Keeping Staff Committed to the Cooperative

Staff turnover may not be measurable in costs, but it can seriously cripple a co-op. All employees of more than a few months represent a significant investment in training. A long term worker who has contributed to building the customer base, management structure and work systems is an irreplaceable asset to the co-op, whose departure causes loss of morale among other staff.

There is some positive potential in turnover as an opportunity to hire more highly skilled employees who bring about innovations in operations. And when poor performers and disruptive personalities leave, morale may improve. However, it's expensive in terms of staff time to recruit, interview, select and train replacements and to cover the lost productivity of the staff who train them.

Skill Development Opportunities

People who have stayed with a business over the years value the chance to grow with the business, to take on new responsibilities and learn new skills on the job. The trend toward greater specialization recognizes that purchasing, merchandising, bookkeeping and above all, managing, are crucial functions that require systematic inside and outside training.

Make sure trainers and trainees have written outlines or checklists to give them the overview, sequence and timeframes of what they'll be covering -- this also insures that all components of the job will be addressed. Set goals for trainees for results they're expected to achieve after each phase of training.

For some skills, particularly in management, there is no one within the co-op qualified to provide the training. Outside training not only fills this gap but is widely perceived by co-op workers as a reward. Post catalogs and announcements for university extensions, business schools, community colleges, Small Business Administration and Chamber of Commerce sponsored classes, trade association conferences. But don't just leave it up to individual interest. Actively plan for the co-op's needs, and encourage or even require appropriate people to take particular classes. When your business pays for staff education, make an agreement that the person will stay a certain amount of time so that the business will get the benefit of the training.

Beyond the job satisfaction derived from becoming proficient in a current job, workers need the chance to develop in other skill areas. Carrie West, produce merchandiser at Puget Consumers Co-op in Seattle, says that part of what's kept her at PCC for 9 years is that "I've grown with the times, become more professional. But one of the frustrations here is that for people who've outgrown their jobs but want to stay at the co-op, there's no place to go."

Stay aware of who may have "outgrown their jobs" and need encouragement to acquire skills to qualify for a more challenging job. For co-ops with specialized jobs and relatively large staff, it's helpful to set "career paths" by identifying what training or experience a person needs to be eligible for another job of greater complexity or responsibility. Does she need to work on the floor to gain product familiarity before she can be trained as a purchaser? If she's a cashier, what other jobs can she aspire to? The corollary of career paths is determining the minimum requirements for someone to be considered for an opening.

The co-op needs a flexible internal hiring policy which makes explicit under what circumstances current staff will be considered for an opening ahead of outside recruits. It sounds good to say you'll always give first preference to inside candidates, but a process that allows for simultaneous recruitment of inside and outside applicants won't raise expectations you can't fulfill.


Unless your pay scale recognizes level of responsibility, skill, and to some extent seniority, the co-op will merely have spent time and money preparing staff to leave for higher paying jobs elsewhere.

Seniority increases seem an obvious choice, but sheer length of time doesn't guarantee versatility, overview, competence, or any other attribute relevant to the success of the business. The point is to manage turnover, not to avoid it at all costs. Therefore, your pay structure should support your investment in staff development with differentials for higher levels of responsibility and skill, particularly in management. This also recognizes the reality of the labor market and the "replacement value" of experienced staff.

On the other hand, it isn't equitable for new employees to make as much as someone in the same job who's been there several years. Modest increments for seniority are reasonable as long as they are not automatic; a worker must have at least a satisfactory performance review to earn the raise. And at some point, a seniority scale must top out.

Longevity can be rewarded also in the benefits structure, usually by giving more paid time off, although this too should top out after a certain number of years. Eligibility to take long unpaid leaves of absence, highly prized among co-op workers, could be reserved for only those who have worked, say, 5 years. Pension plans promote longevity in that the longer a worker stays, the more the co-op pays in. It should take many years for a worker to become "vested," i.e. able to take out the money paid into her pension when she leaves the co-op. Profit-sharing, including options for partial worker ownership, could be used to reward staff with quarterly or yearly bonuses, for their work in making the co-op profitable.

Feedback and Appreciation

Beyond monetary compensation, people crave and deserve honest feedback about their work, through objective, job-oriented evaluations. Be sure that performance review meetings focus on positive contributions as well as areas for improvement. At the same time, don't avoid discussion of problems. Some co-ops hold evaluations at open staff meetings, where peer pressure and personal dynamics often squelch honest, effective criticism. If important work-related issues remain unaddressed in evaluations, they are a waste of time and money.

There is a role for straightforward appreciation sessions. Too many companies, not just co-ops, wait til people leave before honoring their contributions. Work-related achievements, such as completion of a special project, employment anniversary dates, or promotion to a new job, could be the occasion for an informal party at the store, an after-work dinner, a feature article in the newsletter or an award given at a membership meeting. Don't be too afraid of appearing corny.

Working Conditions

Crowded, hectic offices, no lounge for taking breaks, equipment that constantly breaks down, cramped storage spaces that entail a lot of extra lifting-all these send the message to staff that their productivity, health and safety are not a priority. This is a difficult issue because the solutions often are capital intensive. Not everyone can or should have her own office. Maybe you can't afford to remodel your store this year. Yet while it's hard to measure in advance, there is a payback in increased productivity and reduction of time loss due to injuries, when working spaces are properly designed and constructed.

Board Support

There is built-in conflict between the consumer/owners' interest in low prices and the workers' interest in high salaries. The board's role is to ensure the ultimate interests of the owners in the survival of the co-op. Traditionally, the board sets the general manager's salary and leaves her or him to set the rest of the pay scale. However, if there is significant staff turnover, board members must help management with solutions by developing policies on staff training, compensation, evaluations, and health and safety.

An adversary role between board and staff can cause dedicated workers to leave, feeling unappreciated. Pat Spencer, a 6 year veteran of Central Co-op in Seattle, says board-staff relations have improved there as a result of increased board training and the perspective of board members who have worked as active volunteers in the store. Relations can also be enhanced by staff attendance at Board meetings (including staff reps to the board), posting of board meeting minutes for staff to read, reports at staff meetings on board activities, and board-staff planning retreats.

Positive Future Outlook

To cast their lot with the co-op as a long term career, workers need to feel that they're part of a dynamic organization, moving toward consciously chosen goals; that if it's not financially successful at the moment, there are plans being implemented to improve the situation; that if salaries are low now, they know what it will take to be able to raise them.

Staff need to be seriously involved with the planning process, not only to have their needs heard, but also to understand their own responsibility for the co-op's welfare and direction. In recruiting, interviewing and orienting new workers, the co-op's purpose must be constantly affirmed, so that working there is not seen as "just a job" but as a commitment to certain goals and principles. Carrie feels that "PCC hasn't sold out. We're changing with the needs of our community but we're still working for what we believe in. There's more political and community and people awareness at the co-op than at other businesses."

Store workers also say that one of their main reasons for staying is that they like the people they work with. For maintaining a "family feeling" and sense of camaraderie, plan social gatherings, celebrations such as those mentioned above under "Feedback and Appreciation," and staff retreats. These are important ingredients in making up a workplace culture that will keep workers committed.

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