People Will Leave — Understand Why And Embrace It

November 14, 2019

Often you hear people talking about employee retention and how to maximize it. I’m not going to use the term “employee retention” for one simple reason: retention is an awful word to describe the relationship between the employer and employee.

The definition of retention:
the continued possession, use, or control of something

I don’t know about you, but that does not sound like a nice relationship to me.

Things have changed in the world and the 21st century is a different place than the 20th century was. People don’t want to stay in the same company forever and that’s a great thing. New people bring new perspectives to the company and with new perspectives you can find what you can do better.

Why do people leave?

The logical place to start is to think about WHY employees are leaving the company. If you know the cause then you can take steps to influence the outcome. For example: If people are switching to lower paying jobs, giving them a raise will likely not influence the decision. When employees leave, they are effectively saying: “I don’t believe in this company”. This isn’t always the original cause, but it is the final reason people think of when they leave. Let’s list some of the most common reasons for people to change companies, some of these are going to be obvious, some you might not have thought of.

Lack of faith in the company

People want to have meaning in their lives. Losing faith in the company is one of the worst things that could ever happen to an employee. This is can take form in three basic forms:

“This company is going under”

When people either know or think that the company is running out of money and will go bankrupt, they will automatically start thinking about their own survival and look for new jobs. People are selfish and they need income to live daily lives they enjoy.

“This product will never work”

Ever worked on something that you knew was never going to be used? It’s not a great feeling. This can be small things like a plan for company outings. Or something bigger like the one product that the company makes. If you think that you are wasting your time doing this, you will lose your motivation and you won’t do your job properly. The next logical step is to look for work you are excited about.

“The management/leadership is destroying the company”

This is one of the things that can be fixed if the problem is middle management or the management of a single unit. But if the entire leadership and management in the company are not listening to the employees and are making a questionable decision after another, then it is a difficult thing to change.

Lack of trust from management

When managers don’t trust their employees, it kills productivity. People crave autonomy. When managers micromanage everything and don’t trust the team they are leading it creates an environment where every change needs to be run through the manager and creates a lot of distractions to both the employees and the manager. This kills the productivity of the employee and the manager. Employees are not able to focus on their work when their flow is often interrupted by pointless micromanagement.

Lack of trust towards management

Employees not trusting managers/coworkers is a hard thing to fix. When it’s towards coworkers, it’s fairly fixable. There are coworkers who will constantly promise to do something, but never doing it. This is often something that managers will (or at least should) address. Then there are managers that promise you something and don’t held their end of the deal, that is a BIG problem. When you can’t trust what your managers are saying to you, what can you trust in? Always under promise and over deliver. When you lose the ability to trust your managers, it’s incredibly hard to rebuild that trust. It’s the one thing every relationship requires.

Boredom

We all have tasks that are boring, but just need to get done. That’s perfectly normal and to be expected. It is however very important that these boring tasks are only a part of the job description and not the entire job description. Every job has things that you don’t want to do, but it should always be the “necessary evil”, not what you do everyday, all day. A cafe worker will have to clean the tables and do dishes, but that’s only a small part of the job. Boredom becomes a problem and a reason for leaving the company when you have too much boring tasks, your days are nothing but boring tasks, or you are doing more boring tasks compared to others. A junior developer shouldn’t just be doing small bug fixes that no one else wants to do, they should have meaningful tasks so they can learn more. If a person is not challenged and able to learn regularly, they will get bored and they will move on. As Michael Lopp (under the pen name Rands) writes in Bored People Quit:

Think of boredom as a clock. Every second that someone on my team is bored, a second passes on this clock. After some aggregated amount of seconds that varies for every person, they look at the time, throw up their arms, and quit.

No possibility for career progression

Everyone wants to develop themselves and progress their career. For some, a fancier title might be all they are looking for. But for most, it’s the day to day work that makes the difference. When you’re learning new things constantly, it gives days meaning, since you are constantly developing yourself. But you also need to be able to put that new found knowledge into practice. It doesn’t matter what your title is if you’re still doing the same things you did as an intern.

Recognition

Ever cleaned the entire house on your day off and when your significant other/roommate comes home, they don’t notice your hard work? It sucks, right? Now picture that is your every single day at work. Feedback is important for people to improve themselves and get validation that their work matters.

How to prevent people from leaving?

Now that we have an understanding of WHY people leave we can think of how to prevent them from leaving. The easy and short answer is: fix the issues the company has, but often that’s easier said than done. First of all, people will leave, its natural. The goal isn’t to to eliminate turnover, but to lengthen the tenure of the best people, avoid early turnover (onboarding is important!) and to get rid of people who don’t contribute to the common goal. This is not the natural pattern emerging. Bruce F. Webster wrote a great article about how companies have an anti-pattern emerging when they think about hiring new people and keeping their current ones. He calls this anti-pattern The Dead Sea Effect.

