December 1, 2021

The Great Resignation – How to Retain Your Top Talent

Over 4,400,000 people quit their jobs in September 2021 alone (U.S. Labor Bureau), showing us that the Great Resignation has not yet slowed down. Earlier in November, we highlighted several relevant current event articles, including one focused on How Lack of Diversity is Contributing to the Great Resignation. It’s an issue that’s impacting us all in many different ways. A recent Los Angeles Times article highlights a $100,000 signing bonus for a veterinarian (outside of our profession), an example of employees asking for more and employers needing to up the ante.

Given the current staffing climate, we wanted to provide you with insights and anecdotal resources to succeed in this new era of retaining your top talent. We reached out to several human resources leaders within our profession to request their input on how their organizations are dealing with this situation and what they’re doing in this super competitive job market.   

We received input from these five leaders:

  • Laura Martina, Chief People Officer, Fresno Zoo

  • Charlisa A. Shelly, Chief People Officer, Kansas City Zoo

  • Mara-Lynne Payne, Senior Manager of Inclusion, Equity & Diversity, Tennessee Aquarium 

  • Jeremy Gill, Curator of Education, Potawatomi Zoo

  • Jeffery Vanek, Director of Human Resources, Utah’s Hogle Zoo

They shared many common themes and insights:

  • Staff are currently reevaluating the value of their work

    • What is the value of the work we do [in the non-profit, passion/mission-focused world] when compared to the profit world? Does “passion tax” exist? Not if we need to remain competitive.” 

    • For smaller zoos especially, it’s a challenge to keep staff engaged due to lower wages and smaller staffing

  • Everyone has conducted compensation research – be it focus groups, salary surveys, or employee satisfaction surveys – in hopes these results can be used to better understand staff needs and how wages compare to other benchmarks

    • Results have been used to make compensation adjustments and increases to ensure institutions are more equitable

  • Listen to existing staff

    • Team inclusion in planning

    • Treat staff as individuals – each is motivated differently

      • Allow flexibility for leaders to meet the individual needs of our team members  

      • “On the micro level, I believe that people are individually motivated differently and that requires our leaders to consider that as they work to keep their staff engaged.”    

    • Continue to listen to the existing staff’s needs and help them manage the stress from holding it all together the past 20 months

      • “Listening to their needs and helping them manage the stress is imperative to keeping them with us as we try to get back to normal.”

    • Recognize it’s stressful for staff to train new hires due to the high turnover rate

    • “We conduct exit interviews and ask those who are leaving why they are leaving and where are they going. Many are leaving the Zoo profession for other opportunities, often with significantly higher wages.”

    • “Get a lot of people involved from many different parts of the organization in trying to find answers to the challenges of staffing. The ideas and energy that come from asking others to be a part of finding a solution to what might normally be viewed as a HR exclusive issue has been helpful.”

  • Several have implemented a formal professional development process for all staff

    • Assist with internal transfers of people wishing to change career paths

    • “Our L&D Manager will be working with Department Managers and Supervisors in 2022 to ensure we have goals and training opportunities for those employees wanting to grow with us.”

    • Provides a better onboarding process so our messaging is consistent across the board

    • “[Our] program melds required trainings alongside fun and informational sessions for every level of staff to take part of. This becomes a benefit for anyone employed by the zoo. We have held virtual workshops with colleagues at different zoos and exposing our smaller team to some of the work other zoos are doing. We have gotten a good response from the zoo, and this is a cost-effective approach for better engagement. 

  • Address the challenge of a limited number of growth opportunities available for individuals who want to advance quickly

    • “We review job descriptions before filling positions and look for growth opportunities, although opportunities for growth may not be available in every position/department. Inclusive policies, attractive benefits, flexible work schedules, WFH opportunities and continuing to offer FFCRA have been helpful to families, and especially working parents.”

    • Implement Succession Plan training for key managers to increase their promotion readiness

  • Ideas for attracting talent

    • Revamped recruiting efforts so we have a better story to tell about coming to work for the zoo, about the benefits that go beyond the pay

    • Target individuals seeking new opportunities from outside the area and who wish to relocate

  • Assisting with retention by boosting community and culture

    • “To help with retention on all levels and a better sense of pride for our institution, we implemented a new program focused on community and culture to increase collaboration, communication, and pride in the Zoo.”

    • “We have created a “culture club” (i.e. culture committee) of employees to work on the internal culture by identifying what employees want from being a part of the zoo, and how we can deliver on those things.”

We’d like to extend a huge thank you to our HR leaders for their contributions. As we consider each of these challenges, insights, and recommendations, we continue to recognize the value in sharing ideas and successes across our AZA community as we adapt to yet another change in this “new tomorrow”, the Great Resignation. 

Zoo Advisors can help your teams navigate all of these changes through organizational assessments, org structure reviews, succession planning, and search and recruitment services for senior level staff. Reach out to to talk through your needs.

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