to keep staff motivated.


3. Business Literacy
Business literacy is a popular concept in employee motivation research.  Business Literacy is defined as employees “thinking like strategic business partners,” or in higher education, thinking like unit heads. The university has an effective, business-literate workforce when:

  1. Employees understand the big picture of the university
    Employees become literate in the business of higher education
    Employees receive direct feedback about their impact on customers and on the organizational mission
    Employees know key contact persons and work procedures on campus
  2. Supervisors play the role of coach to develop business literacy among staff.  The leader can create systems that enhance strategic thinking. Coaching can include financial know- how, political awareness, shared decision-making, etc.


A research study by the Business Literacy Institute shows how business literacy training impacts organizational success.  Results included:

Communication improved                                     91%

Knowledge of the business improved                     91%

Trust improved                                                   71%

Expenses decreased                                            74%

Cash flow improved                                             68%

Profit improved                                                   66%


4. Vision and Values
When employees are involved in developing operational strategies to carry out the vision and values of their work unit, a new level of engagement is achieved.  Participating in a group process toward this end can be highly motivating, and it lends itself to strengthened teamwork.  Such a process allows individuals to link their own values and work to the strategic vision of the unit.  When the supervisor follows up this process with ongoing opportunities for participation, it can prove to be a new source of stimulation for the staff member. Vision and values initiatives can also energize a de-motivated work group.  It is the role of the leader to create a strategic vision that guides employees in their work.

Creating a shared vision takes time, and managers on campus may feel this is the last thing they have time to pursue.  But it is an opportunity for all supervisors and managers to rise to the call for leadership.  This proactive approach is the long-term key to success. While this offers challenges, it promotes new involvement, enthusiasm, and productivity on the part of staff.  When the leader engages everyone in the enterprise, and generates a shared vision, employees are inspired to do the best they can do.

5. Work-life Initiatives

  1. Offering work-life related perks and benefits is another strategy to increase employee productivity and morale.
    At Johnson & Johnson, employees who used flexible work options and family leave policies averaged 50% less absenteeism than among the workforce as a whole.
    A survey of nine employers in the Smart Valley Initiative in California found telecommuters to be 25% more productive on the days they worked at home and 20% more productive overall.
    A Xerox customer service center turned decisions about work schedules over to employees.  Employee work teams now control the scheduling, resulting in improved morale, better customer service, and a 30% reduction in absenteeism.


6. Practices to Inspire Retention in Your Work Unit
a) Say “Thank You”
Nothing can beat receiving personal thanks when an employee has put in extra effort on a project or achieved a goal that you mutually set.  Immediate, specific acknowledgement (“Thanks for staying late to finish those calculations I needed.  They were critical for my meeting this morning.”) Lets the employee know what he or she did and why his or her effort was of value.  This could be followed up by acknowledging the employee at a departmental or work unit staff meeting. Make sure to be deliberate in acknowledging your employees, which you can do by setting aside time in your day or week for saying “thank you.”


b) Get to Know Employees
Take the time to meet with and listen to employees. One incentive or approach may not work with all, so it’s important to ask staff what motivates them. Don’t be afraid to ask direct questions, like “What motivates you to stay here?”  “What would lure you away?” and “What kinds of incentives would be meaningful to you?”  Such questions give you insight into the employee’s values, which you can use in designing incentive programs that work.


c) Developing an Alternate Work Schedule for Your Unit
Alternate work schedules (flex schedules) provide a powerful tool for management that can be used to fulfill business needs, accommodate a changing workforce, assist with recruitment and retention, and help employees achieve a better work-life balance.  Flex schedules require a high level of consideration in view of the operational needs of the university. Developing a flex schedule requires the support of the Chief Operating Officer. A flex schedule may be available to some or all employees, depending on the needs of the work unit.


Alternate work schedules include options such as:

“Four tens” – the employee works four 10-hour days per week
“Nine-eighty” – the employee works 80 hours over a two week period with one day off every other week.

“Core Hours” – all employees work core, required hours (such as 9 a.m.-3 p.m.) but are granted flexibility to schedule the rest of their shift (such as 6 a.m.-3 p.m., or 9 a.m.-6 p.m.).


7. Upward Feedback
Upward feedback allows employees the opportunity to provide constructive input about business practices in your work unit.  This process can help build trust with staff, especially if their suggestions are implemented to make improvements within the department.  Upward “evaluations” can help supervisors assess areas for improvement.


8. Nominate Staff
Recognizing employees for one specific achievement or for ongoing contributions is an excellent way to let them know they are valued.  Nominating staff for university awards brings recognition to the individual and the unit. Whether or not the employee “wins” the award, they know that you recognize and value their contribution.


9. Create Your Own Unit Awards Program
Involving staff in creating unit awards is a great opportunity to engage them in defining “what makes a good employee.”  By creating awards that relate to the mission of your area, you increase awareness and motivation among staff.


