6 Ways to Retain a Stellar Staff in the Salon

Employee handbook on a wooden table and glasses.photos (getty images): Designer491/istockW

You finally have a full staff of great nail techs and business is brisk—so brisk, in fact, that you’re anticipating a record-breaking holiday season at the salon. And then, just as Halloween rolls around, your longest-running employee announces that she’s partnering with a friend to open her own place. In two weeks she’ll be gone and you have to find a replacement. But by mid-November, you’re still so busy filling in for her that you haven’t had time to really search in earnest. In the meantime, you’ve had to ask the remaining techs to pick up the slack and work extra hours. When one of them reminds you that she has been promised the week of Thanksgiving off, you have to tell her it’s no longer possible. She says nothing, but a week later, she quits. Her best friend at the salon follows suit two days later. By December, you’ve lost half of your experienced staff and there are several brand-new people who need training. Merry Christmas, everyone!

As the cliché goes, “Good help is hard to find.” Many managers place the blame on a changing American work ethic, represented by the much-maligned millennial generation and an overall waning sense of company loyalty. Employees, in turn, point to years of massive layoffs with no regard for individual performance and wages that have failed to keep up with a skyrocketing cost of living. On each side is a growing cynicism and lack of trust for the other—hardly a formula for a successful relationship.

Yet, despite it all, many employers do manage to retain happy and loyal teams. How do they do it? By fostering “employee engagement,” an approach to the workplace that enables team members to commit to their jobs and feel good about them every day. The good news is, you don’t need an MBA to figure out how to raise your staff’s engagement levels. According to employee retention experts, all it requires is your willingness to create the following conditions, cheerfully and consistently. Here, six ways to hold onto a stellar staff.

1. Provide a shared sense of purpose.

“Meaning and purpose come from the company having a mission and vision, and working together to achieve goals and benchmarks that support them,” says Christy Hopkins, a licensed professional in human resources with seven years of experience working with small businesses and a contributor to fitsmallbusiness.com. “I really try to make sure my staff understands that it’s our salon,” says Lisa Suarez-Brentzel, owner of Lacquer Gallery in Columbus, Ohio. “Yes, I created the mission statement, but it’s the amazing women I work with every day who bring it out. I like to think of us all as a team, making a name for ourselves in the city.” To drive that message home, she assigns a special responsibility to each team member, such as managing a particular area of the salon or finding a cool, creative thing the staff can do together.

2. Implement structure and guidelines.

“It’s a manager’s job to have her team trained and prepared to succeed in their roles,” stresses Hopkins. “This means providing clear feedback on their performance, as well as their behavior, in order to set them up for success. Anything that will help an employee succeed should be clear to them.” Carla Hatler, owner of Lacquer salon with two locations in Austin, Texas, learned this the the hard way. “Our retention has improved, but at the beginning we had a lot of turnover,” she admits. “We didn’t have a lot of structure in place, so we had nail techs calling out on busy days, things like that. Finally, I put systems and rules—with consequences—in place. It had never occurred to me that I would have to do that.”

Legal and human resources professionals urge all employers to create an employee handbook that outlines rules, policies and expectations. Ruth Kallens, owner of Van Court Nail Studio in New York City, comes from a corporate background, so that step was second nature to her. “I created a robust handbook that includes what to wear and not wear, how to act, what’s tolerated and not tolerated, etc.,” she explains. “You have to put everything in there.”

3. Give attention and recognition.

“As a manager, you have to watch what people are doing,” says Leigh Branham, a Kansas City, Missouri-based expert in employee engagement and retention, business consultant, speaker and author of several books, including The 7 Hidden Reasons Employees Leave. “That means you can’t just be back in your office working on your to-do list and running numbers. You have to be [on the floor] and paying attention. Watch what people are doing and if you see them succeeding, give that recognition. For example, ‘I see you’re staying late to take care of the customer and I really appreciate it.’ It has to be specific.” For Kallens, it comes down to basics: “I want to be treated fairly and kindly so I try my best to do that with my employees,” she says. “I might bring them coffee or send team emails calling people out for something great they did. Positive reinforcement is essential.”

