NEW YORK -- It's one of the most precious commodities a small business can have, but it's one many company owners don't try hard enough to keep - their workers' loyalty.
"The importance of workplace loyalty is greatly underrated," said Diane Arthur, head of her own management consulting firm in Northport, N.Y., and author of "The Employee Recruitment and Retention Handbook."
"Employers are saying, 'They don't have a sense of commitment to us, so we can't afford to have a sense of loyalty to them," said Arthur, who described owners who don't value their workers' loyalty as shortsighted.
If employees feel loyal to a company, they're likely to be more productive and make an extra effort for the business. And they're likely to stay, keeping the business stable and allowing the owner to concentrate on sales and earnings, not hiring replacement staffers.
The problem, consultants say, is that employers don't understand that in order to get loyalty from workers, a boss has to be loyal to them in the first place. "Loyalty should be initiated by the employer," Arthur said.
The weak economy isn't helping the situation.
"Employers for the most part believe that because we're in a tight economy, it's now an employer's marketplace and no longer an employee's marketplace," said Beverly Kaye, an employee retention consultant in Sherman Oaks, Calif. "That is not necessarily so - don't relax, don't think that you've got them and they've got no choice. Good, talented people will aways have choices."
Leigh Branum, a vice president with Right Management Consultants in Overland Park, Kan., put it bluntly, saying some employers have the attitude that if workers aren't happy, "don't let the door hit you on the way out. They've got to get rid of that mindset."
Consultants say it's not that hard to foster worker loyalty. Just about every business owner can find ways to make employees feel better, and in turn, care more about the business.
But don't for one minute think that giving someone a paycheck is all you need to do. Branum, whose company does exit interviews for other businesses, said that most managers think their workers have left because of money.
In reality, "you couldn't pay enough money to keep them," said Branum, who wrote "Keeping the People Who Keep You in Business."
What's more important to employees is a belief that they can grow and develop in their work, said Gary Topchik, managing partner of Silverstar Enterprises Inc., a Los Angeles-based management consultancy,
"If someone is on a career path and they have a good sense that they're moving up or the president or the owner of the company will take care of them and they have a good future, there's a strong sense of loyalty," said Topchik, who wrote the book "Managing Workplace Negativity."
It's possible to give employees that sense even in businesses like a gas station or dry cleaning store, Topchik said. If an owner tells a worker "I'm going to teach you how to manage," it can go a long way toward making even the least experienced, unskilled employee feel loyal, he said.
Jana Matthews, a consultant in Boulder, Colo., and co-author of "Building the Awesome Organization," said that helping employees understand their role in the company's mission will also help. So, in the dry cleaning example, she suggested an owner convey to workers, "our business is to help people walk out of here looking their best ... the issue isn't just dry cleaning clothes."
A small business actually has an advantage when it comes to nurturing loyalty, Matthews said. "The good news about being in a small company is believing you can have an impact."
Moreover, with fewer employees, it's easier for the boss to stay in closer contact with the staff.
Contact, and communication, are crucial to building a sense of loyalty. So is a willingness to listen.
"Ask them, 'How am I doing?"' Arthur said. "But if they tell you and you ignore or rationalize it, you won't have any loyalty. Be honest and sincere."
Along that line, if you feel an employee is disloyal, try to find out why. "Listen to their anger. Don't just say, 'He was in a snit,"' said Kaye, co-author of "Love 'Em or Lose 'Em."
Of course, positive feedback - verbal and written - goes a long way. Kaye said of her employees, "I thank them often and I thank them in writing."
Consultants also say rewards such as free lunch and gift certificates are a great idea - yes, they cost money, but they are great investments in creating loyalty.