The 10 Commandments of Employee Engagement and Retention, from First-Hand Experience

10 commandments of employee retention and engagement


A few years ago I left a job at a Silicon Valley startup. Like many startups, things changed rapidly, so in quite a concentrated amount of time I had the unique opportunity to witness a very full spectrum of workplace wins and losses. I saw the changing of the guards among 4 CEO’s in just under 3 years. I found myself in the middle of one of the strongest and most tight-knit cultures you could imagine, as well as in the middle of one falling apart. I witnessed months of little to no turnover, and months in which key leads started giving notice by the day. And I survived major rounds of scaling, layoffs, rebuilding, and everything in between.

As an employee who lived through it all, here are the 10 biggest things I learned when it comes to culture, engagement and retention.

1. Culture is Created by People, Not Benefits

It’s common today for management to think of culture as competing for talent on perks and benefits like pool tables, beer, or unlimited time off. While all this might be icing on the cake, I’ve watched people give up weekends to hackathons without half of it, and jump ship even when they had it all and the company desperately continued to add more. So what really creates culture? It’s the people. It’s the managers who remember birthdays and start new traditions without reminders from HR. It’s the co-workers who have inside jokes and who stick around for drinks simply because they enjoy each other’s company. And it’s the leaders who lead by example. When you hire the right people and enable them properly, culture becomes organic. It doesn’t need to be a creation of HR.

2. Growth Is a Universal Motivator

Just like a shark “must keep moving,” your employees must constantly keep developing both personally and professionally, lest you let their motivation die. If they don’t see an opportunity to keep growing, they won’t stay. While often this means a consistent sense of direction or recognition in terms of promotions and raises – even if they must be small – opportunities for growth can also come in less common places, such as giving employees exposure to projects they may not typically have access to at their level, opportunities to step into another role they’re interested in, or even offering budget for workshops, conferences and other learning & development opportunities. Planning for growth at the individual level will ultimately contribute to your growth at a much larger level.

3. A Strong Vision is Everything

Nothing attracts and retains people more than a strong sense of purpose. While adaptability is important, companies who change course impulsively and try to retrofit their missions, or worse, those who predominantly chase profits and develop a mission statement simply for the sake of it, will struggle to keep people for a remotely meaningful amount of time. At the end of the day, people want to feel like they are working toward a goal that they can believe in, and that they are making a contribution to. Assuming your employees will stay for job security is like assuming their Maslow’s Hierarchy stops at the second step. If your company does meaningful work, they will be much less likely to leave for another that doesn’t.

4. Management Matters

If you thought that managers didn’t make a huge difference in a person’s likelihood to stay engaged at a company, then you’d be mistaken. Managers are often one of the primary factors behind an employee’s happiness or satisfaction at work. They give their employees someone they feel that they can learn from, someone who will go to bat for them, and even a sense of trust in the company’s direction. Good managerial relationships can take a long time to successfully build, which is why when a key manager leaves or a key leader is fired, the ripples can be large across an organization. Be particularly sensitive in that what impacts one manager, impacts all those beneath him or her.

5. Handle Remote Work With Care

It has become increasingly common for companies to have employees spread out remotely across the globe. However, engagement and internal relationships can become your greatest weakness if the appropriate work is not put into them. As an example, when I first started my job, our offices were scattered in 4 cities across the US, but everyone was flown in multiple times a year for face-time with managers, trainings, the annual company party, and the like. Once that stopped, people didn’t feel as connected anymore. The sense of comradery and respect people had for one another when working on projects together slowly dwindled. And as more work became outsourced, people no longer felt like they knew each other. Rule #1 is that the people create the culture. But culture doesn’t happen over email.

6. Your Employee is Not a Number

Often it can be easy for upper management to slip into thinking about the whole organization in terms of the P&L. But for as much as an excel spreadsheet will help you with the math and long-term forecasting, it will never capture all the complexities of real people and their motivations, behaviors, and unpredictable emotions. Employees know the companies at which they’re valued as people with unique ideas and abilities, and when they’re no more than a salary and a role that can be replaced. Your company is an organization of people, not just words on a business plan. Give it the human touch it deserves.

7. Be Fiscally Responsible, But Don’t Penny Pinch

Sure, spend on perks can get out of control quickly today. But a little can also go a long way. Funding business class and 4-star hotels might not be feasible across 100+ employees, but when it comes to things like team dinners and activities, ask yourself how big of a dent it’s really making to the bottom line at the end of the day. Sometimes we’re quick to implement strict monthly budget parameters or question every line item out of principle, but creating an environment of draconian finances might not necessarily save you all that much, not least what you lose in terms of company spirit.

8. Identify and Elevate Leadership in Unexpected Places

Contrary to popular belief, leadership does not begin and end with your CEO, nor your formal “leadership team.” While it is invaluable to have good leadership guiding the company in these positions, sometimes we must admit we are in a situation where they are not the best “people” people, or the ones employees are looking to most. However, more often than not there are others in the company without the formal position who fill these roles, who people look to for answers, mentorship, and sometimes even personal advice. Rather than letting egos and titles get in the way, give these people greater opportunities to step up and help foster morale. We all have different gifts. When you find someone with the right ones, put them to proper use.

9. Work Fiercely to Keep Your Employees’ Trust

A company’s relationship with its employees is no different from any other relationship. Trust must be earned through honesty and open communication, and once it’s been lost, it’s incredibly difficult to get back. Fostering a culture of transparency is not as simple as adding it to your list of company values and hosting ad hoc “Ask me Anything’s.” It’s built from the words and actions of your leadership every single day. Know the values of the people you put in those positions. Trust is not something you can fake.

10. Hire Good People and Good People Will Hire More Good People

It’s that simple. A company’s culture, values, and ultimate success doesn’t reflect the mission statement on the wall. It reflects the culture, values, and motivations of the people that make it up. There is only so much you can impact as a single individual, or with directives from the HR department. Make good people the priority, and a good company will follow.

Kim Bielak is an LA-based leadership & career coach. Visit her website at for more.

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