Turnover – 7 Tips

October 21, 2012

Is employee turnover killing your company? Turnover is one of the most significant, and avoidable inhibitors of profit. The US national average for turnover usually runs between 2-3% per month, whereas the top 100 companies have a turnover rate of only 2-3% in an entire year (Fortune 2012). In this article, I put a spotlight on the turnover problem and offer some antidotes that are common sense but sometimes not common practice.

For professionals, the cost of replacing an employee is roughly the annual salary of the individual. That means a company with 1000 people, each with an average annual salary of $48K, will lose more than $17 million per year due to turnover. These costs go directly to the bottom line in good times and bad.

Even in periods of high unemployment, turnover is still a problem for most groups. When jobs are scarce, workers may not leave immediately, but they are quietly planning on exiting once the job market improves. One recent estimate is that 40% of workers are unhappy and plan to move within the next year if jobs become available (National Labor Statistics). That would mean a dramatic rise in turnover costs and a significant shift of the best talent from organizations with poor practices to those with stronger reputations.

How can we fight this needless drain? Here are seven key factors that can help you reduce turnover in your organization:

Supervision – When people decide to leave an organization, it is most often the result of dissatisfaction with their direct supervisor. The most important thing to improve is the quality of leadership at all levels. Teaching supervisors and managers how to create the right culture makes a huge difference in turnover.

Unfortunately, when money is tight, the first thing that gets cut is training. Improving leadership at all levels needs to be a continual investment, not a one-time event when someone gets promoted to a supervisory role. Supervisors who are well trained recognize their primary function is to create a culture where people are engaged in the work and want the organization to succeed. These people rarely leave because they are happy where they are.

Compensation – Pay is often cited as a reason for people leaving an organization. Pay may be a factor in some cases, but it is often just the excuse. What is really happening is that the work environment is intolerable, so the remuneration for the grief to be endured is not a good tradeoff. We need to teach managers to improve the trust level within the organization. High trust organizations can pay workers non-inflated wages and still have excellent retention rates. There are numerous examples of this. One of them is Zappos, where they have such a great culture, that when employees are offered $2000 to leave, they do not take it.

In “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,” Dan Pink points out that the relationship between pay and motivation is not what most people think. He cites several studies that show a pattern where higher pay can actually lead to poorer performance.¬†¬†Pink advocates paying people enough so that the issue of money is off the table. Then three other conditions, Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose, will take over as the key drivers to satisfaction and motivation, and therefore, retention.

A better future – Another key factor that causes people to leave is lack of a path forward. Employees who can visualize some pathway to a better future will generally stick around to experience it. Training and development are a key enablers for people to know there is a brighter future. Cross training is a particularly helpful way to have employees feel they are being developed to be more important to their organization. Cross training also helps make the work environment more interesting.

A family atmosphere – If you read about the culture of the top companies worldwide, there are many common themes. One of these is that employees describe their work associates as their extended family. They cherish the relationships with their co-workers. Sure, there will be some squabbles and an occasional lecherous uncle, but the overarching atmosphere is one of a nurturing and caring group of people similar to a family. Who would want to leave that environment?

Freedom – Enabling people to do their own work without being micromanaged is a characteristic of organizations that are good at retaining people. Nothing is more irritating than being ordered to do things in a certain way by a condescending boss who does not really understand the process as well as you do. The ability to use one’s own initiative and creativity to get the job done right helps build self esteem, which is a key ingredient in the retention of people.

Recognition – Knowing that someone cares about you and recognizes your efforts and accomplishments goes a long way toward building employee loyalty. A loyal employee is not out there looking for another position. Instead, he or she is thinking about how the organization’s success can be enhanced through even more effort. The collective muscle of thousands of employees who each feel that way is amazing to behold.

