Globe and Mail by Shastri Ramnath 29 August 2016

When your industry is weathering a serious or sustained economic slump, and the goal of thriving is temporarily replaced with the goal of surviving, employee retention isn’t usually a top priority. But maybe it should be.

In exploration and mining, boom and bust cycles are a given. As a result, during downturns, many employees steel themselves for layoffs. In fact, that’s part of what makes the current environment a good time to hire: It’s easier to retain strong performers in a competitive market if you’ve demonstrated your commitment when times were tough.

The economic outlook for mining wasn’t very promising in 2012, when my partners and I founded our geological consulting company, and it’s remained challenging. Although the industry has started to pick up again, it still requires a carefully planned strategy to retain employees and it’s more important than ever to provide a preferred work environment. We’re clearer than ever that the priority we place on attracting, nurturing and retaining talent is crucial for us.

Here are a few things we’ve learned:

Consider conducting “stay” interviews. Why wait for an exit interview to learn what’s making employees unhappy? Asking people you value what keeps them engaged, and longer-tenured employees why they’ve remained, helps you avoid costly turnover.

Be as generous as you can, relative to the employee’s value and what competitors are offering. Linking pay to performance can engage and motivate high performers – if your assessment tools are accurate and fair. At the same time, recognize that exceptional people usually don’t leave a job solely for a fatter paycheque, but for a combination of factors. So explore other means of demonstrating your commitment.

Avoid the “one policy fits all” mistake. Give each person the opportunity to influence their schedule, vacation options and professional development plan.

At Orix, for example, we’ve been able to attract and retain an unusually high number of female employees – in part because of our willingness to offer flexible work hours. Mothers are a great asset as they embrace flexible work hours and in turn, are often available to work on last-minute projects. Students can also contribute significantly to projects on an as-needed basis during the school year. Providing flexibility to employees actually increases our ability to serve clients.

Make professional development a priority, and consider joint funding for training or graduate studies. This can involve sharing the cost outright; paying for it up front and deducting the employee’s portion over time; or paying team members for the time they invest in training. We also work to directly link the focus of the development to their next role, in the context of an identified career plan, so that every employee has a concrete sense of opportunity and progress.

In addition, don’t overlook on-the-job training, which can be a very effective means of both developing employees’ skill sets and keeping them challenged with stretch assignments.

Clearly articulate and reinforce your company values so they’re shared, practised and cherished by the entire team. The stronger your collective sense of mission is, the easier it is to attract individuals who are already aligned. This helps protect you against making a mistake on that sometimes elusive quality of “fit,” and reduces the likelihood that you’ll have to repeat the hiring exercise in another six months.

Finally, invest in annual leadership retreats involving all full-time and core employees. This tells everyone that they’re a valued part of the team and ensures that all staff members are clear about shared objectives, assigned responsibilities and the ways success will be measured.

Shastri Ramnath is president, principal geologist and co-founder of Orix Geoscience. She was a finalist for the Women of Influence 2015 RBC Momentum award.