Call it the Great Resignation, Great Reshuffle, Great Realization, or any of the other names that have been coined, the message is the same: Employees have been leaving their jobs in record rates. Attracting and retaining the talent needed for businesses to run is the No. 1 internal issue for CEOs, according to recent research by The Conference Board.
And while it’s true that employees are moving around at a record clip, sometimes the grass isn’t greener on the other side of the fence. Some experts say this is leading to a wave of “boomerang” employees who return to their former employers.
Fortunately, there are a number of steps your organization can take to keep employees engaged and motivated. Here are some of the ways to make it less appealing for employees to quit your company.
Start with their goals
The first step in keeping employees engaged and ready to grow with your company is to get clear on their career goals and then match them with your organization’s needs, says performance improvement consultant Julie Winkler Giulioni, coauthor of Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Employees Want. Those conversations should focus on three areas:
Hindsight: This includes the employee’s background and what they have accomplished in their careers so far. “This is the baseline information you would need in order to have a development conversation with anyone,” Giulioni says.
Foresight: This is about looking outward and forward at the needs of the organization, as well as asking questions like: Where is our industry going? What’s going on in the bigger picture of the world?
Insight: Explore where the first two conversations intersect. Where do the employee’s skills and interests intersect with where the company and industry are going? Where does it make sense to focus development efforts to ensure the two are aligned? That, says Giulioni, is where the greatest satisfaction for both is going to be overall.
Show them a way up
Workforce retention expert Jeff Butler says that employers must shift their focus to include such employee priorities. Gone are the days of a buyer’s market when it comes to talent. Now you need to be sure your employees are ready to grow with you. “In terms of retention, the first thing that any employer needs to ask potential hires is where they want to be in three to five years because, the reason people leave, is that they’re not set on their paths to where they want to go,” he says.
Artist and entrepreneur Keba Konte runs his company that way. He opened his Oakland, California-based Red Bay Coffee in 2014. The coffee company has a retail arm and also imports and roasts coffee from around the world. From the start, Konte’s vision for his business was one of diversity and inclusion. He wanted to give more people an opportunity to work in the coffee industry’s “more high-margin sectors—the roasting, the retail ownership, education, changing equipment,” he says.
His staff includes women, people of color, and people who were formerly incarcerated. He pays them more than minimum wage and uses profit sharing to let employees benefit from the company’s success. Konte also believes career paths are critical. Even as a small business owner, he’s helped some team members move into managerial positions or move from the retail side to quality assurance positions with overseas travel. “People need to see where they’re going in the organization,” he says. As a result of this “career pathing,” he says he’s been able to retain employees at rates well above the industry average.
Encourage meaningful contributions
To encourage employees to share their great ideas for implementation, business-and-technology consultancy West Monroe Partners developed an internal version of Shark Tank, where its roughly 1,000 employees can pitch ideas to executives to apply for funding. One project—the nCino Center of Excellence, which revamped the way the company implements bank-operating system nCino—was funded and has brought in $10 million in revenue over the last three years.
Reva Busby is cofounder of West Monroe’s Intellio Labs, a collection of the firm’s data services, assets, and platforms. Programs like the firm’s Shark Tank competition, as well as a culture that encourages employees to act like owners and allows them to develop their careers, are a big part of why the firm has less than half the turnover of typical consulting companies, she says. Employees may also participate in employee stock-ownership program.
Giving employees the freedom to find meaning in their work and make an impact pays off, says Michael C. Mankins, a partner at Bain & Company’s San Francisco office, leader in the firm’s organization practice, and coauthor of Time, Talent, Energy: Overcome Organizational Drag and Unleash Your Team’s Productive Power.
“Some people reach burnout at 40 hours a week, some people reach burnout at 90 hours a week,” he says. “It’s very dependent on the individual, and it’s very dependent on how much autonomy and impact that individual feels they have in their job. If you have no autonomy, and you’re having no impact, you’ll probably burn out at 40 hours a week.”
Create a culture of development
Career consultant Beverly Kaye, coauthor of Love ‘Em or Lose ‘Em: Getting Good People to Stay, suggests using “career calisthenics”—reaching up, down, and out for new learning or development opportunities. That means looking for mentoring or shadowing engagements and stretch assignments and other learning opportunities throughout the organization.
Is there an executive with whom the employee can work on a stretch assignment or engage as a mentor? Can peers teach them new skills? Can team members be assigned to help new employees feel more engaged? Kaye says that this type of connection throughout the organization keeps information and knowledge flowing, and creates a culture in which development is not only encouraged but expected.
Your organization likely has many opportunities on a day-to-day basis for employees to grow within their current roles, says Diane Belcher, managing director of product management at Harvard Business Publishing. She looks for learning opportunities everywhere. For example, when she and her team come out of a meeting, she asks them what they learned, and how it can be applied to their roles or to better serve clients. “Even when there’s not a budget for a formal learning program, you can think about every opportunity as an opportunity to learn,” she says.