Safety – Many organizations live on the edge of impending disaster. The competitive world has forced legions of companies to downsize on a regular basis simply to survive. When employees witness the revolving door that occurs as a result of things they cannot control, you can’t blame them for wanting to find a safer mode of transport through their career. If the other suggestions above are followed religiously, then the organization will have a lower risk of having to lay off people, so they will enjoy a lower turnover rate.

These seven factors are not an exhaustive list, but I contend that groups who focus on these seven conditions and understand the dynamics will have consistently lower turnover rates, saving millions of dollars each year. That advantage is sustainable and scalable. It just requires leaders at the top who are skillful and relentless at applying these principles.


Don’t be Opaque

July 24, 2011

I was giving my talk on Trust and Transparency for a group recently, and the host had an interesting twist on transparency. He said that he knew certain members of management who were expert at being “opaque.” I really liked the use of the word opaque, which is the opposite of transparent. For this article, I wanted to explore the different forces operating on a manager which may lead to higher opacity and how being opaque destroys trust.

Fear that people will become enraged

If there is bad news in the offing, the managers might be concerned about letting the information out early because of fear of retribution or sabotage. If it becomes known that people will be losing jobs, then some people might (wrongly) feel there is not much to lose. Of course, there is a lot to lose any time we burn bridges with people: especially former employers.

My experience is that if people are treated with respect and dignity, even if the news is draconian, the vast majority of them will act like adults and actually be appreciative of the transparent information far in advance so preparations for a logical transition can be made. I have witnessed workers keeping a good attitude and being productive during a layoff process right up to the final hour at work and leaving with sadness coupled with dignity.

What really infuriates workers is to find out about a discontinuity on the day of the announcement, when they realize it has been in the planning stages for months. In that case, you might expect someone to throw a monkey wrench in the gears on his way out the door.

Using lack of perfect plans as an excuse

Managers often do not want to divulge information because the plans are not 100% set in stone. They reason that some information will lead to questions that cannot be answered, so they wait until all the details are known? One could always make that excuse, and yet people tolerate lack of specific details better than being kept in the dark wondering about the big picture.

Plans are always subject to revision, so it is far better to involve employees when the plans are not yet firm, because they would have the opportunity to help shape the future, even if only slightly. That involvement in the process normally leads to a higher level of acceptance in the end than if employees are kept in the dark then mouse-trapped with the bad news at the final moment.

Financial Embarrassment

Often in a transition, it becomes obvious that the people making the plans are the “haves” and the people impacted in the organization are the “have-nots.” Total transparency would mean that workers become painfully aware that they are being abused financially while the bosses are taking down huge stock options or other seemingly lavish benefits. Managers would rather not have everyone in the organization know their incentive packages or the size of their golden parachutes. It is just too embarrassing. While this reason to be opaque is actually reasonable, it does raise a huge caution flag. If management is hiding things they would be embarrassed about, isn’t there an ethical breach that needs to be addressed?

Another form of embarrassment that leads to opacity is that people may find out that the managers they work for are actually clueless. They do not know what they are doing, and are “winging it” on a daily basis. If everyone was aware of the stupidity of some corporate decisions, the managers might be subject to a lynch mob mentality among the troops. Since it is pretty difficult to “cure stupidity,” the only recourse is to figuratively hang the bastards out to dry once their lack of IQ or EQ becomes known.

Wanting to retain the best people

When there is bad news to share, it impacts everyone in the organization. The best people will have the greatest opportunity to pick up a job elsewhere for similar or even better pay and benefits. The dregs of the organization have less opportunity to go elsewhere, so if management lets out too much information too early, they are likely to end up keeping the people they want to lose and losing the people they wish to keep. Opacity seems like a strategy to forestall the exodus of needed top talent. Of course, this logic ignores the fact that the best people will be even more likely to leave once it is revealed they have been duped all along. Trust is built when information is shared freely and openly.

