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Wednesday, 17th April 2024
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Retaining staff by letting them leave Back  
The key to keeping staff happy and motivated is by giving them the freedom to pursue other interests says Mike Lewis, as when they are welcomed back, staff will be older and wiser and more focused on their job.
Accountants are being arrested and led off in handcuffs. President George Bush has reassured us that capitalism will be made safe. Closer to home, at the time of writing Charlie McCreevy isn’t sure whether he needs, wants or is even able to hire an economics advisor. Amidst this gloom, what is actually happening in the world of work?
General unemployment is up, from a low of 3.7 per cent in June 2001, unemployment has risen to 4.3 per cent in June 2002. Behind these statistics are human beings. Unemployment is always difficult for individuals and for families - with very few exceptions people registered for unemployment want meaningful work.
But it is an unpalatable fact that for organisations, large and small, higher unemployment means that it is easier to recruit people and to keep them. For example, the annualised attrition rate in AIB has dropped from a high of 9.31 per cent in March 2001 to 5.35 per cent in June 2002. We like to think that management has had something to do with this, but the state of the labour market is influential. This attrition rate is for all staff. We also track the more experienced staff and 29 per cent of those who left in 2001 had three or more years service compared with 14.1 per cent in June 2002. For some specialist skills, such as IT, the market is noticeably much easier. Accountants continue to be in demand, for employment as well as interrogation.
So the labour market is easier, and doesn’t look as though it will tighten again for a while. Economic growth will be slower than the hectic pace of recent years. ESRI predicts GDP growth of 3.4 per cent for this year, and 4.7 per cent for next, compared with the dizzying heights of 11.5 per cent growth in 2000. So, like all businesses, we have to watch our costs carefully, which means we are being cautious about manpower. We have to be clear about what we can afford, as well as deciding what we need.
This would seem to be a traditional enough way for a bank, any bank, indeed any business to behave. But the needs of our customers, and the needs of our staff mean that life is more complex than simply cutting our coat to suit our cloth. For we still have to work hard to compete for and keep the best people. And we also have to make sure that they are properly trained and motivated and equipped to put all their energy and skill into the service of their customers. And all this while going through very rapid change ourselves, in a society that is also changing quickly. Here are a few examples of the things that we do.
Paradoxically, we find that the first thing you have to do, if you want to keep people, is let them leave. Our young people leave us in considerable numbers to go traveling or to go on to further education - 296 in 2001 alone. We facilitate as many of them as we can with career breaks, and welcome them back, older, wiser and usually somewhat tanned. Australia is a popular destination.
Often the job they come back to is different to the one they left. We continue to standardise, simplify and automate administrative work, giving greater accuracy as well as efficiency. We are investing heavily in the skills of our people, so they will be better equipped to give professional financial advice to our customers. We also invest in our managers, so that they are better able to lead and motivate our staff. Our spend in Ireland alone on training and development was e8 million in 2001.
We work in close partnership with the Irish Bank Officials’ Association, the banking union, to bring about change quickly and effectively. And we have a very skilled and energetic change management team, offering professional advice and support to managers and staff who are planning and executing major change projects.
It used to be enough that people could come to work and do as they were asked, and expect to continue to do much the same thing every day - with clear and relatively slow career progression. This was as true in a bank as in a department store, on the shop floor or in the accounts office. No longer. If we are to please our customers, our people have to want to use all their energy and all their considerable skills. And of course they do want to, with very few exceptions, so we have to make sure that we give them the tools, and the training, and manage them well and reward them fairly. It’s difficult to get this right all the time in a large and fast-changing organisation, so there are some specific things we do to keep on track.
In common with many businesses we listen very carefully to our people. In a small business, the owner knows her people well. All bigger businesses have to work hard to achieve the same level of knowledge. We survey our staff every year, and management and staff respond well, first to the survey (completed by some 85 per cent of staff, on a fully voluntary basis) and then to the results. We learn a lot and we make significant change every year as a result. Interestingly, most of the changes are made by local management, who receive their own individual reports.
We also work hard to make sure that promotion is as fair as possible. Even during recent times of rapid growth, virtually all of our management appointments are internal, following on open selection process - and as part of the process most jobs are advertised internally.
This makes us unusual in two respects. For most organisations there would be more external recruiting, and in most organisations managers are appointed rather than competing. For example, we have recently appointed a new managing director of our Retail and Commercial Bank here in Ireland, Donal Forde. He competed for the job in an open internal competition. Our people know that our selection processes are open, and we work hard to try and convince them they are fair. We still have some way to go in improving that demanding goal.
To our regret, we appear to have a glass ceiling firmly in place - few of our most senior executives are women, even though women make up the majority of our workforce. But we are changing. More women are applying for management positions and more are being chosen - in fact on average 35.5 per cent of applicants were women in 2001, and a slightly larger percentage of 42.2 per cent were appointed. Of the junior management positions that were filled in 2001, 66 per cent of these were filled by women, compared to 34 per cent by men.
We are happy that the selection process is gender-neutral, but we are less happy that for the more senior positions there are still fewer women applicants than we would like. And we have an obvious problem at the most senior levels, where there is still a real shortage of women within the bank with sufficient management experience to compete.
Looking to the future, fewer and fewer people are simply looking for a pay cheque. For younger people especially, work needs to satisfying and worthwhile, as well as rewarding. But if the trouble is taken to make it so, the good news for employers, large and small, is that hard working and motivated staff are very successful, for themselves, for their customers, and for the businesses they work for.

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