Accept that employees will leave (Guest Commentary)

Retention is less a problem to be solved than it is a reality to be managed

Everything that we know about new employees suggests that they’re more likely to resign from organizations than older employees are. Today’s employees see themselves as consumers in a marketplace of employment experiences. They’re mobile, entrepreneurial, and dedicated to building their careers. If they really want to leave, that’s what they’ll do. Even engaged managers can expect this to happen.

Much has been written in the past few years about the “retention problem.” I’d like to suggest that it’s less a problem to be solved than it is a reality to be managed. Framing it as a problem suggests that the identification and application of a solution will result in the elimination of the problem. However, issues pertaining to retention are here to stay.

Yes, resignations are costly. But wrestling with turnover means clinging to an earlier time when turnover wasn’t really an issue. Employees will resign in order to pursue opportunities to build their careers. This is, as they say, the new normal.

The Economist conducted a global survey in 2004 to identify those aspects of life that most contributed to human happiness. Among the findings were “job satisfaction” at 38 per cent and “job security” at 22 per cent. What this means is almost four out of five respondents did not consider job security to be part of their happiness makeup.

Acceptance doesn’t mean capitulation. Engaged organizations have four tools that they make use of in managing employee turnover: turnover targets, exit interviews, employee surveys and alumni links.

Turnover targets — Don’t forget some turnover is good

Does your organization have an annual turnover target? What’s an acceptable turnover rate? It will depend on the nature of the organization to some extent. Nowadays five per cent is unrealistically low, while 25 per cent may be a hemorrhage. In the absence of a target, it’s hard to know if there’s a problem. Organizations should set a target below which there’s no problem, and above which there may be.

And let’s not forget that a certain amount of turnover is healthy. When a new employee enters an organization, new ideas and practices may come in with him. This can act as a catalyst for change and prevent outmoded practices from persisting just because they’re familiar.

Exit interviews — Employees will look for safe answers

With competition for talent intensifying, it’s imperative to understand clearly why employees resign.

Many organizations conduct exit interviews when this happens, and this is a very good practice. But how reliable is the information that comes from them? To maximize reliability, engaged organizations use a third-party process.

Conducting exit interviews in-house is better than not doing them at all. But even in a carefully constructed interview process, employees may not feel comfortable. And they may not disclose the true reasons for the decision to leave. This is especially true if honest disclosure means naming names.

Employees who are less than comfortable search for safe answers, and this causes them often to say that they’re leaving for more money. This can be the truth, of course, but often it’s not. It’s just a safe answer.

The participation of a third party in gathering and reporting information from exit interviews reduces the perceived risk for employees and increases the chances that they’ll disclose the truth.

Employee surveys — Act on them or cynics win

For a bird’s-eye view of the climate in the organization, nothing beats an employee survey. Organizations get a sense of what their areas of strength and concern are, as perceived by employees. They can then put together plans to leverage the strengths and address the concerns.

When planning a survey, partner with a firm that has expertise in employee surveys. This will be helpful in several ways. Employees won’t participate in a survey unless they’re confident that their input is 100-per-cent confidential. This needs to be reinforced at every turn. An external partner will contribute to their confidence by intervening between the employer and the survey data.

Be sure to act on the results. One of the items in the survey should be: “I feel confident that management will act on the results of this survey.” The overall score on this item is a proxy for engagement. Employees who are engaged with the work of the organization will respond positively to the statement. And it’s so easy to prove the cynics, the ones who respond negatively, wrong. If some action is taken, they’re wrong.

If you have several areas that need attention, don’t tackle all of them all at once. Select two or three, and resolve to make changes in those areas only for now. Let at least 18 months go by, and then administer the exact same survey again. Compare the results.

I once worked for a company whose practice was to survey the employees every 12 months. They did a number of things right, including involving employees in acting on the results. However, even though 12 months sounds like a long time, it’s a hopelessly short time for implementing organizational change. Just as the employees were getting their teeth into doing something, it was time to administer the survey again. And that was where all the energy went.

Alumni links — Send a message that the door is open to return

It’s not uncommon for employees to jump from one employer to another and end up regretting that they did. Some organizations have set up mechanisms to stay in touch with people the organization wishes hadn’t left. Such alumni links send a message to the employees that the door remains open.

These four tools — turnover targets, exit interviews, employee surveys, and alumni links — give managers information to help them manage. The tools don’t solve problems; they help the decision-making process. If employees know that the tools are in place and are being used, that alone can contribute to engagement.

Tim Rutledge is a partner with IQ Partners Inc., a search and HR services firm with offices in Toronto and Ottawa. He is author of the newly released book Getting Engaged: The New Workplace Loyalty, from which this article is excerpted. For more information contact (416) 599-4700 or visit

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