There is an anti-pattern that I’ve seen in large organizations which I have come to call “the Dead Sea effect”. The Dead Sea, of course, is a large body of water between Israel and Jordan, located well below sea level. The Jordan River empties into it; water leaves only by evaporation, which means that over the eons, the Dead Sea has become very salty (e.g., 8x saltier than the ocean). As such, it is generally unable to support life, except when spring floods temporarily lower the salinity.
Many large corporate/government IT shops — and not a few small ones — work like the Dead Sea. New hires are brought in as management deems it necessary. Their qualifications will tend to vary quite a bit, depending upon current needs, employee departure, the personnel budget, and the general hiring ability of those doing the hiring. All things being equal, the general competency of the IT department should have roughly the same distribution as the incoming hires.
But in my experience, that’s not what happens. Instead, what happens is that the more talented and effective IT engineers are the ones most likely to leave — to evaporate, if you will. They are the ones least likely to put up with the frequent stupidities and workplace problems that plague large organizations; they are also the ones most likely to have other opportunities that they can readily move to.
What tends to remain behind is the ‘residue’ — the least talented and effective IT engineers. They tend to be grateful they have a job and make fewer demands on management; even if they find the workplace unpleasant, they are the least likely to be able to find a job elsewhere. They tend to entrench themselves, becoming maintenance experts on critical systems, assuming responsibilities that no one else wants so that the organization can’t afford to let them go.
Photo by Keith Chan on Unsplash

Companies want to hire the best talent out there and keep them… well, forever. While getting rid of the under performers. The problem with this is that the best talent will be the first to move on when your company or managers don’t support their needs well enough. The people left behind are the not-so talented or driven people. The ones who come to the office and do just enough to get their pay check and not get fired. I’m not saying that these employees should be fired and replaced with other more talented, more driven ones. Sometimes that is necessary, but often it’s not. Usually there is an underlying cause for their lack of productivity. No one chooses to be lazy, no one chooses to be an under-performer. The key to identify the underlying issues is communication. As Devon Price wrote in this great article:

People do not choose to fail or disappoint. No one wants to feel incapable, apathetic, or ineffective. If you look at a person’s action (or inaction) and see only laziness, you are missing key details. There is always an explanation. There are always barriers. Just because you can’t see them, or don’t view them as legitimate, doesn’t mean they’re not there. Look harder.

Communication is important

The key is to communicate within the company, within the teams. Look for the WHY. Why are they not performing as well as some of the other employees, are they satisfied with their job, do they want to do something else? When you know these things and understand where they are coming from, then you can make plans for the future. This can be supporting them in their career change and letting them pursue their new passion inside or outside of the company. Sometimes it can be as simple as giving them time to work things out outside of the office. When you know the reason, you don’t have to guess.

Have a company culture that supports individuals and facilitates their growth. Talented and motivated people have the instinctual need to make the most out of their abilities. They want to constantly develop themselves and grow as individuals. So offer them mentorship, clear career path, recognition and the ability to influence their days. Give employees external ways to improve. There is only so much knowledge inside your company that employees can learn. If you offer them ways to improve themselves outside of your company (conferences, workshops, courses etc.) they can bring that knowledge back to the company, teach their coworkers and bring value to their own career development.

In short: give them value.

Give employees meaning

Make them feel like they are a part of something bigger. When employees have the feeling of working alongside a strong team, working towards the same worthy goal. They work harder. The feeling is powerful and intoxicating. When employees feel like their work matters and they are helping others, the employer doesn’t have to convince them why they should stay in the company and work on the product. People want to make a difference.

How to handle when people do leave?

First of all: be happy. You’ve worked with this person for a while now and they are making a new move in their life. Be happy for them! When people have made up their mind that they are leaving, trying to get them to stay at this point is difficult. So what can you do? Figure out the reason. This can be done with well structured exit interviews and open communication. Second thing you want to be sure of is that the leaving employees have had a great time working at your company. Think of them as alumni, have a LinkedIn group for them, make it a community. When previous employees have been able to grow and develop themselves in a great company, they will tell their friends to apply to that company. They will choose to work with that company in future projects. And if you’re really lucky, they might come back to work at the company and share all the knowledge they’ve gathered along the way. You DO NOT want past employees telling their friends not to apply for jobs at your company, or taking your company out of the list of possible collaborators. That’s how you lose money.

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