HSM Spotlight: A History of Talent Retention

A history of talent retention: What we can learn from the past to prepare for the future

Talent retention and attraction has been a highly discussed topic over the last number of years as organisations grappled with the fallout of the pandemic and dealt with ‘The Great Resignation’. At the initial onset of the pandemic, we saw low levels of attrition as people wanted security and guidance throughout the uncertain times. However, the tides quickly turned, and employees began to reassess their values and what they wanted from work, resulting in higher levels of attrition and a new ‘war for talent’.

The ’war for talent’ is quite a loaded term, particularly in light of the current realities being experienced in Ukraine. But this isn’t the first time that we have seen ‘war’ and ‘talent’ used together, and perhaps organisations can learn something by looking back through history. The word ‘Talent’ has Latin origins, meaning ‘balance and sum’ and it was used as a unit of weight for precious metals, highlighting that ‘Talent’ is a valuable concept which can be easily measured.

We can trace an early example of talent attraction back to Greek and Roman leaders, who required high numbers of military strength and numbers. They famously went out to select, attract and retain talent to build the most talented army. Julius Caesar also introduced an employee referral programme and rewarded people for recruiting other soldiers. He even went as far as giving his soldiers tattoos as a way to promote the organisation and establish the army as a status symbol to support his organisational ‘brand’.

Whilst Ancient times offer an interesting insight into early attraction and retention methods, we can also learn a lot from an earlier global health crisis when it comes to managing talent. The bubonic plague outbreak in 1347, known as the ‘black death’, resulted in monarchies and leaders trying to enforce new labour laws, which were unsuccessful, resulting in the pendulum swinging in full favour of the workers, who ultimately demanded higher wages. Interestingly the COVID pandemic had a similar outcome for employees who ended up dominant in their relationships with their organisation.

So what can we learn from the history of talent? These approaches to attraction and retention teach us that we have been battling for talent for thousands of years, and that talent shortages are not a new concept. But where Julius Caesar and the leaders of 1347 went wrong is that their approaches were largely focused on what the individual can do for the organisation, rather than what the organisation can do for the individual. This is something worth ‘unlearning’ to prevent losing your top talent.

According to research from Gallup, 52% of people say their organisation could have done something to prevent them from leaving and only 61% of leaders are actually doing something about it. Based on HSM Advisory’s research in Talent Retention, we know four things you can consider; Firstly, think about how people feel at work. Having connections and friendships are important for people to feel a sense of belonging, and build a collective identity with their colleagues. Secondly, consider what work gives to people, and not only what your people give to you. Ensure you are investing in people’s growth and development and provide work that promotes sustainable high performance. Thirdly, focus on potential and possibility. This is an opportunity to be creative and find new opportunities during these disruptive times. Don’t rely on old ways of doing things in a new world of working. And lastly, ‘talent’ has its origins in measurement, so find how you can measure your talent and utilise your talent pool across your organisation.

So whilst we don’t recommend tattooing your employees, we do recommend defining your signature deal in a fair, two-way relationship between employers and employees to ensure the retention of your top talent.

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