After Yaya Toure's post-birthday quit threat: Four ways to hang on to top talent

Retaining high-flying employees is a challenge for all businesses, and it’s not always just a matter of remuneration. Premier league-winning footballer Yaya Toure, for example, recently announced that he may leave Manchester City because he feels his birthday was not properly recognised by the club’s owners. This, despite a reported £220,000-a-week salary.

The club now faces a common problem: how to keep talented top earners happy and motivated? A recent Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development survey on resourcing and talent planning found that 22 per cent of employers experience difficulties in retaining staff. This number increased to 60 per cent in connection with managers, and professional and specialist employees. There are several common threads explaining why employees become disenchanted. Tackling them will help companies stem the flow.

Unlike Toure, most of us do not command six figure weekly salaries, are not confident that we can find a better-paid job elsewhere, and work in order to earn money to pay the bills. True, many employees do not constantly seek out the highest paid job available – they weigh up salary against other important benefits, like the work/life balance, more holidays, or flexibility. But pay can be an issue, and it’s often related to employees feeling undervalued – remuneration is the manifestation of employer respect. Businesses expect loyalty and commitment, and often seek to achieve it using their chequebooks. Employees see pay differently, as a reward for the time and effort they devote to their jobs, and the value they add to the business.

In his best-selling book, The Chimp Paradox, Steve Peters explains that a healthy human brain strives to achieve self–fulfilment, and needs goals and a purpose in order to do so. The same is true for our working lives. Most of us want careers, not just a job, and we want to develop skills and get promotions. In many cases where an employee leaves to join a competitor, they do so because they do not feel that they can develop or progress from their existing position.

Every workplace has a discernable culture, which employees value. Staff can usually describe their place of work in a sentence or two – whether good, bad or ugly. Employers spend millions on branding, but what are employees saying to friends, or contacts in the industry? If a business can’t retain its staff, the rest of the market will start to wonder why.

So maintaining a healthy workplace culture can be a handy marketing tool. It can be achieved in one of two ways: via sexy tactics (trips abroad, nights out, duvet days); or more mundane practices (having the right policies in place, training managers).

But ultimately, employees want leadership, both inspirational and practical. There are two main issues here. First, staff members want clear and consistent messages about the identity and ethos of the business they work for. And if all this sounds a bit soft, there is a harder edge.

Indeed, a key method for retaining top talent is to have zero tolerance for under-performing colleagues. These people are perceived as a burden, and their presence can make the best employees feel demoralised. Keeping talent is hard, and while most of us wouldn’t leave over a birthday snub, we all need more than just money to stay in a job.

Daniel Peyton is an employment lawyer and partner at McGuireWoods.