The Agency Business: Holding on to older staffers - and their wealth of experience

Firms that let older employees slip away are losing out on a valuable resource. But by increasing job flexibility and keeping staff interested, agencies can bolster retention rates

Firms that let older employees slip away are losing out on a valuable resource. But by increasing job flexibility and keeping staff interested, agencies can bolster retention rates

When Ann Higgins lost her job after a management change at her last agency, she thought it would be a simple task to find another position.

At 42, she was an accomplished professional, having won 30 PR industry awards, even running her own agency at one time.

But after searching fruitlessly from last September through the end of the year, Higgins simply decided to open her own agency, Utopia Communications. The reason? She contends other agencies simply didn't want to hire a staffer her age.

"Someone who's 32 and an SVP does not want to hire someone who is 42," she maintains. "Agencies need to take a closer look at age discrimination."

While age discrimination might be an extreme charge, there are numerous cases of agencies losing older, more experienced practitioners.

Indeed, a rash of older practitioners launched new agencies during the recession, as more and more were laid off by large agencies across the country. And the trend hasn't necessarily slowed as the economy, and the PR business, has improved.

PR agencies that let older employees slip away are losing years of valuable experience - often exactly the type of experience clients are demanding, Higgins and others agree.

Firms need to look at policies and the culture they project in order to retain valuable, experienced workers. Issues to consider include work environment, the management style of those supervising older workers, and flexibility for those who might be balancing care of children and aging parents.

"One of the challenges with keeping experienced people is keeping it interesting," says Robbin Goodman, EVP with Makovsky & Co., a New York firm.

Edelman tries to address this issue by allowing staffers to "keep reinventing themselves," says Laura Smith, the firm's Washington, DC-based human resources director.

Edelman staffers are free to suggest ideas for new initiatives or departments, she explains. They're also given the flexibility to do pro-bono work that interests them. "This seems to be important, especially to our older staff," she says.

Allowing older workers to follow their interests can help firms retain them, agrees Trish Nicolas, who oversees marketing at Atlanta-based Jackson Spalding.

Out of its 36 employees, the agency has 10 staffers over 40. It works to provide flexibility in assignments and in the work environment. Nicolas works four days a week, leaving Friday to tend to family matters, for example.

When another staffer wanted to work from another city in Georgia, the agency agreed. "It's increased flexibility in recognizing people here as people first," Nicolas says.

Jackson Spalding also doesn't use titles, hoping that everyone feels more involved - and more valued - in firm decision-making as a result.

Patricia Thorp, president of Thorp & Co. in Miami, agrees that a key to retaining older workers is making them feel involved. "If they feel like you've shelved them, and they feel like they have no upward mobility, that's when they become unhappy," says Thorp, who has three staffers over 40 at her 12-person agency.

Roger Herman, CEO of the Herman Group, an employee-retention consultancy, says a sense of involvement can be fostered by allowing older workers to represent an agency at professional events, having them serve on agency advisory boards, or by allowing them to mentor new employees. "You're honoring who they are; you're valuing their contributions," he explains.

Herman also advises what he calls regular "stay interviews" (as opposed to exit interviews when someone leaves), asking employees about career goals, what they like about the agency, and what their ideal job would be. These can be done by human resources, by the person's supervisor, or by a member of senior management, he advises. What such conferences emphasize is the sentiment that, "we care about you. You are a special person on our team," he says. Thorp increased employee reviews from twice a year to three times a year at the suggestion of her staff and found that it increased employee satisfaction.

Managing older workers requires a lighter, more hands-off management touch than novices might need.

Jackson Spalding eschews a "big brother" management style, says Gene Crosby, director of office operations. "Gone are the days when an employer has to sit around the employee," making sure he or she is working, Crosby contends. "Everyone here is respectful that you can handle your own time management."

Respecting older workers for who they are and what they know can go a long way to keeping their talents at your agency.

Retaining older workers

  • Provide job flexibility, both in assignments and work scheduling

  • Recognize the value of experience; send older workers to industry conferences to represent the firm, for example

  • Adjust management styles to accommodate a more hands-off approach for older workers. Show trust that they know how to get their work done successfully

  • Increase the dialogue with older workers; be mindful of their concerns and goals

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