4. Be transparent.

Communication fosters trust, and both are two-way streets. Tracy Dungan, co-owner of the ProFiles franchise in Florida, believes in being as open with staff as possible. “I’ve found that I have to be upfront about everything from the beginning, otherwise it stresses me out,” she says. “Communication is so important. I know a lot of salon owners who have lost nail techs because they didn’t communicate with them.” The more information you can share regarding salon goals, progress and decisions, the more engaged and invested your staff will be. “There’s something called ‘open book management’ in which you open up your financial books to help educate your team as to what it takes to run a business,” says Branham. “Some of your employees might decide to open their own salon—and people who are motivated are going to leave anyway—but why not teach them about expenses involved with keeping the business afloat? Plus, it helps all employees understand the big picture and the reasons behind some of your decisions.” Hatler agrees, saying, “I think transparency is important because it helps the team understand what you go through while running a business and trying to remain profitable. I don’t give staff specific numbers but I let them know where we are generally and where we’re headed. It gives everyone a certain level of insight.”

5. Show a caring attitude.

Many employers find themselves mystified when an employee gives notice. “I had no idea anything was wrong. She never said anything,” is a common lament. That’s because most staff members won’t say anything unless asked. “It’s essential to do employee check-ins on a regular basis,” says Branham. “In fact, let them know when you hire them that you’re going to do this and that you want them to be candid. Ask, ‘Is there anything you need from me?’ and ‘What can I do to make you more effective in your job?’” He adds that some managers offer opportunities to submit anonymous requests and feedback without fear of repercussions.

“I keep my eye on the environment and vibe very carefully,” says Suarez-Brentzel. “If things are off or tense, I try to have meetings to bring us back together. I remind the staff that the salon is a safe and chill space. We have a ‘girl gang hang’ once a month just to relax and hang out with each other outside of work.” Kallens brings everyone together once a quarter, but also strives for “one-off” conversations outside of work hours whenever possible. “Be kind; we’re all only human,” she reminds.

An attitude of caring tends to be contagious and encourages a more supportive atmosphere in the workplace overall. “A person might share a challenge going on in her personal life with the team, and everyone can figure out together how to make things easier for that individual,” suggests Branham. “Anything that lets your employees know you think about their work/life balance and not just what they can do for you shows you truly care.”

6. Offer flexible incentives.

“Employees tend to be motivated in two different ways: intrinsically and extrinsically,” explains Hopkins. “Intrinsically motivated people care about doing a good job because of their innate pride and passion for the work. They like recognition of their hard work, expressed in compliments and increased responsibility. Extrinsically motivated people look for outwardly recognizable prizes, such as corner offices or gift cards. So, employers need to tap into what motivates each employee.” Hopkins recommend a ‘menu’ of options, saying, “Let your staff provide some direction as to what they appreciate most.”

Suarez-Brentzel holds a monthly “feedback/review contest” based on what salon customers are saying about staff members. “When an employee reaches 10 client compliments or positive reviews submitted via phone or email, I give them a paid day off,” she says. “I find that rewarding growth and amazing service keeps people motivated.” Dungan provides big discounts on products, travel to beauty shows and an annual raffle to raise money for the salon’s education fund. “We even give a diamond necklace to people when they’ve been with us 10 years!” she reports. Indeed, incentives—big and small— can help salon owners hold onto employees. The greatest reward? Knowing that you’re providing a positive, open and growth-       oriented environment for your techs—and your business—to thrive. 

-Linda Kossoff is a health and beauty writer in Los Angeles.

What’s your best advice for keeping your great employees? Let us know in the comments below.

[photos (getty images): Designer491/istockW]

More in Business