Quit-Proof Your Team

Unbalanced pay scales, micromanagement, and missed opportunities may be standing in your way. Here’s how to fix that.

Find yourself staying late because you’re down a person and work is piling up? Is your district constantly having to hire and rehire positions because people keep leaving? You’re not alone. Fortunately, there are things you can do to put a stop to it.

One of the best ways to retain good employees, especially if you are constrained with how much you can pay them, is to get your talent to “buy-in” to your district’s mission. To “buy-in” is to embrace the goals of the organization as your own, to be committed, and to have personal ownership of the district’s collective success. This can lead to improved turnover, and thus to big windfalls in improved safety and performance. But it’s also easy reversing those gains, and this article will cover tactics for avoiding disengaged employees as well.

This is going to be really easy for some districts—EMTs, firefighters, doctors, nurses, and even golf pros and ski instructors might find true passion in their work. But for others, the “it’s just a job” mentality can inhibit how much ownership an employee has, and make their relationship to their job feel a lot more transitory and a lot less permanent. This can lead to poor employee performance, high turnover, low levels of satisfaction, poor safety outcomes, and bad customer service. Fortunately, there are ways to achieve buy-in even if an employee’s role isn’t glamorous or altruistic.

One of the easiest ways you can get employees to ‘buy-in’ is by being bought in yourself. This means recognizing the importance of your work—of everyone’s work—no matter their rank or position. Managers and supervisors are the most powerful tools the district has in this regard. Some managers have made it a personal policy not to ask their employees to undertake a task that they themselves would not do. This is the kind of mindset that goes a long way toward communicating that there is respect for every employee. This essentially tells the employee that no work is beneath anyone, that while not every employee is a peer, every employee is worthy of respect within their own position.

Good managers and supervisors know the power of ‘buy-in,’ and it’s important not to take for granted that employees, in what are considered socially rewarding jobs (firefighters, doctors, etc.), are bought in. A bought-in employee is going to give you more notice when they need time off or are sick. They will work harder in general, will foster greater bonds between their coworkers, and are more likely to preserve a safer work environment in general. Most importantly, they are less likely to job hunt and go elsewhere, and more likely to contribute to the workplace in a meaningful way. There are a lot of ways your district can achieve this, from salary and benefits to generational considerations and managerial styles.

Show Them the Money

It should go without saying, but salary is one of the most powerful factors in employee retention. Despite that, many employers pay what they willingly admit is a low wage for a “probationary period.” That practice tells the new employee, “We thought you were good enough to take a risk on hiring, but we aren’t completely sure you’re worth it, so we aren’t going to pay you properly for your work until we decide that you have proven yourself. Probably. Maybe.” That might seem fair to you as the employer. It might even seem fair to the employee. But in the current economic market, the likelihood is that you will lose this employee to another organization that is willing to pay them what they are worth.

Pay scales are set by market forces, like demand. The concept of probationary pay is considered bad form, and doesn’t work in a practical sense in a strong employment market. The best option is to pay at or above market. Paying the market rate for a given job is considered a sign of common respect. Paying above it is a sign of appreciation and trust in the worker.

You might wonder how you can determine what market is for any given job. For many common positions, like administrative assistants or groundskeepers, you can simply review similar job listings from other employers in your area to determine a scale. You might be surprised by the wide range you find, and feel like you should price yourself in the middle. Remember, however, that the employers at the higher end of that range put that number there for a very good reason. They may have already learned that paying that small premium can return a large dividend. In our previous article on turnover, we went over how constantly turning employees is in itself expensive, and often more so than just paying a good wage to begin with.

For jobs that might be more uncommon in the private sector, like firefighters or water operators, you might have to do a little market research by contacting other special districts or cities. You might also look to contact similarly sized entities from areas with similar cost of living, as in the table on this page, which assigns the Denver metropolitan area and other major US cities a CPI within 10 points up or down.


While it can be financially costly to provide competitive benefits to employees, it should be seen as a priority to ensure that your staff is well compensated in terms of a comprehensive package that includes health insurance, retirement options, and paid time off. Your district could consider offering a wellness incentive program to help offset your health insurance offerings. You could also consider offering additional paid time off as a reward for hard work. Finally, you could consider offering extra health coverage options, such as accident policies. While insurance policies would not apply, wellness programs would be eligible for reimbursement through the Pool’s Safety Grant program.

One of the realities of working for a public entity is that there may simply not be room in the budget to pay above market for certain staff members or to provide highly competitive health insurance. This can present a challenge to retaining talent in the long term, but there are other things you can do to compensate.

