How Responsibility Enhancement Fits Into Employee Retention

Responsibility Enhancement is less about dumping more “stuff” on workers and more about contractors recognizing workers are ready for growth and additional responsibility

The contractor who takes time to study an employee’s strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes and goals and expectations is the contractor who will be much wiser in preparing workers for greater responsibilities and retain workers longer.
The contractor who takes time to study an employee’s strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes and goals and expectations is the contractor who will be much wiser in preparing workers for greater responsibilities and retain workers longer.

In this seven-part series of articles we look at seven steps to worker retention. This article zeros in on step #6, responsibility enhancement. Responsibility Enhancement is less about dumping more “stuff” on workers and more about contractors recognizing workers are ready for growth and additional responsibility. The contractor who takes time to study an employee’s strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes and goals and expectations is the contractor who will be much wiser in preparing workers for greater responsibilities. Such a contractor is simply going to retain workers longer and drive performance improvements – and the profitability that often parallels such improvements – more consistently over time.

While our approach in this series has been directed at the new worker, many of the steps, especially steps 3 through 7, are really applicable for all workers. (The second step, The 90-Day Plan, could be utilized for any employee who has just assumed a new job title or function.) Now we specifically address our next step, Step #6 – Responsibility Enhancement, which will prove to be a critical action for contractors to employ, not only to gain greater retention but also to raise performance results and generate more profitable work.

Why giving responsibility is important

Before we explore how to give a worker more responsibility, a question that should be asked is: Why is giving responsibility to a worker important to the employee retention discussion?

Briefly, when a new worker has come on board there is an expectation that it will take a period of time for the employee to learn her job, learn about the company’s work culture and work processes, and learn about her new co-workers. Obviously, this can involve a different range of days, weeks or months depending on the individual and, as we’ve addressed in the first six articles, on the contractor. 

Again, having an “On-boarding” effort prepared and executed, developing a stronger Skill Training effort – along with the other steps we’ve presented – all can make a positive impact on the new worker’s “company embedding” experience. But what impact does giving an employee more responsibilities have on her remaining longer with her contractor?

The single most important reason is related to the fact that most workers want to progress in their jobs. They might not want to progress in reaching a higher-level position such as foreman, project manager or vice president; they might not want to be an owner of their own company some day.  Progress, in the context we’re using here, is more related to just wanting to know more about how to perform their current job, at least to a greater level where others don’t think of them as being unskilled or worse, “stupid.”

So, one proof that a worker is progressing in the organization, growing in her capabilities and skills, is when she can begin to receive tasks that require a higher level of responsibility to accomplish. Another proof is when that same individual is thought of as trustworthy, capable of working independent of having a leader standing right over her as she works.

Most of the better workers we employ want to be sure of their efforts, confident that what they do each day is correct, appropriate for the need and accomplishes some end result that produces quality, safe and profitable work. Workers who experience such things are more often satisfied with themselves and more likely to stay with the contractor who has enabled them to feel and experience such things.

If this sounds a bit crazy, just consider some comments that I’ve collected from employees who quit their contractor:

  • “My boss never gave me anything more difficult to do.”
  • “She didn’t show me what she was expecting.”
  • “I never really knew what I was supposed to do and why.”
  • “They just threw me in there and expected me to figure it out myself.”
  • “Geez, the contractor made me feel like a child, standing like right over me when I was working.”
  • “The contractor never gave me a chance to learn another position.”
  • “He was the only one that ran the equipment; he never let me even try to learn how to operate any of the equipment.”

Now, just because an employee wants to learn how to operate a backhoe or run a paver doesn’t mean that the contractor should give them the chance to learn. However, when better employees are limited in what they can learn, when they are prevented from taking on more difficult challenges and responsibilities, these better employees often look to leave. Such motivated workers rarely remain with a contractor for long if they’re not being given the opportunity to grow.

When is the right time to add responsibilities?

So, when does a contractor begin to add more responsibility to a new worker?  The answer I hear the most from contractors is, "Whenever the employee demonstrates she is ready for more!"

But herein lies additional challenges for many contractors:

  • What does a worker have to do to “demonstrate” she is ready?
  • What does “ready” mean?
  • Does “more” mean more physical work, more responsibility or more of both?

For some contractors, such considerations never really cross their minds. A new worker is hired, immediately exposed to “how we do things here,” and then expected to pick up the unique processes and how-tos used by the other employees. If the new worker picks things up quickly, great! If she doesn’t she might be teased, harassed, ignored or simply fired because “she just didn’t learn fast enough.”

While all new workers will not always work out for the long term, a good percentage of new workers often are not given the chance to hang around long enough to prove what they can grow to become. 

So, what might be some considerations that a contractor should make about a new worker before deciding to either separate the worker from the company or add to the worker’s responsibilities? This really falls in line with how a worker might “demonstrate” her readiness to take on more responsibility. Consider using the following techniques when observing:

  • First, realize that every worker is unique and different, possessing different learning styles.
  • Go back and really execute steps 1 through 5.
  • Get a feel earlier about what the worker wants to do, what she wants to accomplish and what she feels most comfortable and confident in doing.
  • Try out a new worker on some different job functions; confirm what she appears to be good at with actual work results.
  • Notice the response of a new worker after she’s made a mistake. Does she…run away, want to try again, shut down because she is depressed etc.?
  • Does she arrive on time for work? Return on time from breaks? Pack up and leave on time – or early? – at the end of the day?
  • What questions does she raise about her current job function?
  • Does she volunteer when given the chance to learn a new job task or to join a crew that will be challenged with greater amount of difficulty?

