How to keep your star employees

giving_back.top.jpg By Jena McGregor, contributor


FORTUNE -- You doled out extra vacation days to make up for paltry bonuses to your top performers. After the 401(k) match was cut, you passed out gift cards to remind your stars how much they mattered. In a tough economy, it's the little things, right?

Wrong. Perks and trinkets are nice, but they won't keep your best people when things improve. Some 27% of employees deemed "high potential" said they plan to leave within the year, according to a recent survey by the Corporate Executive Board. That rate of dissatisfaction is rising "precipitously" as the economy stabilizes, says Jean Martin, executive director of the CEB's Corporate Leadership Council, up from just 10% in 2006 and increasing at twice the rate of the general employee population.

employees_chart.03.jpg

That's the bad news. The good news is that perks aren't the only way to keep your high performers engaged. They want a mix of recognition and challenges that stretch them without completely stressing them out. Liz Wiseman, a former Oracle executive and author of the bestseller Multipliers, says money "never came up" when she interviewed 75 Fortune 500 managers about the leaders who motivated them most.

Retention rules: How to keep your top employees

The CEB survey, which asked nearly 20,000 high-potential employees what drove them, found that feeling connected to corporate strategy was tops on their list. But many managers turned inward when the economy sank, giving fewer employees the chance to influence the company's direction.

Another way to get your stars involved is to turn them into headhunters. Many companies already do so through employee-referral programs, but they don't realize that there is an upside beyond bringing in new talent. Dave Ulrich, human resources consultant and University of Michigan professor, says such programs can actually boost loyalty for those doing the recruiting. "It sounds tautological," he says, "but when people behave as if they're committed, they become more committed."

Even if money isn't the best motivator, it still talks. To make a smaller bonus pool go further, fine-tune your timing. Rewards handed out at tough times can have a major impact. It's also smart to rethink your selection process. More companies are paying bonuses to those with hard-to-replace skills instead of just top performers, says Hay Group comp expert Tom McMullen.

Building a real future lies primarily in bigger opportunities. Yet so-called stretch assignments can be tricky; challenges meant to be energizing can feel like punishment for success if they aren't designed well. To avoid that fate, managers should make sure assignments give the employee more independence and are custom-tailored to their talents, says Tom Rath, head of workplace consulting for Gallup. If not, he says, "it can be perceived as piling on. And that's the quickest way to push that person toward the door."  To top of page

Frontline troops push for solar energy
The U.S. Marines are testing renewable energy technologies like solar to reduce costs and casualties associated with fossil fuels. Play
25 Best Places to find rich singles
Looking for Mr. or Ms. Moneybags? Hunt down the perfect mate in these wealthy cities, which are brimming with unattached professionals. More
Fun festivals: Twins to mustard to pirates!
You'll see double in Twinsburg, Ohio, and Ketchup lovers should beware in Middleton, WI. Here's some of the best and strangest town festivals. Play
Overnight Avg Rate Latest Change Last Week
30 yr fixed4.07%4.28%
15 yr fixed3.18%3.26%
5/1 ARM3.36%3.43%
30 yr refi4.05%4.21%
15 yr refi3.17%3.18%
Rate data provided
by Bankrate.com
View rates in your area
 
Find personalized rates:
Company Price Change % Change
Bank of America Corp... 16.09 0.08 0.50%
Apple Inc 102.50 0.25 0.24%
Intel Corp 34.92 0.27 0.78%
Facebook Inc 74.82 0.96 1.31%
General Electric Co 25.98 -0.03 -0.12%
Data as of Aug 29
Index Last Change % Change
Dow 17,098.45 18.88 0.11%
Nasdaq 4,580.27 22.58 0.50%
S&P 500 2,003.37 6.63 0.33%
Treasuries 2.34 0.01 0.39%
Data as of 1:11pm ET

Sections

The deal would value Vice at $2.5 billion. The online media company would also create content for the cable network, delivering a wider audience. More

Gas prices are falling to nearly $3 a gallon in some parts of South Carolina, and that will soon be common in much of the country. More

Netflix told the FCC that its speed on the Comcast network became so slow that customers began dropping their service. More

The Coolest Cooler is the most successful Kickstarter campaign in the site's history, raising $13.3 million from over 62,000 backers. More

Five CNNMoney readers share stories about saving that you can learn from: What they would do differently if they had another chance. More

Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.