As we said in our previous article—if you are paying thousands of dollars extra to constantly rehire a position, wouldn’t it be better to invest that money into a more highly skilled employee’s salary and not suffer the loss of institutional knowledge and turn? Your district is going to pay more either way. By budgeting for competitive pay and compensation, you are staying in control of where those funds are going rather than allowing external forces to control you. That, fundamentally, is risk management.

Not every tactic in retaining excellent staff has to do with increasing total compensation or spending tons of money. For many employees, it isn’t about how much they are paid, it’s about how well their work and personal lives mesh. There are a number of common, and uncommon, things that employers can do that help improve work/life balance. The rule of thumb in the human resources realm today is that providing work/life balance is no longer a question—it’s a requirement of every position.

Here’s a brief summary of some common and uncommon benefits some employers provide to help retain employees:


  • Health / Dental / Vision Insurance
  • Prepaid Legal Assistance
  • Retirement Plan / Pension / 401K
  • Paid Parental Leave – IKEA goes above and beyond what most companies provide, giving retail store employees up to four months of paid parental leave. Facebook offers seventeen weeks and Yahoo offers eight.
  • Vacation – While vacation time is not required by law in the US, many American companies are beginning to experiment with the ideas of European-style or even unlimited amounts of vacation.
  • Sick Time – There is a growing chorus of voices in the US that is pushing to require employers to provide sick time to employees, especially those whose own health may directly impact a customer or patient’s health—such as nurses, EMTs, food service workers, retail workers, etc.
  • Paid Volunteer Time – Many companies, nonprofits, and public entities provide a few hours paid time off annually to employees to allow them to volunteer in their community. Timberland Boot Company pays for 40 hours of volunteer time per employee, per year.
  • Flexible Schedules – Where possible, a flexible or alternative schedule can mean enormous improvements in an employee’s quality of life. This might mean allowing them to work “four tens” or work earlier or later than standard. If it fits with the needs of your business, and better with their life, then it’s a better fit for your business, too.
  • Telecommuting – While this is impossible for a lot of roles (you can’t fight fires from home—yet), telecommuting is an excellent way of allowing employees to maintain work/life balance.


  • Seasonal Paid Time Off – Nike famously gives its workers every Friday afternoon off in the Summer to promote outdoor activities, while snowboard company Burton gives several days off in winter to allow their employees to take advantage of the snow.
  • Pet Insurance – Scripps Health provides health insurance to their employees’ cats and dogs.
  • Dog-Friendly Offices – This isn’t an option for many employers, especially those that serve food, but many companies−including Amazon−allow employees to bring their dog to work.
  • Health Club Stipends – Many companies either provide fitness facilities to employees for free—something many special districts already do—or provide a stipend to allow employees to get them.
  • Luxury Perks – In the days of the dot com boom, it wasn’t unheard of to hear about free meals, free soda, free massages, or free video games in the offices of big companies like Microsoft, Google, Intel, and Apple. While free massages are luxuries in the extreme, the notion of giving more moderate perks like these isn’t an entirely new concept, or one that is that alien. Free meals, like office parties or even a free soda machine or coffee, can be a huge perk to employees and make the workplace feel more comfortable.

Generational Perspective

Google Trends, which analyzes search engine traffic, reports that hiring and managing millennials is one of the hottest topics in HR right now. Many people outside that generation see these folks, those born between 1977 and 1995, as difficult to understand. Those from older generations who are currently in management find themselves at a loss on how to motivate, train, or hire these individuals. And yet, it’s a fairly safe wager that if millennials do not make up the majority of your staff, they will soon.

But what makes them so mystifying? Is it because they are buying homes to suit their dogs and not their children or spouses? Or because they’ve ruined swaths of industries and businesses such as big box stores, jewelry, breakfast cereals, chain restaurants, mass-produced beer, paper napkins, golf, football, and taxis?

Could it be because they prefer making hand-made note cards over buying greeting cards from Hallmark? Believe it or not, that one might actually be it. Despite all the advice we’ve given in this article so far, millennials won’t stick around because you have an air hockey table in your break room. While they would definitely like fat paychecks and some might even appreciate a generous retirement plan, for this age group, it’s the intangibles that matter most. Surveys find that millennials are drawn to authentic experiences, to companies and roles that make a difference, and to work that pushes a common good.