10. Encourage Staff Participation on Campus
Becoming involved in campus organizations and events is a key way for staff to become more engaged with the university.  By supporting and encouraging involvement, you are helping employees create a sense of connection that extends across unit boundaries.  A few examples of how and where staff can get involved include:


Volunteer as a Commencement Marshall
Participate in a University-organized community activity
Attend movies, and musical or theatrical performances on campus
Use release time to attend campus programs


11. Creative Recognition Ideas
Even with practices in place to retain staff, sometimes you need quick ideas to reward employees in the moment. Employees feel more valued when incentives and feedback are given throughout the year.  Here are some ideas for no-cost and low-cost ways to motivate staff.


  1. No-Cost Ideas:
  2. Thank or congratulate the employee in person or in writing

Nominate the employee to serve on a committee or special project
Nominate employees for a university award
Celebrate the successes of the work unit with a potluck lunch
Include “kudos” as an agenda item in staff meetings
Encourage staff to appreciate each other
Get a proclamation or note of thanks from a higher level supervisor to recognize the employee’s accomplishment
Ask staff how they want to be recognized


  1. Ideas with costs:
  2. Treat the employee to coffee and a chat

Celebrate the completion of projects
Buy staff a book related to an area of professional interest
Send an employee to a seminar related to his or her career goals


12. Elements of a Successful Recognition Program:
a. A statement of the departmental mission and values.
b. A statement of the purpose of the recognition program.
c. A description of the specific programs and practices your department has decided to implement to enhance motivation which include-


A description of who is eligible to receive the award (must be more than 1 eligible person).
Clear description of the recognition award criteria (of the behavior or accomplishment being recognized).
An explanation of the method used to select the winner of the award.
A description of the award itself, including the award limit or ranges as well as the total aggregate of all awards in a given year.
The time line for which the program will be in place, either continually or for a defined period.
A Motivation Survey:  Find Out What Employees Want.


13. Ideas to Enhance the Work Environment
The following practices assist in creating a work culture that enhances employee retention:
Create a work environment that is open, trusting and fun
Encourage new ideas, initiative and creativity
Involve staff in decisions that affect them, and provide opportunities for feedback
Give employees reasonable control of their work processes and environment – empower them!
Continually praise your best employees and deal with low or marginal performers individually.
Help individual employees link personal goals with organizational goals
Provide new and interesting work assignments when possible
Talk with staff to find out their views and ideas
Accommodate personal needs and problems when possible
Create a flexible work schedule that meets the business needs of your unit
Ensure a safe work environment
Provide immediate feedback
Help employees prioritize and organize their work.
Determine what employees are motivated by.


14. Practices to Build Retention
a) Retention with Performance Management
Supervisors should work individually with each of their employees to find out what motivates them and develop a plan towards implementing those motivations.  By allowing the employee to describe their own personal goals and incentives the supervisor has the opportunity to tie them to performance and supervisor’s expectation of a successful employee.


b) Create a Successful Business Literacy Training Program
Share critical numbers and reports that reflect your unit’s progress toward goals and objectives and reflect the impact of individuals. Discuss this information with staff.
Review the mission and vision.  This provides everyone with a sense of where they belong, where they are going, and how they are going to get there.  It is a critical element in ensuring everyone feels a part of the organization.
Communicate frequently.  Share information being discussed at higher levels of your organization and other places on campus.
Discuss how decisions at the state and university levels impact your area.
Encourage professional development and participation in training opportunities.


c) Unit Mentoring Program
Mentoring programs provide effective succession planning strategies that benefit an organization in many ways. Mentoring programs can be valuable tools in recruitment, retention, knowledge transfer, and work force development.  Mentoring involves a mentor and mentee working together to help develop the mentee’s knowledge, skills, and abilities in a particular area.  The mentor’s role is to serve as a teacher, coach, and advisor, and offer their insight and experience.


Employment mentoring programs are most successful when the purpose and process for the program are clearly defined. Some examples of a mentor program’s purpose include: assisting the unit with succession planning activities; providing learning opportunities for new and newly promoted employees, increasing retention of valuable employees, improving representation of underrepresented employees in management positions, and enhancing morale and productivity.


Some tips and best practices from organizations with mentor programs include the following:
Involve employees in the design of the program as this allows for program clarity and buy-in.  Additionally, setting up a pilot program may help to develop a working model and refine guidelines and requirements.
Successful mentoring programs require support from upper administration in order to sustain themselves.
Make the program transparent and available to all employees.
Set a specific duration for the mentor relationship with a beginning and end date.
Offer guidelines or a meeting for mentors and mentees in order to provide guidelines and tips that might be helpful.
Flexibility is key – provide mentors and mentees with the ability to reevaluate the program and their own progress.