Give them paid time to grow
Of course, while all of these stretch assignments and extra work can be great learning opportunities, it’s important to ensure employees don’t feel like you’re simply getting extra work out of them without the trappings that come with advancement, such as new titles, raises, and bonuses.
If those aren’t in the budget, the incentive might be to take away some of their more rote work. “Managers have to be realistic as they’re inviting new responsibilities and activities into someone’s role,” Giulioni says. “They have to figure out how to offload other things to make room for it, so it doesn’t become punitive.” That way you can help create the job they want instead of watching them find it at another company.
Having the ability to make some decisions about how you spend your work time also can help prevent burnout, says Joyce Maroney, former director of the Workforce Institute at Kronos. As long as wages are not substandard, employees who can make decisions about job roles and feel they have choices will be more engaged. “And generally speaking, the data says engaged employees do a better job for your customers, they’re more loyal to your company, and they’re going to stay longer,” says Maroney. “All good things flow from that.”
Guard against burnout
Recent research from management consulting firm McKinsey found that roughly half (49%) of employees report feeling at least somewhat burned out. And the report speculates that the percentage is likely an underrepresentation. What’s causing the problem? Lack of clear communication, the need for flexibility, and remote or hybrid work environments are among the top concerns. Also, employees want a renewed emphasis on mental health and well-being.
Managers also need to be aware of how much they’re expecting of employees, says Mankins. Helping employees manage their energy to enhance productivity includes reducing the organizational drag of email overload and meetings. Mankins says that the amount of time spent on these activities typically grows 7% to 8% per year. That “ineffective collaboration” crowds out more important and effective work, he says. Digital tools can help track workload and help managers spot employees who are overworked.
When Zappos moved to its flatter management structure a number of years ago, company leaders knew that such a sea change in the organization could be taxing for employees. Bhawna Provenzano, former head of benefits at Zappos, says the company adopted a six-month wellness program on site to help employees manage stress. She says the company tried to anticipate areas where there was tension, then “react to it, and do what we need to do,” she adds.
Review compensation and benefits
Employees can be tempted by bigger salaries at other jobs. The McKinsey report found that fair compensation was also a top priority for talent. To ensure it was paying employees appropriately in an environment where job titles didn’t necessarily match job roles, Zappos brought in a consultant to review worker pay levels and make recommendations to ensure fairness, Provenzano says. The company also shared findings with employees to help them understand how their compensation compared to market data.
Benefits have increased in importance since the pandemic. A recent survey by Prudential Insurance found that 4 in 10 people surveyed would leave their current job for one with better benefits; 80% said they were more likely to stay with an employer that showed commitment to helping them achieve financial resiliency. They see benefits, such as retirement plans, health, disability, and life insurance, paid family medical leave, and emergency savings programs, as critical to that resiliency.
As Fast Company has reported in the past, mental health benefits have also become increasingly important. Employees have struggled with anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues during the pandemic. A 2020 survey by business advisory firm Willis Towers Watson found that 77% of companies are offering or expanding access to mental health services.
Focus on employee experience
But attention to benefits doesn’t mean trying to “buy” employee loyalty with silly perks or trendy offerings, says leadership consultant Abbey Louie. “In reality, companies should be striving for engaged employees, not just satisfied employees,” Louie says. “You can have a satisfied employee who is happy doing nothing, but an engaged employee feels an emotional connection to the organization and/or the organization’s goals.” She points to well-publicized Gallup research that shows engagement drives greater profitability, lower turnover, fewer safety incidents, higher customer satisfaction, and other advantages.
The first step in creating a great employee experience means developing effective managers, she says. “The most influential factor in employee engagement and performance is the employee-supervisor relationship. Investing in your managers to develop dynamic leaders will provide the greatest impact,” she says. Hire and train managers to communicate well, help ensure that employees are in jobs that are a good fit for them, and give appropriate feedback, to name a few.
Keep the door open
Part of keeping employees is also letting them know that you support their need to explore leaving the company sometimes. From the day employees start at Jellyvision, an employee-benefits software company, they also learn about its “graceful exit” program. When employees begin to look for a new job, they’re encouraged to share that with their managers, who will support them in the search. Kelly Dean, former chief people officer, took over an HR role after a predecessor’s “graceful exit” process, which lasted roughly two years. Those who inform their supervisors at the start of their search still get their raises, end-of-year bonuses, time off to interview, and other benefits without the awkwardness of trying to hide their actions.
This approach helps keep the relationship amicable and also leaves the door open in case an employee does decide to test the waters of a new opportunity but then boomerangs back.