A 2010 Pew Research poll found that millennials value work that helps others (21%) over work that simply pays well (15%). For practically every district, this is the perfect opportunity to harness that enthusiasm and desire to do good by explaining not only what your district’s mission is, but why it’s your mission. Your water district provides safe drinking water so that every home, school, hospital, and workplace has unfettered access to an important, critical resource. Your mosquito district suppresses insect populations so that kids can go outside and play without fear of West Nile Virus. Making these messages clear motivates every employee, not just millennials.

Millennials aren’t going to be happy with that message alone. They, like other age groups, need to have a sense of accomplishment in their job. To address this, try creating job titles that fit their niche, or give them ‘micropromotions’ in order to give them a sense of achievement, where appropriate. These bumps in title might admittedly be meaningless in terms of pay or actual internal hierarchy. However if such a program really doesn’t have a monetary impact, but has the end result of making employees feel better about themselves, what’s wrong with that?

Lastly, millennials enjoy ownership of their work, so give them side projects to own. This will allow them to develop and demonstrate their skills. Rather than the lazy slackers caricatured in the articles we cited about cereal and jewelry, studies, such as one published by the Harvard Business Review,
show that millennials are actually workaholics, taking ever decreasing amounts of time off, even though research shows that actually hurts their careers.

Another way in which this generation differs from others is their embrace of what’s known as the “Side Hustle.” Our society admires entrepreneurship, and many young people are starting personal side projects during their own time in the hope that they may provide some income (even if it isn’t their only income). It might be a business making artisan bread at home, brewing ales, writing a book, performing in a band, or developing a smart phone app. These side projects can be a double-edged sword, draining top shelf employees of energy and creativity, but it might also be a boon for you. If you are flexible with their scheduling and the employee is successful at managing both their employment with the district and with their side project, this can only be a win-win.

For Generation Z, which is just barely now getting into the workforce, there isn’t a lot that’s known. They, like Millennials and Generation X, are digital natives. They grew up with technology, and more specifically the internet. You can expect that they will want the same kinds of things millennials want, expecting the flexibility and opportunity they are accustomed to with their experiences online.

Generation X suffered a lot in the economic downturns of the last few decades. This group is also accustomed to technology and studies show they value economic stability and upward mobility. Unlike older generations, they aren’t willing to wait around for a promotion. They are also a much smaller population than those before and after them.

Baby boomers are success-oriented workers who value traditional office and employment arrangements and are good with lower rates of feedback (positive or negative) than younger workers. This could mean they are more change averse than younger workers and are open to, but not as fluent in, technology. That said, knowing where their values lie will allow you to keep them engaged.

The Silent Generation, those born prior to 1945, will become the smallest percentage of the workforce in the next few years. These workers value predictability, loyalty, and sacrifice. Ensuring that things stay stable and respectful for them as much as possible will help keep them bought in.

Aim (High)

For every worker, it’s important to set goals. One of the best ways to promote buy-in is to keep your district focused on performing at a high level. This tactic works for both the district as a whole and for individual employees. Just be sure the goals you set are set in dialogue with the employee.

For group goals, get input from employees to help set some of the details. In another study published in the Harvard Business Review, employees who have greater autonomy in the workplace report being significantly happier. While not every employee can pick their task, giving them some latitude in how certain tasks are performed could deliver high levels of benefit in terms of employee retention. Additionally, even giving employees control of the appearance of their workspace was shown to make a significant improvement in their workplace contentment.

The Micromanagement Dilemma

As new generations of workers seek greater autonomy, micromanagement has become an increasing source of frustration in the workplace. Loosely, a micromanager is someone who insists on maintaining oversight and control of virtually every aspect of an organization’s operations. While that description sounds benign, perhaps it is best to describe what micromanagement actually does. Mark Presutti, a health administrator and attorney, once wrote that micromanagement, “at best, creates a perpetual environment of dependency, inefficiency, and unease, and at worst, render[s] irreparable harm to staff morale.” He went on to add that an organization’s goals, which are “collaboratively envisioned and planned for by the board of directors and administrator can be abruptly derailed by an administrator’s relentlessly intrusive and deleterious management style.”

