4 Lessons for Retaining Employees blog

4 Lessons for Retaining Employees (Beyond Pay)

Retaining employees has never been more difficult. Last fall quit rates reached an all-time high with Hawaii seeing even higher percentages (4.7%) than the national rate (3%). While large companies continue to drive up wages, paying top dollar simply isn't feasible for many local businesses that are still recovering from the pandemic. So, what can business leaders do to keep their best people? 

Our experts sat down with long-time client Jim Kilgore in our latest webinar, Beyond Pay: How to Keep Your Best Employees. Jim is the Executive Director of Full Life Hawaii, a social services nonprofit in Hilo and Kona that help people with physical and developmental disabilities live full, self-determined lives. As an employer, Jim is all too familiar with the challenges of attracting and retaining employees that possess the character qualities, skill set, and shared values it takes to support the nonprofit’s unique clientele, all on a limited budget he might add. At the same time, Jim passionately believes that Full Life needs to support employees like ohana to effectively care for and support the people served by the organization. 

With the labor market being the way it is today, Jim has taken the opportunity to get curious about his employees and try new things, often learning surprising things he wouldn’t have uncovered. Here are the four lessons we learned from Jim for retaining employees.

1. Don’t be afraid to ask your employees

The best way to learn what your employees want is to go directly to your people. It’s market research 101. It may take a little courage to ask and vulnerability to really listen, but simply asking is the first and best way to establish trust and goodwill. “When we surveyed our team, it was surprising by how many comments we received from employees thanking us for caring enough to ask what they thought and giving them an opportunity to provide feedback,” said Jim. “We asked a variety of questions to learn what employees thought of their employment with Full Life but we also asked the team what new employee benefits would they be interested in,” he added. “The top two results were financial but they were doable. Things like anniversary bonuses and extra holiday pay on major holidays. The one that surprised me the most was flexible spending and dependent care savings accounts. I was unaware employees were interested in that,” said Jim.

2. Listen first, then try something new!  

In an effort to make employee retention a top priority, one of the things we admired most was Jim’s willingness to get creative and test out new employee benefits. Some ideas worked…and some ideas landed flat. And that’s okay! It’s a “stretching” experience for leaders,” Jim said. “But it’s also really exciting to try new things too,” he added.

Here are some of the benefits Jim gave us insights about:


Employee assistance programs: During the pandemic, mental health for employees was a serious issue, especially for those in caregiving roles like many of Full Life’s employees. To support the nonprofit, ProService worked with Full Life to connect them with a local employee assistance program (EAP) to provide more support to overwhelmed employees. “We really loved being able to take care of our employees in this way,” said Jim. “Through EAP, we were able to offer our team free counseling services for them and their immediate households as a concrete benefit to help them navigate the pandemic.”

Supervisor bonuses: One of the benefits that Full Life tested out that didn’t go as well initially was what Jim called “if-then bonuses”. That is, if you do something then you get something. “Our team was not there for that. Since Full Life employees want to make a difference in people’s lives, the way this benefit was initially positioned was a little bit of a demotivator,” Jim said. However, Full Life still had special projects that needed to be completed and employees to own them. Turns out, all it took was a little “reframing”. Instead of positioning the reward as an “if-then bonus”, Jim promoted this incentive to cater to what his employees wanted more: career-building experience. Supervisors who took on special projects of interest were given the autonomy to tackle the work from end to end, demonstrating ownership and leadership experience that they could put on their resumes. “They really liked that part,” said Jim. “We gave them a little bonus to acknowledge the extra work they did on top of an already full plate but the money itself wasn’t the main focus,” he said. 

Paid bereavement leave: Another benefit Full Life proactively championed was the creation of a paid bereavement leave policy. “You don’t know when these things are going to occur but when they do it’s really impactful to have a fair and consistent policy that’s available to everybody,” said Jim. “It’s one of those low-cost benefits that I think anybody can do,” he added. “It shows your people that you care and care enough to provide them the space and extra paid time off they need to mourn the loss of a loved one without dipping into their regular PTO hours.”

Birthday rewards: One benefit that Full Life is in the middle of exploring is related to birthday rewards, specifically either a birthday bonus or paid time off on an employees’ birthday. A number of considerations are involved in making a final decision but one thing worth mentioning was how Full Life approaches decision making. “I have a great board of directors and a team that’s super smart so I rely on them a lot,” said Jim. For employers approaching employee benefit decisions, Jim offers this advice based on his experience. “Before making a decision about a new employee benefit, for example, start by talking to your team. Listen to them because they have great ideas. Be aware of your finances. And have people in your corner that you can do a reality check with to see how decisions will impact your budget and your organization overall.”

3. Offering benefits like 401(k) is easier with a little help

While Full Life is proud to offer employees 401(k) retirement plans with a company match, one thing we learned from the webinar was that administering 401(k) plans on their own was tough work. “We were doing 401(k) by ourselves and I was at my wit's end with this compliance thing I can’t even fully explain called ERISA,” said Jim. “We got to a point where we questioned whether we could continue it even if it was an important benefit that all applicants ask us about in the interview process,” he added. That’s when Jim teamed up with Deri Arakaki, ProService’s Retirement Plan Program Manager. With a little help from experts who live and breathe 401(k), Jim was able to hand over all the administrative and fiduciary responsibilities that were weighing him down. Not only was he able to get this tedious work off his plate, but with ProService’s help, Full Life was able to triple employee 401(k) participation without breaking a sweat.

4. Lean into your culture.  Don’t underestimate its strength 

Lastly, what was so evident throughout the entire webinar was how significant Full Life’s company culture and shared values were in driving everything the nonprofit does. Their founding values of inclusivity, caring for each other as ohana, and having each other’s back are what attract new hires to the nonprofit, compel employees to support their customers, and what drive the nonprofit to do the same for its own team. Just like any healthy family, treating Full Life employees like ohana means keeping open lines of honest communication. Practically, Jim shared with us that this looks like having transparent conversations with employees about feedback survey results, making space to get to know workers on both a professional and personal level through regular 1:1s, and coaching managers to have “stay conversations” with their staff.

In conclusion

At the end of the day, there’s no silver bullet employee benefit that will keep every one of your employees motivated and performing at the top of their game. As we learned from Jim, retaining employees is impacted by a combination of multiple benefits. Discovering the right mix of benefits starts with employee feedback and ends with a little bit of culture-driven experimentation along the way. Thank you Jim Kilgore for joining us on our latest webinar! Your stories encouraged us and the authentic care for your team impressed us.

Missed the live webinar? Watch the full webinar replay to hear more stories and great insights from Jim at Full Life and our ProService Hawaii experts.  

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