I think you get the idea here about what signs might be observed from a worker projecting her interest or focus on growing in her current role. Let’s not place any super high expectations on her effort or progress, but we should pay attention to some of the items listed above.

How do you know if an employee is ready for more responsibility?

The second question, presented in a series of three questions, presented earlier asks, “What does ‘ready’ mean?” Not sure that this is very complicated, but here are just a few things of which you might make note:

  • Employee is definitely performing work with greater confidence
  • Employee is assisting others in a task that she has completed in the past
  • Employee is asking fewer “how to” questions
  • Employee’s work results are reaching very good to excellent like status…regularly
  • Employee is teaching or coaching others on how to execute a task or complete a process
  • Employee’s next senior leader is comfortable with and confident in the employee’s effort
  • Employee might be filling in for her leader for short periods of time
  • Employee has directly informed the contractor she is ready for more
  • Contractor clearly recognizes that the employee is ready for more and can provide greater value to the company by taking on a different role with greater responsibilities

How much responsibility is enough or too much?

The third question presented earlier invites the contractor to consider how much “more” the employee can take on and, does this only suggest “more” physically only or “more” responsibilities – or some combination of both? Well, depending on the next level of responsibility an employee might take on, the answer is most likely both.

Whether your employee is a laborer, crew foreman, lead person, superintendent or department manager almost any additional responsibility will require an increase in their physical effort while also assuming more responsibility for her work performed. But for the worker desiring greater responsibilities, recognizing that additional focus, acquiring better skills, spending more time reading or being educated etc., are all just part of getting more on one’s plate.

A final area to consider might not always be so upbeat and positive. What happens when a contractor tries to properly “enhance” an employee by giving her greater responsibilities…and she fails? While this can be frustrating for both the contractor and the worker, this isn’t the end of the story.

Any time a worker, especially a newer worker, is to be given greater responsibility, she should be totally prepared. The contractor should, of course, educate and train her on new duties, tasks and responsibilities. But included in this effort should also be a discussion with the worker about the “what if this doesn’t work out?” possibility. You can’t cover all possible bases but let me speak to a few ways to address this with greater confidence and success!

  1. Let the employee know that failure at the new effort does not mark her as a failure. (Give her credit for wanting more responsibility!)
  2. Encourage workers that, “I will support your new effort.” It’s amazing how this moral support inspires workers to make the extra effort to do their very best!
  3. Communicate to others to “buy in” to support the worker who is working to expand her “belt of responsibility.” Hey, let the other workers know that you respect those who are willing to take on “more.”
  4. If the worker does in fact fall flat on her face, coach her ASAP about not losing faith in herself, you, the company and in her position with your company.
  5. If the “failure” really requires you shift her back to a previous level of responsibility, communicate with her that this is okay and that, “We need winners at all levels of the organization.”

I can’t help but share a technique that I’ve used personally and have taught contractors across the world to use when they are considering promoting a worker to a crew leader’s role. (This technique can be applied in almost any situation.)

Pre-Promotion Preparation (3P’s)

As part of the preparation to promote a worker, share with her personally that you will support her 100% in learning and adjusting to her new role. You also want her to consider a 90-day trial period. This time allows both you and the employee to consider whether the new position is really for her. If she determines at the end of 90 days that she just doesn’t feel good about the increased responsibility, that she’s just not cut out for it, assure her that her “old” job is still there for her. Also make clear that at the end of 90 days, should you recognize and feel that the new job just doesn’t seem a good fit for the employee, she will return to her previous role.

Additionally, part of this “3P” effort includes communicating to those individuals working with and for the employee in her new and more responsible position that she has agreed to a 90-day trial. And that if at the end of 90 days she determines she doesn’t want the new role, that she is free to return to her previous position (with absolutely no bad feelings on the contractor’s part). This last effort is to protect the employee from those who might tease or ridicule her if she doesn’t succeed in her new role.

I’ve used this approach on numerous occasions and I can tell you first hand that, in those cases where the promotion did not work out, there was less embarrassment for the “failed try.” I felt that it was more important to protect the employee who at least had the guts to try to improve herself from those who are too scared to try anything that might require a bit more effort. 

By the way, in the past the construction industry as a whole has been brutal to those promoted. Rather than allow an employee who was promoted – but then failed – to return to a previous level of responsibility, many contractors have terminated the worker. This is a double negative in that we have lost a good worker, or at least one that we at one time considered good, and we’ve proven to the remaining workers that it’s not worth getting a promotion unless you want to be fired if you don’t succeed.

Sorry for the extended presentation here but this sixth step is very important to retaining good workers in today’s construction companies. As contractors, we must take seriously workers’ efforts to enhance responsibility – without pushing them into a role we might not have prepared them to succeed in – or worse, leave them in a boat without any “oars” to survive the rapid waters.

You want to retain workers? Be strategic and deliberate in your efforts to train them, grow them and support them. But certainly engage them in taking on greater responsibility.

Read all of Brad's articles on the seven steps to worker retention:

Step #1: On-boarding

Step #2: The 90-day Plan

Step #3: Skill Training

Step #4: Coaching and Mentoring

Step #5: Engagement and Participation

Step #7: Performance Review