If you think about it, there’s a fine line of distinction between the two words: To retain someone means you secure them for possible future use. To detain someone means you hold them back. In both cases you’re hanging onto someone or something for your own purposes, but detention implies confinement.
Typical retention policies focus on rewards but rewards alone can leave employees feeling trapped, for example if they receive seniority pay that they can’t match somewhere else. If you don’t also offer good management and some sort of career development you may be detaining employees rather than retaining them.
Laura makes an important point, one that ought to prompt all of us to take a hard, honest look at the way and degree to which we direct reward programs at retention. Granted, there are times when buying people's extended commitment is both appropriate and necessary. When - for example - we're eliminating their division in the near future (but still have closing activities which must be addressed) or when a merger will put their jobs clearly at risk over the middle term (but we need them desperately over the short term), sometimes the best we can do is ask them to stick around and try to make it economically worth their while. But these are the outliers.
When our best day-to-day retention strategy is to use compensation to effectively bar the exit door, we've got problems, problems that will find their way to the bottom-line in breathtakingly short order.
To borrow and repurpose one of my favorite Paul Hebert quotes, compensation is your worst first retention strategy.
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