Not long ago I worked with a mid-sized manufacturing plant in St. Louis that had a remarkable record of attracting and keeping in-demand workers. Although the company offered competitive wages, their formula for employee retention did not include offering above-market compensation, perks, and benefits.

When I asked Darrel, the plant manager, his secret for hanging on to his skilled machinists and technicians who were frequently courted by headhunters and other employers, he said “It’s simple, really. I know exactly what they want from their job. My job is to find a way to give it to them.”

Darrel then told me that for several years he had included a one-sided black and white photocopied sheet of paper inside the paycheck envelope for every employee. On that paper, employees were asked three questions:

  1. What do you like best about working here?Ideas for workplace
  2. What do you like least about working here?
  3. If you could make one change to your job, what would that be?

Next to the time clock where workers punched in/out was a slotted box bearing a sign that read –


With around 190 employees, Darrel said he received about two to three dozen responses in the box each week, the majority of which contained practical ideas he could actually implement. Most of the surveys were submitted anonymously, but occasionally someone would want credit for their idea or ask Darrel for a convenient time to come to his office and work out a problem.

Darrel knew what was going on in his plant; the good, the bad, and the ugly. His low-tech method for keeping an omniscient ear-to-the-ground enabled him to extinguish minor problems before they grew into unmanageable infernos, and he was always implementing new ideas that were submitted for increasing efficiency and productivity.

Today there are a myriad of employee engagement surveys and online assessment tools available to help employers discover how their people feel about their jobs. While many of them ask intelligent and insightful questions that require time and deep introspection to answer, few can get to the heart of a culture with less friction than Darrel’s system.