Retaining Employees

Marcia Doyle Headshot
Updated Aug 6, 2013

Turn Around Turnover

How you treat employees is as important in retaining them as how much you pay them.

By Carolyn Mason

It’s unbearably hot outside, and Tom Nierman’s workers are finishing a grueling landscape installation when, out of the blue, Nierman pulls up with coolers of iced Gatorade and Dilly Bars from Dairy Queen.

This inexpensive, unexpected gesture delights both the workers and the client. Nierman, owner of Nierman Landscape and Design in Woodstock, Illinois, says his customers often comment on how his crews seem to really enjoy their work. He shrugs off the expense and says it’s well worth the money to keep good employees motivated and loyal.

In a poll of TLC readers and experts, good pay counts, but so do inititiatives that build pride and a sense of teamwork.

“You don’t have to have elaborate reward systems to retain good employees, but you do have to show appreciation and offer recognition for a job well done,” Nierman says. While he offers extremely competitive wages and benefits, he believes his employees look for more than just wages to remain loyal.

The research backs up Nierman’s views. Once the playing field is level – competitive salary and benefits – keeping good employees goes beyond dollars and cents.

Total Landscape Care surveyed 239 landscape-company owners and found while they say salary and benefits are important factors in retention, the intangibles are what keep employees satisfied and loyal.

The research shows when salary and benefits are competitive, employees are motivated by intrinsic human values such as feeling attached to the organization, valued by the employer and involved in decision making.

For many employees, even those with modest career aspirations, clear job descriptions and defined career paths makes them less likely to leave you for a better offer. And, while workers might claim they are leaving for more money, in truth, they leave for multiple reasons.

We asked landscape owners and experts in the green industry to relate their best practices for retaining and motivating good (well-compensated) employees.


Do: Speak respectfully to your employees.

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Don’t: Yell, berate, badger or talk down to employees.

Jerry Gaeta, a business consultant and 30-year landscaping industry veteran, says to apply the golden rule and speak to employees like you would like to be spoken to. He believes a sustainable retention policy boils down to treating people like human beings, fairly and with respect. He says he had low turnover during the 28 years he owned a landscaping company in Charleston, South Carolina.

“‘ Thank you’ might be the two most important words you’ll ever use to retain employees.”

“We didn’t do anything fancy,” Gaeta says. “It was a matter of asking employees, ‘Why do you like it here?’ We listened to their answers, cared about their input and were open to their suggestions.”

Gaeta doesn’t believe various-level employees are motivated differently. “Everyone wants to be talked to in a respectful manner,” he says. “In fact, you’d be surprised at how many business owners don’t even speak to their laborers at all.”

Do: Operate clean, well-maintained equipment.

Don’t: Cut corners on safety or appearances.When employees arrive in a freshly washed truck wearing uniforms of matching shirts and pants, it gives both customer and employee a sense of being part of a well-run organization. Nierman says all his foremen have their names painted on the truck. “That inspires a sense of ownership and shows I respect them enough to put their name on my equipment. It sets them apart from the crew and gives the customer a name to associate with the job,” he says.

Operating well-maintained equipment prevents costly breakdowns and shows employees you respect their safety and well-being. “You not only disrespect your employees when you send them out in broken, dirty equipment, but you send a message to your customers that you don’t respect them either,” says green industry expert Tony Bass, president of Super Lawn Technologies.


Do: Make work fun.

Don’t: Allow a negative workplace.

Shayne Newman’s workers have a reputation for a being close-knit, family-oriented team who works hard and plays hard.

2011 TLC Landscaper of the Year Finalist Newman, owner of YardApes in New Milford, Connecticut, says he organizes an outing every month with his 25 employees. If there are no work-injury absences in the month, he treats them to activities such as bowling, cookouts, softball games or just going to lunch together.

“I try to tailor the activities to accommodate the interests of all of the workers. Some will be family outings like going to Six Flags, and others are just with the guys such as watching a ball game,” he says. “Getting together outside of the work environment fosters a team spirit that really pays off on the job. If employees enjoy each other outside of work, they have better working relationships as well.”

He also pops in on jobs when it’s raining or if he’s in the area. “When they see me grab a shovel or a mower and start working, it sends the message that I may be the boss, but I’m not asking them to do anything I won’t do,” he says.

Well-maintained equipment sends a positive message to employees and customers.