Needing time for cross training

Some managers will keep mum on an upcoming reorganization to allow a kind of preparation phase where people are cross trained on other jobs ostensibly for the purpose of building bench strength. Workers see through this ploy rather quickly, so the opacity cover is blown, and it becomes a kind of game environment for several months. The antidote here is to be transparent about cross training and have a continual process to keep skills broad and well sharpened. With that strategy, the need to be opaque about why training is being done vanishes, and people appreciate the variety as well as the opportunity to learn additional skill sets.

The other side of the coin

I do not claim that it is always bad strategy to be opaque in the face of changes. Usually there are legal restrictions on what information can be shared. Managers can go to jail if they divulge information about an impending move that will have a material impact on stock valuation. Also, it may be a disaster to have suppliers or the competition find out about a future move. Managers need to use good judgment as to when and how to divulge information. They also need to be aware that the rumor mill picks up on minute radar signals throughout the organization. It is not possible to truly hide the fact that “something is going on.”

When people are intentionally kept in the dark, they tend to make up stories of what is going on to fill the vacuum. The rumors are normally far worse than the action contemplated, so the beleaguered managers must do damage control on things that are not going to happen while trying to tiptoe around the truth. Trust is lost in such times because people feel managers are “playing games” with them.

My point is that it is far too easy to fall victim to some of the excuses or subterfuges mentioned above. It is usually wise to put a skeptical stance on any gag rule. Reason: Eventually the truth will come out, so any perceived advantage of not telling people is eventually lost along with the long-term damage to trust that comes with being opaque.


Who is “On The Bus” After a Merger?

December 11, 2010

Whenever two groups merge, there is a change in personnel and positions. Typically, there are fewer slots after a merger, so some staff are let go. Often, this winnowing process goes all the way to the top of the organization. A huge conundrum for the health of the business is how to keep the right people on the bus and get the wrong people off the bus.

During the assimilation process after the merger is announced, there is normally an evaluation period where top brass figure out how many positions there are going to be and then seek to fill those slots with the best qualified individuals from the talent pool of the combined groups. After the selection process, the remaining people will receive some painful but expected news.

This process is what appears to be the ballgame with personnel after a merger. Actually, I believe the real ballgame happens long before the official selection process, and top management had better do the right things then or some of the most talented individuals will not be in the crowd when the selection process begins. Long before the announcement of a merger is made, people in both camps are at least vaguely aware that something is afoot. In most situations, the rumor that there is going to be some kind of a major discontinuity has been circulating for months.

People in both organizations are justifiably nervous when facing some unknown hazard that is bound to create casualties. In my own experience, I have noticed that even the highest performing individuals are unnerved enough to start questioning their longevity, at least to themselves. The very best and most marketable individuals have a good chance to land comparable or superior positions in other, more stable, organizations. So, the most valuable people start looking for alternatives long before any forced ranking of staff members takes place.

On the flip side, the least talented people or the ones who are lazy or have interpersonal issues recognize that they are vulnerable. They also realize they are not going to find many opportunities on the outside, so they hunker down and prepare to defend themselves through legitimate or fraudulent tactics. Their objective is to stay in the game if at all possible, and they will do whatever is necessary to ensure that when the music stops they are near an empty chair. This may involve some unfair pushing and shoving.

One of the very first actions top management should take is to identify the critical few people they need to be around for the afterlife in the merged configuration. These people need to be informed that their place in the new order is assured, and it will mean a better existence for them. Of course, that is a tall order because the truth is that there are far too many unknowns in the months running up to a merger to legitimately assure anyone of anything.

In this situation, some kind of contingent bonus may be helpful. Stock options are often used as a tool here because payment can be substantial, but it only occurs when the organization itself thrives. People will think twice about leaving a $100K job to go to a new organization if they can see a potential $1M payout in stock options if the merger is a success.