But how do you know, as a manager or leader, if you are treading into the realm of hamstringing your own team? One obvious sign is that you frequently hear from your staff “We’re waiting on you for this project.” More succinctly put, coaching and management expert Muriel Maignan Wilkins developed this list of warning signs:

  • You’re never satisfied with what they deliver
  • You often feel frustrated because you would have completed a task differently
  • You laser in on details and take great pride or pain in making corrections
  • You constantly want to know where all your team members are and what they are working on
  • You ask for frequent updates on where things stand
  • You prefer to be copied on all emails

Wilkins warns that many micromanagers become so stuck in the weeds, forcing themselves onto pointless minutiae that they run out of time to ensure strategic high level issues are addressed, thus bottlenecking their operation. She points out that this creates an environment where groups achieve short term goals at tremendous expense, making the organization extremely vulnerable to costly turnover.

Career coach Lisa Quast, who is a frequent contributor to Forbes magazine and The Seattle Times, points out that high turnover and attrition themselves are excellent quantifiable indicators of micromanagement. If a given district or department has frequent transfers, resignations, or terminations, this could be a red flag boards that something is amiss.

Quast adds that managers can often look to their own desks to determine whether or not they are engaging in behaviors that contribute to micromanagement. For example, a manager swamped by low-priority activities or overrun by email and calendar appointments may need to reassess their need to let go of certain tasks and also take a look at how they should apportion their energy. A manager like this should be careful that when they delegate a task to someone they aren’t also delegating how the task is completed.

Executive coach Steve Motenko told NPR that organizations today, “need employees who will do more than do what they’re told – employees who will think for themselves, who will be creative, who will try new approaches and all of that is being quashed by micromanaging.”

Reasons for Micromanagement

There are a lot of ‘good’ reasons people micromanage, such as a tight budget or need for accuracy, and most of the time this boils down to anxiety. Managers are human, and as a result they fear that if they are not directly involved, the quality of the work will be lower. While this may come from a desire to ensure the district always operates at a high level, it seems also to communicate a lack of trust. That’s a very damaging thing to an employee’s morale, one that most managers don’t want looming over their team.

Remember that trust goes both ways. Employees need to feel trusted if they are expected to trust management. Unless your district has just one employee, as some do, yours is not a one-person show. Everyone must feel empowered to perform the duties in their charge and feel supported by management in doing so. While micromanagement is, in fact, a type of management, it is not a type of leadership.

Assessing the Damage

Micromanagement is a dreaded term in HR circles because smart, otherwise effective managers can create retention issues with this style of management. Employees, as we said earlier, desire autonomy and trust, and this type of interaction deprives them of both. A study published by the National Institutes of Health found that micromanagement contributes significantly to burnout, and is the third leading cause of resignation by employees, thus leading to exorbitant costs to hire and rehire additional staff. The study looked at hospital settings and how micromanagement may actually lead to poorer patient care. The CSD Pool does have numerous hospital and health members, but even in other types of districts, the quality of the work delivered by staff at fire departments, water or sanitation districts, or other entities is critical to public health and safety.

Additionally, a seven-year study conducted on more than 2,000 individuals found that people who worked in jobs where micromanagement was present (weighted as employees described as having low occupational autonomy or control) were found to be 15.4% more likely to die than average, and those in jobs with high levels of control and autonomy were found to be 34% less likely to die during the study. These findings strongly suggest that the stress of these types of jobs leads to physiological conditions far more conducive to morbidity. In essence, micromanagement is actually killing the micromanaged.

Managing the Urge

Fortunately, there are a number of ways managers, even nervous ones, can modify their style to prevent this. A lot of it has to do with perspective. Remember that as a leader, managers focus on results and not on details. Supervisors, on the other hand, might have a tighter hand on details but ultimately what’s important is that the final product is of acceptable quality and that it was accomplished safely.

Learn to Delegate – Delegation is a powerful tool to help micromanagers exit a destructive cycle. Having individuals “run point” to oversee specific tasks or areas is an excellent way of offloading focus on details. This allows managers to focus on leadership, results, and to communicate broadly with staff by passing information through key people. It also forces managers to trust others, which is a good first step in building better relations with everyone.

Check Your Anxiety – Take a hard look at the things you do that you fear may be micromanagement. Ask yourself: What about those things causes me anxiety? Are my fears justified? What would be the worst case scenario if something went wrong—and how likely is that to occur? Reflect on all of these issues, staying true to yourself and your district. Remind yourself that acting on those anxieties comes at a cost and that this presents a risk analysis. Use as much control as you have appetite for considering the damage to morale in exchange for your sense of security.

Set Goals and Communicate – Maintain a strong dialogue with every employee. If a problem arises, work in concert with your staff to find a way to fix it. Let them speak their minds, and pay respect to their ideas. Set goals for your employees with their input, or let them set their own goals where appropriate. This way, they are bought in to their next steps and it will be easier to get them to the next level.

