The Greenskeeper improved its culture to limit employee turnover.
Photo courtesy of Leslie Allebach

About 10 years into business at The Greenskeeper in Palmyra, Pennsylvania, we realized that we were going to need to make some pretty substantial changes if we didn’t want to subject our company to the endless cycle of employee turnover.

What we put into place has worked and we now have several employees who have been with our company for 15 years or longer. Since this season will be our 30th year in business, this means they have been with our company for more than half its lifetime. Unfortunately, it took us way too long to understand the importance of employee retention.

The basics.

Employees can be a challenging part of owning a company. It is really hard to find good workers. And just about the time you think you have found a “keeper,” they come to you one morning and inform you that they like working for you but that they have a better opportunity somewhere else with better benefits, better pay or more vacation time.

Your heart sinks but you simply submit to the fact that you just can’t compete with the bigger corporations and companies.

But wait! Not only can we offer the typical benefits employees want, we can also compete as small businesses on a whole different level. It is time to think outside the box.

Before we do that, let’s focus on basic benefits that most of our employees desire.

1. Would you be satisfied with the benefits your company provides? What benefits would you like to have in place if you were your employee?

Of course, the first thing all employees want is a decent wage. They have bills and mortgages to pay and they’d sure like a little extra with which to enjoy life after these payments are made. Do you pay a competitive wage? This is probably the first place to start.

2. Make sure you have an IRA and a good plan for health insurance in place. If these two things are not available for faithful employees, it is time to get busy. These are extremely important to most employees and so they should be. To not offer these is to automatically subject yourself to losing your best employees and may even keep you from having potential employees consider your company in the first place.

If you do not feel capable of researching and finding the most cost-effective way to offer these two things, then find yourself a trustworthy health insurance agent and a financial advisor who will help you sort through this. The money and time you invest into these two benefits will be well worth your effort.

3. All employees should be offered some vacation time. Your employees have families and personal lives. Sometimes we are tempted to think that a winter lay-off is enough vacation for them (for those of us who close down over winter), but this provides them no time for summer vacations or fall hunting. In our company, we ask our employees to avoid vacation days from March 15 through May 31.

But, after that, we give each employee some paid vacation days off, the amount of which is based on how long they have been with us. We give employees one paid day of vacation for each season worked up to a full week. For example, if you've been here 60 days you qualify for one vacation day. If you have been with us three seasons, then you get three. If you have been with us six years, you would be at the maximum of five paid vacation days.

But we also put into place that any employee eligible for one vacation day is able to add unpaid days to his paid time off to equal one week. Our employees with a full week of vacation are eligible for two unpaid extra days, if they choose to use them.

Employees who work through the winter months (office staff, mechanic, etc.) automatically get two paid weeks. We reserve the right in our policy to give extra vacation days to employees who have been here more than 10 years.

We did have to increase our prices slightly to reflect the costs involved with these changes. However, it has paid off because long-term employees make for happy customers. Most people are happy to pay a little more if they see the same face week after week and know that their lawn is being serviced by someone they can trust.

Have some fun.

What else can small landscape companies do outside these three things to make it a place employees want to stay?

One of the most effective and inexpensive things we can do is offer employee incentives. Come up with a fun way to reward your diligent employees. Whether it is through a monthly drawing for a gift card or a special parking spot for a chosen employee of the month, these small things go a long way in providing a bit of fun outside the mundane work life.

Changes made to improve retention caused price increases, but they paid off because long-term employees make for happy customers.
Photo courtesy of Leslie Allebach

Also, we can provide ways for employees to socialize together outside of work. In our company, we provide a summer barbecue for our employees and their families and then a Christmas breakfast at a local all-you-can-eat buffet. This is a way we can say thank you and get to know them outside of work.

And finally, strive to create a family atmosphere. If employees feel cared about, they are much less likely to want to leave. Take a few moments, ask them about their lives and be truly interested. Know the names of their spouses or significant others. Know the ages of their children.

Don’t just act like you care about them but instead develop a genuine interest in them and their lives. Deal with problems immediately and be approachable. These are some of the most important things you can do.

Take the high road.

I would also like to discuss a new challenge that we have experienced in this area of employee retention in the past five or 10 years. We have noticed a drastic change regarding loyalty to our company.

Most employees are looking out for themselves first and foremost and the loyalty that used to characterize our best employees is mostly a thing of the past. While there are still some wonderful exceptions to this, the general trend in this direction can make it very hard to go above and beyond as an employer.

You will be betrayed and employees you trusted will slander and malign you. You will be told, no matter how hard you try, that what you offer is just not good enough.

May I encourage you to keep on doing the best thing for your employees even when it is hard and you feel unappreciated? Keep doing what’s right because it is the right thing to do. If your actions are based on your employees’ responses and reactions, your enthusiasm for making your company a great place to work will dissipate rapidly.

Bosses and managers are rarely looked at as the “good guys.” It takes a lot of work to change that perception and with certain employees it is impossible. Thankfully, there will be those moments when a worker reaches out with a grateful word of appreciation or encouragement. These moments will motivate you to continue to make your company a great place to work.

I hope that this gives you some fresh inspiration for retaining your employees. There are few things in business that are as rewarding as seeing the same personnel stick around year after year, giving their best and growing as employees under your care.

The author is vice president of The Greenskeeper, a landscape firm based in Palmyra, Pennsylvania.