The downside of any bonus incentive is that of fairness. Basically, top management is singling out a few of the best people (in their opinion) to incent to stay. That will unnerve the mass of people in the middle who believe they are contributing just as much to the prior organization as the fair-haired individuals, but are not receiving an incentive to stay. That sends a chilling signal that impacts motivation and productivity for the majority of people at the very time when the due diligence process is examining the numbers for valuation purposes. This problem can be mitigated if the performance evaluation system in place is sensitive enough to already single out the top 5% of individuals, so any retention incentive can be thought of as an adjunct to the normal performance management process.

Monetary incentives are not the only tool managers can use to allow key individuals to know they are valued during a merger. Simply having a candid discussion about the situation with individuals can go a long way toward having them want to stay on the team. Of course, it is always a good strategy to let the best people know they are valued, but the benefit of doing it is amplified significantly during the months running up to a merger announcement.

Another idea is to have people serve on planning groups that are charged with assembling data for the due diligence process or in developing the communication roll out. When individuals are included in active work to accomplish the merger, they instinctively know there will be a place for them once the dust settles.

Having the right people on the bus following a merger is the most critical consideration governing the success of the effort. I believe it is essential for top management to take steps to ensure the best people stay. These actions need to be accomplished during the conceptual phase of a merger and not while the formal integration process is unfolding.


Merger Miseries 5 – Mini Mergers

October 4, 2010

This is the fifth in a series of articles on the trials and tribulations of mergers and acquisitions. The topic for this episode is “mini mergers.” Every day in the news we hear about the mega mergers between giant organizations like airlines and automobile companies. These consolidations typically involve billions of dollars and take many months or even years to accomplish. The moves are the subject of constant Wall Street and popular business press analysis. In reality, there are literally thousands of smaller mergers, acquisitions, or restructurings that go on every day. These smaller but more numerous actions, when taken in aggregate, dwarf the mega mergers in terms of total impact, even though they do not get as much attention.

Any activity to change the way a unit goes about accomplishing its mission is a form of change that involves restructuring the roles of people. The activity goes under a wide spectrum of names, like: reorganization, merger, restructuring, downsizing, acquisition, reengineering, work-out, process improvements, Lean Six Sigma, and layoffs. Regardless of the name, each of these efforts is designed to make the resulting organization more effective than the prior pieces. The problem is that in roughly 80% of the cases, the activity consumes more resources than planned and is far more troublesome than anticipated.

Unfortunately, the tendency is to focus on the mechanical nature of the action with little planning on the consequences on people. For example, if a merger of two groups within a corporation is contemplated, far more energy typically will be spent on the timing of the move and the layout of the new office than on what changes will need to be made to the way people work together during and after the merge. The procedural issues and training needed are usually given short shrift until the mechanical merger is consummated, which misses an excellent opportunity for people to become invested in both the process and the outcome. The typical sequence almost guarantees a lapse in customer service and great consternation among the workers while managers try to sort out the mess.

There is a solution to the problem. It is to begin by addressing why we need to do something in the first place. If we need to be more competitive in order to compete with a new worldwide market, then start by discussing this problem with the people in the organization. Take the time to solicit creative ways to solve the problem that may or may not involve a restructuring of units. Let the individuals affected come to the conclusion that if the organization is to survive at all, something significant needs to be done.

Then, when the topic of combining units comes up, it is born out of involvement with the impacted groups. They can help configure the mechanical set up of the merged entity, and also begin to plan for the impact on people long before the actual event. They can set up groups whose job it will be to take care of customer issues with “one voice” while the organizational turmoil is going on. They can establish training programs for individuals who need to learn different functions. They can help people who are impacted find a path to a viable future inside or outside the old organization. In other words, the impacted people can and should help figure out what to do before the mechanical merger begins.

Involving people is often avoided out of fear that impacted people might get angry and start some forms of sabotage. It is true that there is some risk of that kind of problem, but it is far better to take this risk with eyes open and manage it intelligently. Reason: The vast majority of individuals will act responsibly when they are treated like adults and given some ability to shape their own destiny. Even though considerable pain is involved, a company can get through a transition phase quickly and with grace if top management allows people at all levels to be part of the design process.