Unicorns & Employee Turnover: 5 Myths and the Simple Solution

myth versus reality

Retention. Attrition. Turnover.

These are attention-getting words today. It costs too much—and is too damned difficult—to find and hire good people, that finally employee turnover is having its day. It’s about time.

Much of the research, discussions and rhetoric out there is so far beyond wrong as to be simply idiotic. Let’s debunk a bunch of it…

  1. Turnover is inherently bad. Wrongunplanned turnover is bad. Unexpected turnover can be bad. Some turnover is as necessary as good hiring; for instance:
    • Some employees are overpaid for their skill set in the market. Or your benefits are just too good to pass up. Ferret them out, tell ‘em to step it up or step ‘em out.
    • Some are simply not motivated to advance. Is that a crime? No, provided they aren’t holding a role that could be used to develop someone who is motivated. If they are, then either move them elsewhere or it’s “up or out.”
    • Some have you comfortably trained to accept their behavior and idiosyncrasies, and aren’t interested in retraining a new employer. This is your fault, so fix it. Many behaviors and performance standards should be non-negotiable; make sure yours are.
  1. Turnover is unpreventable. Wrong. This load of crap has been unloaded on the masses by those incapable of grasping the very things necessary to reduce unplanned turnover. Don’t buy the snake oil. Granted, all turnover may not be preventable, but most of it is. Ask yourself—is anyone else is my industry space enjoying less turnover? If so, suck it up and realize it’s you. No, really. It’s you.Leadership is turnover’s kryptonite. The red kind.
  1. Turnover is HR’s responsibility; ergo, it’s HR’s fault. Nice try, Captain Dodger. HR may be the keeper of the measurement, but they only own a few small pieces. Yes, they generally do the hiring, a critical component of retention, and no question we can always get better. But hear this: if HR helps you (a) hire someone, (b) who wanted to work there, (c) who agreed to the wage, and (d) showed up on the first day… they’ve done their part, or most of it. I’ve never heard a disgruntled employee leave, saying “I loved my job, but HR sucks, so I’m outta here.”
  1. Most people leave for more money. Nope. Simply untrue. Not to say many of the dearly departed don’t accept a job that pays more, but listen up, Einstein: why were they looking in the first place? Except for near-minimum wage jobs, employees don’t leave for a 10% bump. Most won’t leave for a 20% bump. If they’ve been offered 50% more (and your pay really is competitive), simply wish ‘em well and tell them to introduce you.
  1. Turnover is just a cost of doing business. Seriously? How does this one stick around? Raw materials are just a cost of doing business as a producer—so let’s not try to reduce those costs. Energy (electricity, gas, water) are just a cost of doing business—let’s not work to lower those. Wages are just a cost of doing business—let’s just pay people whatever they ask. Even if turnover is unpreventable (it isn’t), why in heaven’s name would we not want to reduce the financial impact if we could?

So, aside from hand-wringing, and since we won’t let HR shoulder all the blame, what’s a manager to do? How do we tame this beast? To that end, I have good news, and I have bad news.

The good news: It’s just not that complicated. The bad news: You’ll have to change how you lead.

I’m not going to go on and on about this behavior and that behavior… let’s keep things really simple. If you are serious about reducing employee turnover, do these things well:

  1. Value the position. If you don’t, don’t expect the employee to.
    • Be involved in the hiring process. It matters.
    • Get real about onboarding, nesting, assimilation, or whatever the hell you want to call it.
  2. Feedback… give it, get it. This is a big deal. Give meaningful, helpful feedback, and be specific. Explain why it matters, and include both positive and improvement opportunities. Then take feedback. Insist on it, ask for it, and create an expectation that they’ll give it. Then, shut up and listen. Say thank you. Performance management should be a dialog, and needn’t be painful.
  3. Care for them. No, I don’t mean campfires, S’mores and singing kumbaya. But I do mean:
    • Develop them. This adds value, both to the position as well as the person. No one wants to be in a dead-end job; help them grow and improve.
    • Talk to them. Not just about assignments, operations, deadlines and the mystery meat left in the fridge; discuss their weekends, their family, their desires, goals, aspirations. They’re people—treat ‘em the way you would like to be treated.
  4. Run interference. You are the buffer. Embrace that, or turn in your scepter. No one gets to launch directly on your staff as long as you’re still breathing. Don’t directly pass down every butt-chewing you get—be that buffer.
  5. Chop the dead wood. Nothing irks a good performer more than watching you coddle and keep a bad one. Stop doing that. Work with those not measuring up, give them reasonable opportunities to improve, then whack ‘em if they don’t. Your good performers will appreciate it, and your poor performers will think… well, truthfully, I don’t care what they think.

Pay attention to your folks; remember that most employees—including grand poohbahs and exalted, self-proclaimed keepers-of-the-organizational-flame—have the same general wants, desires, and needs from a workplace. This stuff just isn’t all that hard.

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