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To keep employees loyal, try asking what they want

Aflac CEO Dan Amos’ strategy for preventing costly turnover: He surveys his employees — 70% of whom are women — often. Then he acts on what they say.

By Anne Fisher, contributor

Dan Amos, chairman and chief executive of insurance giant Aflac (AFL), spends a lot of time thinking about what women want.

“It’s not lost on us that, with male-dominated industries like manufacturing and construction battered by the recession, families are depending more on the wife’s income than ever before,” Amos says. “The work-life benefits that are the most important to women are where we find the most gain in loyalty.”

The L-word has got plenty of companies worried these days, for good reason. Even with unemployment persisting at around 10%, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in eight of the past 10 months, more workers have voluntarily quit than have been laid off.

The trend is likely to accelerate as the recovery (slowly) picks up steam. Somewhere between 30% and 80% of all employees — depending on which poll you believe — are itching to work elsewhere, as soon as they get a better offer.

That’s a big headache in the making, especially since most companies are now running so lean that losing key people does even more damage than it used to. According to a new study by Nashville-based executive coaching firm OI Partners, two-thirds of employers are scrambling to find ways to keep the workers they have from eyeing the exits.

Aflac chief Amos admits his solution sounds obvious: If you want to know what would keep someone from quitting, ask. “It sounds like common sense, but not many companies really do it,” he says.

Employers often assume, Amos says, that everyone will just want more money. But most people’s wish lists are more complicated — and more realistic — than that. Amos started polling Aflac’s employees when he became CEO in 1990. The top requests: More recognition for their work and day care for their kids.

They got both. At its headquarters in Columbus, Ga. — at 18 stories, it’s the tallest building in town — Aflac built a preschool that can accommodate 540 tots. The company also started subsidizing day care for the roughly 400 Aflac employees at other locations in the U.S.

On the recognition front, Amos launched a series of perks including Employee Appreciation Week, which features free outings to Six Flags Over Georgia for employees and their whole families.

Of course, many other enterprises on Fortune’s list of best places to work offer on-site day care too, and finding ways to regularly and sincerely thank people for their hard work is practically de rigueur. But because about three-quarters of Aflac employees are female, surveys also revealed a widespread preoccupation with juggling work and home. So Aflac started offering flexible schedules and job sharing.

“I always say: ‘The survey rules,’” says Amos.

That willingness to listen has helped Aflac  — the only insurance company to show up in Fortune’s Best Companies ranking for 13 years running — to successfully recruit talented women from all over the U.S. and from as far away as India.

One more thing that doesn’t hurt: Of the six executive vice presidents who report directly to Amos, three are women. Notes Amos, “When women see other women succeeding, it attracts them and inspires them.”

It also, apparently, builds loyalty: Aflac’s annual employee turnover is pretty close to zero.