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Turning the Tables on Turnover

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When you get down to it, the true limits of what goals and initiatives your company or your team can reach lie at the limits of the abilities of your employees. No matter how fantastic you believe your idea for a new product to be, no matter how much time and money you throw at its development, the truth is that: if you’re asking for something that’s beyond the abilities of your employees to create, then it’s beyond your reach. Though these limitations exist as surely as gravity, it’s easy for people who occupy higher positions within a company to undergo a bit of selective memory loss in this department. Instead of seeing a team working toward the completion of an objective, they see problems and solutions.

Problem: the launch of our new product has fallen 2 months behind schedule, due to the recent resignation of the lead developer.

Solution: Devote more man hours to development.  Hire a new lead developer.

While this is a totally pragmatic approach to getting back on track with a product launch, it’s a fairly 1 dimensional approach, one that assumes the delay to be a black and white issue, easily countered with additional resource allocation. The only problem is that, assuming that they’re successful in hiring a new lead developer, that the new hire would be the 4th such person to occupy the position in this product’s short lifespan. If your company or a particular department within your company has been experiencing a high turnover rate, the cost of sourcing and hiring replacements for key positions is just the beginning of the impact that “revolving door retention” is having on your business.

Just think about everyone who’s been working under the parade of product developers for the past year and a half. When your employees see someone in such a critical position being replaced over and over again, it doesn’t inspire a whole lot of confidence in the success of the product or the company at large. I mean, how would you like having to try to maintain continuity in a product’s design when the person in charge changes every few months? Severe retention problems in key roles can leave a team twiddling their thumbs and shifting directions in their work dramatically with each arrival of the latest person to occupy the role. In some cases, turnover can beget even more turnover, a sort of “Abandon Ship!” phenomenon that occurs as employees either follow their favorite managers or colleagues away from your company or simply get tired of a lack of continuity at work.

Now, there is no cure-all solution for a retention problem, but there is one thing that you will need in order to start getting some lasting additions to your workforce: knowledge. Knowledge of the real conditions of these high turnover roles, personal knowledge of why these people are quitting and pretty much everything else you can find out about what the heck is driving people out as fast as you can pull them in. While there is a chance that all of these lead developers quit so quickly due to a strong desire to retire early and sail across the globe, I wouldn’t bet on it. In order to begin correcting your turnover problem, you need to identify patterns and, to identify those patterns; you must be familiar enough with the cases of individual employees to see if they are part of a broader trend or are simply anomalies.

Because of the crucial role that knowledge plays in addressing high turnover, I recommend that, instead searching for answers for why people are leaving in the exit interview that so many companies rely on, you instead use “stay interviews” to get into their heads before they’ve decided to leave. A “stay interview” is an informal, 1 on 1 interview in which the interviewer asks an employee why they’re choosing to stay with the company. This forces the employee to at least scrounge a few positives together about their working life, which is good way to see how satisfied they really are with their job.

The next part of the stay interview, the most useful part in my opinion, is asking the employee if there’s any part of their job that’s driving them crazy or making them question their future in the role. Now, when I said “informal” earlier, I meant it. If you’re too “boss-like,” rigid or even accusatory in your attempt to learn about what’s bothering them, the employee will fear to answer honestly, effectively making the whole exercise a waste of time. You need to be disarming. Stress to them that this is not a performance review and that you just want to know about the realities of their job and want to help out. This way, the employee will feel comfortable enough to open up and, potentially, reveal some of the conditions or problems that have made this role so hard to fill in a lasting way. What if the required skills that you’ve been posting in your job descriptions aren’t aligned with the actual technical demand of the project? What if a particularly toxic manager has been causing everyone who occupied this role to run for the hills? The point is that, the best person to ask how mean an alligator is is the person who’s wrestling that mother.

The mistake that so many companies make is waiting until a person has given notice to figure out why they’re doing it. Besides missing out on any chance to correct the problems causing the employee to leave, the explanation that you’re left with as they walk out of the door may not reveal the dirty laundry that’s been stinking up the whole process. Remember, they want to be able to use you as a reference and put this little episode down on their resume, so, saying that “this has been the most disorganized, under-resourced project that I’ve ever worked on,” might not be something they’re willing to do. So don’t wait until it’s too late to see why you can’t keep a role filled for more than a few quarters. Take the proactive approach and start gathering that crucial information about the real conditions of the role to correct the real problems that have been driving hires away prematurely.

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