Car battery company A123 Systems had a major challenge when it faced bankruptcy in late 2012. Eventually, an acquisition by Chinese automotive component company Wanxiang Group pulled the middle market company out of immediate financial danger, but another problem — employee retention — put A123 in conflict with the world's largest corporation.

Apple, which has reportedly been developing its own car, allegedly poached a team of senior engineers from A123, which sued in retaliation. The battery company claimed that Apple was looking to compete with it and that the loss of the employees, in supposed violation of employment agreements, essentially stopped a number of development efforts. Reports say that Apple is looking into settling the lawsuit, but even if it does, the damage will have been done. Because, employees with the highest level of expertise in the field are hard to come by, A123 could find its efforts hampered for years.

In sports, a farm team develops talent for the eventual use of its major-league affiliate. Middle market companies can find themselves unintentionally serving the same function for large competitors. You won't have the financial resources to compete in a salary war, so you need to find other ways to retain employees. Here are five to consider:

1. Recognition

Recognition is the act of acknowledging the contributions workers make to an organization and its success. That's fine and is often a useful tool in retention, but a company should also realize that not all employees are made equal. Some will have a large impact on performance and competitiveness. Others, although contributing, might be easier to replace. Tailor retention programs to the importance of the position. Also, remember there's a job market out there and pay attention to employees before they have other offers.

2. Respect

Money is great, but having a sense that you're valued and being treated well is more important to most people. Employees who feel respect are more likely to develop an emotional bond with a company and its executives. Listen to what people say and treat them as valuable adults. Respect what they know, which is particularly important, as they may be on the front lines with customers and business partners. Deal with human beings without acting as though they are automatons.

3. Meaning

Money quickly loses its allure when someone feels like a cog in a machine, which can easily happen when work becomes routine and uninteresting. Those tasks still have to be done, but find ways to switch things up with more interesting and challenging work that makes employees stretch and grow. Not only do you improve employee retention, but workers become more valuable.

4. Opportunity

A big reason people consider new opportunities is because they feel they've reached a dead end at a current job. One way to keep larger companies from poaching employees is to develop workers so they can reach the next level of responsibility. When they have an upward path in sight, they're less likely to seriously consider moving to another company. Furthermore, internal development is the most cost-effective method of ensuring a pool of applicants for higher positions and an important part of a company-wide succession program.

5. Ownership

One way to tie people to an organization is to provide some form of distributed ownership. Whether through profit sharing, equity positions or stock purchases (even if not publicly traded), you can give employees a stake that provides an incentive to think about the company and maintain ties.

Of the five components mentioned here, which is most important to retention? Let us know what you think by commenting below.

Erik Sherman is an NCMM contributor and author whose work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, the Financial Times, Chief Executive, Inc. and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch. Sherman has extensive experience in corporate communications consulting and is the author or co-author of 10 books. Follow him on Twitter and circle him on Google+.