Want To Keep Your Team Happy? Talk To The People Who Just Quit

The real question is not how to engage your employees so they don’t leave–there is a good chance they will. The real opportunity is how you treat them when they do.

Want To Keep Your Team Happy? Talk To The People Who Just Quit
[Image: Flickr user Cory Doctorow]

Of course you want to keep your best employees, but the truth is most of your employees–even the happy ones–are looking for another job.


According to a recent study conducted by Deloitte leaders rate engagement and retention as a top 2014 priority. And yet, lumping engagement and retention into one bucket is misleading–at least that’s what 7,350 LinkedIn members across five countries said in an exit survey.

The survey reported that 85% of the workforce is either actively looking for a job or open to talking to recruiters about relevant opportunities–even those who report being satisfied with their current jobs.

Employees contemplate daily whether to re-up with their current employer or entertain the prospect of landing a better gig.

Given this, the real question is not how to engage your employees so they don’t leave–there is a good chance they will. The real opportunity is how you treat them when they do.

An employee’s final days could be one of the most underutilized engagement levers at your disposal. At least that is what the research of Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman would suggest.

According to his Peak-End rule, people will judge their overall experience by its peak, or most intense point, and by its end. When we file the experience into our memory, we don’t do simple arithmetic to average our moment-to-moment experiences. The brain overwrites this logic in favor of a more simplified strategy: it plucks two moments from the past–the most poignant and the finale–to decide how it wants to store the memory away.


So, what are you doing to off-board employees for a memorable end? If you want to reinvigorate and reimagine your employee engagement approach, consider your off-boarding strategy. Below are three implementation tips to consider:

1. Don’t resist the “grass is greener over there” syndrome

Daniel Gilbert, Harvard University psychology professor, found that we overestimate the impact of our emotional reactions to future events. In other words, the brain is wired to believe that the shining new job opportunity in front of us will make life much more perfect. But it will almost certainly be less exciting than we anticipated; and, it will likely fail to excite us for as long as predicted.

LinkedIn surveyed 18,000 workers in 26 countries and found that the number one reason non-active job seekers said they would be willing to head for the exit was for better compensation or benefits. If there is one thing we assess to be a surefire way to make us happier in the future, money would fallaciously reside at the top of the list.

And yet, knowing this does us no good. So, rather than try to outsmart the hard-wired habits of the human mind, why not let the star employee go? If you know the inevitable realities of inflated expectations, you also know that your time and energy are best spent letting time lapse before you try to lure him or her back.

2. Kindle meaningful memories

Ensuring a good ending doesn’t just elicit feel good memories–it also brings purpose and meaning to employees. Dan Ariely has researched meaning at work extensively, and as he shares in this TED Talk, there is nothing that kills meaning more than failing to acknowledge one’s work. According to Ariely, “Ignoring the performance of people is almost as bad as shredding their effort before their eyes.”

Harvard Business School Professor Theresa Amabile conducted decade-long research that found the same effect, known as the Progress Principle. She found a pervasive engagement blind spot: making progress on meaningful work trumps all other engagement drivers.


So, if you want an employee to walk out of the door engaged, what better way than to celebrate the progress they made in their tenure? It’s never too late–nor can you ever do too much–to make somebody feel like their work matters.

3. Measure how many employees return

It is a well-retorted adage in organizations: what gets managed gets measured. An engagement strategy must realize that jobs are more fluid than ever before and so are their incumbents. While many companies have internal mobility programs, the LinkedIn study found that only 25% of departing employees said they knew of them.

Even for those who do, timing is a challenge. Employees have little patience when it comes to accelerating their growth, learning, and opportunity. And yet, just like finding your ideal mate, timing needs to be right for both parties. Organizations can’t always deliver on the same time horizon that employees desire, and vice versa.

While engaged employees may not stay, if you manage the relationship correctly, there is a good chance they will stay open to coming back. Which means your new retention measure must do more than capture voluntary turnover. It must also capture the number of boomerangs you capture.

It is true, you can only make one first impression. But it turns out the last is the one that really matters.

Jessica Amortegui works in leadership development for VMware. She is currently pursuing her master’s in positive psychology from the University of Pennsylvania.