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Human Resources

Align employee retention with college goals

Strategies for keeping the best talent on board
University Business, December 2017

Tulane University, like many institutions, faced two key challenges last year: controlling health care costs and retaining top talent. At the time, Stephanie A. Robinson served as the school’s assistant vice president of total rewards.

She recalls how the school’s employee benefits, especially in the area of wellness, fell short of those offered by its main competitors, Vanderbilt University and Emory University.

After exploring various options, HR created a robust, holistic wellness program that included a free onsite clinic for employees. The clinic, which opened in September, is helping the university retain skilled academics and better manage health care costs by catching minor illnesses and diseases early, thus reducing the need for costly treatment.

Some HR departments at colleges and universities are tying employee retention to the school’s overall goals. While retention often exceeds 80 percent, even 90 percent at some schools, there’s still room for improvement considering changing workforce demographics and the fierce competition for talent.

By aligning goals, HR helps employees see the big picture, proves its value as a business partner, and retains the talent needed for the institution to move forward and accomplish its mission.

Routine practice

Eastern Michigan University achieves institutional effectiveness through employee diversity, says David Turner, vice president of human resources.

“When we look at our student body diversity profile, we also look at our staff and faculty profile and take action to bring that alignment into place,” he says.

Every department at the school periodically reviews its long-range goals, annual goals and priorities to ensure they’re all aligned with institutional effectiveness, Turner says. He also helps administrators be “intentional” about retaining a diverse workforce. Otherwise, employees receive mixed signals, believing retention is not valued or even a priority.

The school’s staff retention rate hovers around 84 percent, Turner says. “We’ve been amplifying and emphasizing our communications, giving people more data on what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.”

School differentiator

Working toward an institution’s goals in meaningful ways isn’t easy, but it presents HR with creative opportunities, says Karen Hutcheson, co-leader of the higher education practice at Mercer, a global consulting firm in Philadelphia.

Consider engaging staff in brainstorming sessions addressing retention because it adds value to the employee experience by involving workers in a broader role beyond their job.

HR should meet with school executives to better understand what they’re trying to accomplish and identify needed skills. Then coach managers on what types of strategies they can develop to help reach those goals.

“I’ve seen so many HR professionals who make the extra effort to connect with leaders on a personal level, go to lunch with them, find out what’s on their mind and learn how to help them,” says Hutcheson. “Ultimately, that elevates HR’s prominence and creates a more cohesive working relationship between HR, managers, leaders and staff.”

Changing demographics

Meanwhile, many institutions are preparing themselves for shifts in workforce demographics. Women are assuming more roles and leadership positions in the workplace. And millennials, the most racially diverse group in American history, are likely to surpass baby boomers as the largest U.S. generation.

Employee longevity becomes a natural byproduct of linking goals. Engagement, job satisfaction and productivity tend to increase when staff understand how their job supports their coworkers, faculty and students across campus.

“They’ll see how the work they’re doing drives or supports something that’s very important to the overarching organization they’re part of,” Hutcheson says. “That’s going to be a differentiator in higher education.”  


Carol Patton is a Las Vegas-based writer who specializes in human resources issues.

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