Remember when creating a plan for any employee to use objective, rather than subjective goals. Don’t write things like “excel in your position.” What does that look like? What kinds of things specifically would you like to see from your employee? Is it coming in early? Is it staying late? Is it outputting at a higher pace than average? Is it maintaining strict adherence to safety protocols? Whatever your measure of success is, make sure it is an actual goal that can be met, rather than a nebulous statement. After all, “works well individually or in groups” or “pays attention to detail” are things you might list on a job posting, but they aren’t actual, quantifiable or qualifiable things you can measure.

Hire Right – As we said in a previous article in this series, hiring the right, and most capable people is often the best way to ensure turnover does not become a problem. For all the reasons stated in that article, it’s important that a manager anxious about control feels that every employee is well suited to their tasks.

Think Before You Speak – Muriel Wilkins points out that many micromanagers say one thing but may mean another. Even if they don’t mean it in any untoward way, it may seem that way to the employee. She cites the following example in her book Own the Room: Discover Your Signature Voice to Master Your Leadership Presence: if a micromanager says “Too much is at stake to allow this to go wrong,” they may in fact mean “I don’t trust them to do their jobs according to my standards.” If a micromanager says, “It will save me time if I just do it myself,” it may sound like, “I don’t believe it’s worth my time to let them try because they won’t get it right anyway.”

Reconsider Perfectionism – Author and motivational speaker Gaurav Bhalla, who sits on the Forbes Coaches Council, suggests adopting what he calls the 95-95 rule. This rule suggests accepting 95% of perfect performance, 95% of the time. In many industries, the rule of thumb is that “perfect took too long.” It’s true that it is important to maintain a high level of accuracy when dealing with employee safety issues or legal matters. But in other instances, the damage to employee morale or cost in payroll may not be worth seeking absolute perfection every time. Remember, when an employee makes a mistake, frame it as a learning opportunity, not as fodder for punitive action.

Recognize Employees – Rather than having every interaction be about details about the work your staff are doing, try to remember that it is important to make many of your interactions about praise and reinforcement. A study conducted by the Society for Human Resources Management found that only 37% of employees were satisfied with the respect and consideration that they received from their boss. While some workers, as we pointed out, don’t necessarily need praise, it’s still absolutely necessary to communicate to employees when they are doing well. In a study from 2004, it was found that the highest performing teams held a ratio of 6 positive comments to every negative comment. Conversely, low performing teams held a ratio of 3 negative comments to every 1 positive.

When It’s Okay to Micromanage

There are some occasions that do require micromanagement, at least for a while. Mostly, these instances occur when conditions are atypical. For example, it is a good idea to micromanage new employees or employees new to a given role or task. If not, you would run the risk of being an absentee manager, which could also be damaging.

However, even in this instance, as senior management at your district or on the board, there may be someone else more closely tied to that position who can shepherd the new hire until they can manage their own work details.

The only other time it may be acceptable to micromanage someone would be if they asked for it. Some employees may, for whatever reason, want intense amounts of oversight and input. This could be because they want to know how to gauge their work, they may be anxious about their own abilities, or they may simply desire that degree of management.

Obviously a heightened level of oversight may be necessary if your district were facing a crisis. If you are facing layoffs, a workplace fatality, a natural disaster or some other crisis, that is a good time to step in and ensure that everyone is operating at their best. While you don’t want to make things worse by adding undue stress or hampering operations, in an instance where emotions are running high, you definitely want to check in with your staff.

Moving Forward

All year, we’ve been polling members about the future of the CSD Pool. We’ve wanted to know what you want from the Pool, where you’d like it to go, and what keeps you up at night. In that survey, more than half of respondents said that employment-related issues were a problem for them, surpassing cyber attacks, rising costs, property damage, and natural disasters. In fact, numerous members specifically cited high turnover as a problem for their district. Members said they couldn’t find quality new hires, some said they couldn’t hold on to the good ones they had.

That problem isn’t unique or new. But unlike natural disasters or cyber attacks, public entities are perfectly positioned to tackle this problem. It’s true that budgets can make paying competitively problematic, especially when budgets are tied to levies, boards, and bureaucracy in ways that private entities do not have to cope with. But special districts, whether their mission is to provide safe, fun parks or to conserve a natural resource, all work toward a common good. Remind yourself of why your district exists, and pass that along to your staff. Keep everyone focused on the good you’re doing for your community. Your community is relying on you. They also rely on your staff.

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