The “great resignation” is real. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, in September alone, a record 4.4 million US employees (3% of the workforce) quit their jobs. In August, 65% of US employees were looking for a new job, double the proportion from May. With resignations up in Europe and Asia, the phenomenon is global. If you are struggling to retain your employees, you are not alone.
It’s easy to blame the pandemic for this development. But I believe the issues are more complicated and began long before COVID-19.
Let’s take the case of a composite employee, Linda. She is talented, top-ranked, supported by senior leaders in her line of business, and destined to be a senior executive. As happens, her boss and key sponsor moved to a new role and she acquired a new boss, Peter. Although Peter cares about the team and Linda, and he certainly doesn’t want to damage his reputation with the sponsor, his style is less supportive. Linda is more than pulling her weight with the team’s increased workload and has spoken to Peter several times about the unrelenting expectations. But nothing changes.
Before Peter’s arrival, Linda was enthusiastic about the development advice she received, excited about the growth opportunities she had, and pleased that her work was recognized. Under Peter, all of those factors have ceased. The net result from Linda’s point of view: she is overworked, her health is taking a hit, her boss is not helping her develop and advance her career, and she feels like a cog in a machine that doesn’t care about her as a human being. She quits. After a three-month break to rest and have a bit of fun, she lands a fabulous job at a competitor, with a promotion and a significant pay bump.
Was this an avoidable loss for Linda’s original employer? Absolutely. Understanding the reasons that people leave is the first step to keeping others from joining them. Replacing talent is expensive: between recruiting costs, training costs, lost productivity until a replacement is found, and the increased salary to attract new talent, it costs about one-third of an employee’s annual salary to replace them, according to a 2017 report. In addition, being seen as an employer with high turnover or one where friends of your employees don’t want to work can create reputational risk. It’s worth monitoring the experiences people are having and investing in solutions.
If you’re a leader seeking to reduce turnover, here are five red flags to look out for in employees and their performance, and five solutions.
Loss of trust. When a person’s career doesn’t follow the expected trajectory, even formerly supportive managers can be viewed with skepticism and decreased trust. A change in manager also hurts trust, as it did in Linda’s case. Time and again, I have seen top talent lose faith in a manager because an expected opportunity did not materialize. Regardless of the reasons for the change, talent starts questioning how much to trust management. And there is often no safe place to turn for credible perspective. Without trusted mentors and advisors, a disappointed employee may find it easier to turn to an outside company that is expressing interest than to stay and hope for better days. And because women and minorities don’t usually get the mentorship they need, they are particularly susceptible to the pitfalls stemming from management changes and lack of development.
Understanding the reasons that people leave is the first step to keeping others from joining them. Replacing talent is expensive when you factor in recruiting costs, training costs, and lost productivity.
Unclear career paths. Uncertainty breeds questions about leaving. Younger employees are more likely to make quick, regular career moves. When people progress to mid-level positions, those moves begin to be less frequent and less obvious. When talent can’t see what is next, they begin to doubt the career choices they have made. Without knowing what sorts of experiences are needed, what it takes to advance one or even two levels, or how to seek that information (other than asking their boss), people struggle to build a longer-term plan. And they begin to question whether they are in the right place. The lure of another company or culture becomes harder to ignore.
Work–life imbalance. When employees feel their personal ambitions are too difficult to achieve, they start to think about leaving. Those ambitions might involve having a family while maintaining a career, gaining a range of professional experiences, or even accumulating personal experiences such as travel. People will ask: “I don’t mind making sacrifices, but are the trade-offs producing the benefits I expected?” When that question surfaces, employees are already halfway out the door. For example, young men and women who are working extremely hard and don’t have time for friends, exercise, or adventures may start to doubt that the company is the right place for them—even if the pay is fabulous.
Lack of managerial care. Managers often show great care about performance and little concern about the whole person who is delivering the results. Feeling uncared for is deadly for motivation and destructive to performance over the long run. Many managers rarely ask about other aspects of their team members’ lives, their personal interests, or their ambitions. Too few managers show genuine understanding and appreciation for what it took to deliver such great results. The result? People feel that all that matters is their performance. They feel like a cog.
Self-sabotaging behaviors. All of us have preferences in how we work with others that, when overused, create barriers to our ability to win people over. Those preferences become quickly attached to our “brand” and are hard to correct. Early detection and feedback are essential to make sure such personal perceptions do not become entrenched. For example, younger employees often need to entice peers to collaborate on key projects. And because everyone is busy, the default mode is simply to push people harder to get results. That can lead to a perception that the person agitating for more is too aggressive and not appreciative. If those perceptions become fixed and a manager or leader doesn’t intervene, it is often easier for that person to leave than to try to change their reputation.
Ways to combat red flags
Monitor the managers. Coach the managers. Hold meetings with the managers’ direct reports—so-called skip-level meetings—to gauge how people are feeling. Encourage managers to share more about their own lives with their team and to show interest in others’ lives. And pay especially close attention when you reorganize or when a new manager arrives.
Talk about career options. Make it routine for managers to discuss the ways they have moved around in their careers. Determine who has been in a role for more than three years, and investigate. It is useful to encourage broadening experiences like projects, task forces, training programs, charitable events, and employee resource groups to help people get unstuck. Finally, make promotion more transparent, including the processes, criteria, and timelines.
Insist on strong development plans for each team member. Help managers give actionable feedback. Coach managers on how to create great development plans that have substance, are measurable, and will make a real difference. Communicate the process to everyone in your organization, and encourage everyone to talk about what they are working on so that continual development becomes a norm. In addition to promotion paths, focus on development and growth.
Talk about real examples of resilience. Because well-being is on employees’ minds, it is vital that managers check in on how their teams are doing and take appropriate action. Coach people on how to say no in ways that won’t damage their reputations. Consider prohibiting emails outside of business hours, as has been adopted in Portugal. If you have started to limit hours for sending email or set times when no meetings can be held, make sure your managers and their direct reports follow those directives. Encourage employees to find moments in the day for something they enjoy as a way to refresh and renew their energy.
Keep a close eye on key diverse talent. Employees from underrepresented groups at your company need extra support, in part because they often lack the mentorship and sponsorship that others take for granted. Provide wisdom on navigating careers, creating good development plans, and handling the inevitable setbacks that happen in every career. Don’t wait until something goes wrong to begin these discussions, because the message will be discounted at that point.
Had Linda’s managers taken just a few of these steps, she would very likely still be in the company. A bit more appreciation for what she was contributing, a little less push for more from her new manager, and more substantive discussion of what she might consider next would have made a huge difference to her.
In the best of times, it can be a challenge to retain people. But today, as employees grapple with pressure and opportunities, it’s vital for companies to go the extra mile to make sure they continue to be attractive to the people they’ve already recruited and trained. Focusing on how managers relate to their teams and how the organization creates career plans and practices development is essential. But ultimately, it’s about treating people as complex individuals. Helping people manage through the inevitable ups and downs of careers and juggle their personal lives and ambitions with work imperatives and goals will encourage more employees to stay longer.