Lessons Are NOT Being Learned About Employee Retention

It’s well understood that replacing valuable employees is costlier and consumes more effort than retaining them. Unfortunately, this is a good example of the adage "Lesson learned" – regardless of how often companies lose good workers, they rarely learn from exit interviews and other such post-mortem procedures.

The first step to a solution is to identify and confirm root causes – HR staff should track the exit rationale provided and look for trends. Depending on the volume or frequency of departures, a quarterly or annual list of the top five reasons given could be shared and reviewed with the executive team.

HR should be proactively soliciting feedback – too often, they only get engaged with front-line staff when an issue has occurred. Informal, straight-talk focus groups are one way to unearth negative perceptions and simmering concerns. Staff surveys are another good option, but keep them straightforward, simple and frequent – too often they are onerous and done annually which increases the likelihood of "Garbage in, Garbage out."

If your pay scales are not aligned to those for similar roles within the same geographic region, and if there are insufficient counter-balancing environmental factors, you are likely in trouble. Money is a low motivator on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but you don’t want to introduce too much of a difference in compensation as it will make staff feel at a disadvantage relative to their peers in other companies. Don’t assume that poor economic conditions will work to your advantage – staff might not quit, but they may mentally "check out".

Fiscal restraint policies from within or outside of your organization might make it challenging to address compensation imbalances – if so, a good approach might be to engage staff in coming up with alternate options including increased professional development, flex time, flexible working arrangements or other soft benefits.

Recognition is often tied to compensation but that approach is neither scalable nor sustainable. Invest in management development including training on positive reinforcement. However, the flip side of this is also important – while many companies institute a comprehensive employee recognition program including formal and informal approaches, but don’t ensure that a process is in place to ensure that negative behaviors are also addressed in a timely fashion. One way to lose front-line support for an employee recognition program is to reward people that have performed well in one area but have violated the core values of the organization in others!

A lack of growth is another common cause for employee departure. This is unfortunate because the drive and self-awareness required to recognize this situation and to actively address it are valuable competencies within an employee.

Even if there are limited senior positions for vertical mobility and training budgets are tight, establishment of a formal mentoring program (to provide growth and challenge for both mentors and mentees), job rotation opportunities, the chance to work on different types of projects, or the opportunity to spend some time each month working on initiatives that are outside of one’s normal domain are all options to avoid stagnation.

Even if the executive team has done a good job of defining mission and vision, developing a strategy and then cascading that strategy to their direct reports, mid-level management can be the weakest link. Empire-building, information hoarding and turf protection are behaviors that should be weeded out on sight.

While management development programs can help, 360 feedback that evaluates alignment to core values is one way to identify "bad apples." Having equitable consequences is also important – like the Mafia, many organizations seem to have no problem with holding front-line staff accountable, but managers are untouchable. If this is a systemic issue that has resulted in multiple departures, the "surgical" removal of some senior troublemakers is one way to start to restore faith.

If you don’t start to address lessons identified when a valued employee leaves you are just fulfilling that oft-quoted definition of insanity: "Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results."