A CLEAR MESSAGE from the top is the best way to retain employees. This is the lesson the Hong Kong Institute of Human Resource Management hopes to convey at a conference organised on the theme of creating a productive and content workforce. The two-day event, titled 'Building a Happy, Productive and Talented Workforce', opens today at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. Senior managers who ignored simple measures to improve the working life of their staff might eventually have unhappy workers, warned the institute's president, K.T. Lai. And that could cost the company dearly. Workers with low morale tended not to rise to the level of productivity expected by their employers. The result was often operational mistakes, defective products and even accidents, said Mr Lai, who is also group HR manager for remuneration and HR information systems at CLP Holdings. Mr Lai's recipe for creating a happy workforce contains the following ingredients: clear and written policies, the promise of career progression, cross training and job sharing, an open door to senior management, a good work-life balance and a sense of helping the community at large. Surprisingly, pay is not necessarily the most important component in an employee's job package, according to the results of a recent survey conducted by the institute. Being happy in one's job counted as a prime consideration. Staff who did not see a future in their careers and felt alone and without help were unhappy staff, the survey suggested. 'If that is the case, we can do a lot by enhancing communication channels, looking at the nature of the work and job rotations,' Mr Lai said. Companies should make their employees feel that they are more than mere participants, and that they could personally help the business succeed. 'It's a basic idea,' he explained. 'Companies need people; you cannot do it yourself. Make sure employees understand your objectives and ensure they are capable to do so - that is their career.' Staff might have a problem before they deliver the product to you, Mr Lai said. How you managed that problem was what determined your company's success. 'Give the work back to the people, because they know the best way to do their job. Listen to what they think,' he said, adding that management could always take a good idea and interpret it for the company's advantage. Of course, there are many reasons for unhappy employees, some beyond the control of the CEO. In such cases, where an employee's private and personal concerns come into play, the company may provide help in the form of an employee assistance programme, calling in an outside organisation to counsel needy staff. This would also reinforce the company's image as a caring employer. Introducing a policy for casual leave would be another good move towards staff retention. Not many firms in Hong Kong allow their workers time off for a couple of hours, unless there is advanced notice in writing. The Sars crisis in 2003 was a time when companies showed their ability to adapt to situations. Employers gave staff flexible hours so they could avoid using public transport during peak hours, and allowed some staff to work from home. The conference is sponsored by South China Morning Post Publishers Limited.