If you've ever spent any appreciable amount of money on training employees, you've probably wondered whether some of them are going to learn new skills at your expense, only to bolt for greener pastures and take your investment with them.

So how should an employer react to this possibility or try to head it off? Different organizations take very different positions. For instance, Starbucks appears to be pretty laissez faire about the whole thing. When the coffee shop operator recently unveiled a program to pay for college for employees, it didn't ask those accepting the offer for any commitment to stay once they graduate.

Meanwhile, a diametrically opposed approach is taken by some large financial institutions that shell out big bucks to train investment advisers. These banks and brokerages are so dead set on getting their money's worth that they will sock trainees with big reimbursement bills if they leave the program or the company early.

Taking It Back

Here's a recent example. Wells Fargo tried to claw back its training investment in a trainee who claimed she was forced out. She sued, arguing that the bank was violating federal labor laws by trying to make her pay back more than $50,000 in alleged training costs. She claimed the bank would effectively be ducking payment of the minimum wage and also overtime if it recouped that amount from her.

Investment News reports that many large financial firms require commitments from trainees and may seek to recoup their expenses from those who don't keep those commitments. Typically, trainees are expected to stay for the duration of a program lasting about three years and then a year or two after that. Wells Fargo has trainees sign a five-year contract that values the training at $55,000, according to the lawsuit.

Assessing the Situation

It's not our job to judge either Starbucks or the investment firms. These are business decisions made for business reasons. However, going after former employees to recoup training costs may seem a tad harsh to many employers. After all, it may not be worth it when you consider the risk of damaging the company's reputation, especially in the eyes of potential recruits.

According to a recent white paper from IBM, when employees believe they are receiving the training they need, only 22 percent of them say they intend to leave the organization. Some 16 percent are undecided, and the rest (62 percent) intend to stay. But among those who aren't getting the right training, fully 64 percent say they intend to leave. In other words, training may be more of an incentive to stay than an incentive to leave.

Choosing the Right Approach

With all these facts in mind, what should a smart organization do about the risk of seeing their training investment walk out the door? First, figure out what the training you offer is worth in dollars and cents on the open market. You might find out what similar programs cost at local community colleges or night schools. Second, use these numbers to let your employees know how much you're investing in them. They may be impressed by how much you're willing to spend to help them grow and develop.

As for trying to hold onto people for a while after they complete their training, you don't have to resort to contracts and lawyers. You can let them know how the training will help them advance within your organization and appeal to their better nature. Explain that it's only fair you have first crack at the benefits of their training. This thought may give them pause if they're tempted to jump ship when somebody else offers more money or what they perceive as a better opportunity.

About the Author

Dave Clemens is a senior writer for Rapid Learning Institute and writes the HR Café Blog. His work has appeared in the Associated Press, World Press Review and in several human resources, employment law and business newsletters. You can connect with Dave via Twitter @TheHRCafe.