Nierman takes his crew out for lunch, hosts holiday parties and throws impromptu gatherings. However, he says it’s the little gestures that keep spirits high. He’ll stop by with hot coffee on cold mornings or show up with a trunk of iced drinks in the summer. He also buys new work gloves every spring, a small gesture that never fails to elicit appreciation.


Do: Pat employees on the back.

Don’t: Assume they know they are appreciated.

YardApe’s crews and their families enjoy a variety of events and activities together

Nearly 88 percent of respondents to our survey reported they believe personal interaction is extremely important to retaining employees.

In fact, “thank you” might be the two most important words you’ll ever use to retain employees. “It may seem like a small thing, but saying ‘thank you’ for a job well-done goes a long way,” Bass says.

He ranks “showing appreciation” higher than any other employee-retention strategy.

“Even if you think you are appreciative and complimentary, you can do better,” he says.

“People leave managers, not companies, and turnover is mostly a manager issue.”

While employees might quit for various personal or financial reasons, feeling unappreciated is often the unspoken reason. If your employees leave for similar or only slightly better pay, one reason may be not feeling connected to your company, a direct result of feeling unappreciated.


Do: Set up achievable rewards and bonuses.

Don’t: Pay to stay.

Offer employees bonuses or rewards when they exceed expectations.

Jeff Carowitz, a green industry consultant with Houston-based Strategic Force, says an incentive program will retain the most motivated and skilled employees by offering cash bonuses (or perk points) for productivity and sales ability.

He recommends a “scorecard” system in which the employee is evaluated daily by his or her supervisor on specific performance factors. Once tallied, the employee’s daily scores determine his or her incentive compensation (or perk points) for the week. Nearly 57 percent of our survey respondents say they offer cash bonuses, gift cards and other incentives for extra sales and exceeding job or safety standards. One respondent said he gives cash to the crew with the least complaints.

Spell it out

Do: Offer clear career paths and job descriptions.

Don’t: Assume employees are satisfied with the status quo.

It’s a myth that laborers don’t want to move up.

They may not aspire to own a landscape company, but it’s in employee and employer’s best interest to identify those with leadership qualities or particular skills that can be encouraged.

Newman feels so strongly about this that he displays a big bulletin board in his company break room. The board maps out clearly defined career paths and uses magnets to mark each employee’s completed achievement. He bases rewards on completing training modules, passing PLANET certification exams and for being bi-lingual.

“Everything is spelled out, including job descriptions and career paths. If you want to become a manager, there’s a specific path to follow,” Newman says, and the magnets designating achievement clearly denotes individual employee progress. “There’s no favoritism or job confusion, everything is right out front.”

Manage morale

Do: Scrutinize managers with high turnover rates.

Don’t: Assume workers leave for more money, even when they tell you that is the reason.

While most respondents to our survey say their employees leave for more money, and most employees who quit will cite money as the reason for quitting, a 2006 Gallup poll of more than 1 million employed U.S. workers concluded the No. 1 reason people quit their jobs is working for a bad boss or immediate supervisor.

The survey concludes: “People leave managers, not companies, and turnover is mostly a manager issue. Poorly managed work groups are on average 50 percent less productive and 44 percent less profitable than well-managed groups.”

The conflicting data doesn’t surprise Gaeta. “People are motivated by kindness and feeling connected. If they leave for a few more cents per hour, it’s something you need to look at in your organization,” he says. “You can’t buy loyalty with money, but you can empower your employees and give them the tools for success. That’s going to pay off for everyone.”

Nierman believes his low turnover is due to the lesson he learned working under an abusive manager who yelled and berated employees. “I decided then if I ever was in charge, I would treat my employees with respect and kindness,” Nierman says. “My attitude is reflected in anyone I put in charge.”


TLC surveyed 239 landscape company owners and found employees are motivated by:

Little Things Count Big

Respondents to the TLC Employee Retention Survey listed dozens of morale-building activities, such as employee birthday parties, holiday celebrations, cook-outs, softball teams and company games.

“It’s a long, hot, hard day in the life of a laborer. If you include them in after-work activities, they feel more bonded to your organization than if they just collect a paycheck,” Bass says.

Don’t overlook the value of community service. Newman and other landscape-company owners who participate in PLANET Day of Service, Trees for Troops or other non-profit projects report a high level of employee satisfaction and pride when they are working for a greater good.