Retention: How to Tell if Your Employee is About to Jump Ship [Part 1]

by | Sep 12, 2017 | approachable leadership | 0 comments

Retention. Retention. Retention.

It is your last interview for a big HR job. Your future boss and 2 other leaders finish their questions.You feel pretty good. Then your future boss finishes the interview with this question: “What questions do you have for us?”

What would you answer? A friend of mine recently faced this exact situation. He’s quick on his feet so he asked a great question: “What’s your top priority I can support?”

Each of his future leaders had the exact same answer? What do you think they said?

You guessed it: Retention.

Retention Is On Everyone’s Mind These Days

Fifty-three percent of respondents in Xerox HR Services’ 2017 Compensation Planning Survey report retention is their highest priority this year. Another 2017 study by Future Workplace and Kronos found 87% of employers said improving retention is their top priority.

Chances are good it is at the top of your HR priorities too. And no wonder. Voluntary turnover hit 25% of the workforce in 2016. The direct costs of turnover cost companies over $11 billion each year. And those are just the direct costs. If you lose an A player and replace them with a B or C player it could kill your company. Brad Smart’s great book Topgrading suggests the cost of mis-hiring a manager averages over $1.2 million.

But to do anything about retention you first have to understand why people quit. Most “experts” these days will tell you that the key to retention is employee engagement and managing employee happiness. Put a ping pong table in the break room. Grant unlimited vacation. Stop doing performance appraisals.

But top talent is still jumping ship at alarming rates, and that problem is going to get worse as the labor market tightens over the next decade. That’s because happy employees are not the key to retention.

Are You Happy All the Time?

Think about yourself for a minute. Do you consider yourself engaged? If so, are you always happy or satisfied at work? Do you ever get frustrated or wish things could be better? Are you ever in over your head or stretched to the edge of your capability?

Now think about some of the A-team players who jumped ship recently. Did they leave for the chance to move up or take on a new challenge? If they were unhappy, what exactly was it that made them unhappy? Was it a perk or benefit that pushed them to switch jobs? Or was it that they felt stuck, unable to make progress? Or a poor relationship with their leader?

We get engagement backwards. Often our most frustrated teammates are actually our MOST engaged. The key is understanding what’s causing their frustration. Some feel stuck and want to develop. They see possibilities the company is missing. They’re pushed and stretched beyond their current skillset.

Avoiding the “Turnover Death Spiral”

These teammates are unhappy for the right reasons. Great leaders look for frustrations like these. They are great opportunities to help a teammate (and an organization) learn, develop, and grow. That’s how you attract and retain A-players.

However, if you ignore these concerns, or “solve” them over by putting an X-Box in the break room or buying some pizza, you’ll find yourself in the “turnover death spiral.” You lose A-players and only attract or retain C-players. And if your turnover rate is higher than your key competitors you start sinking in quicksand. Your company’s a dead man walking.

You avoid the “turnover death spiral” by spotting the signs a top player is considering jumping ship, then taking action to keep them on board. Sounds simple, right? But like most simple things it gets a little more complicated in the execution. This series of posts will help you break down the strategy into practical actions you can train leaders to keep A-players, reduce turnover, and take pressure off you and your organization.

Have You Ever Quit a Job?

Quitting a job is a BIG decision. If you think about it in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, your work is right down there on the ground floor with things like a roof over your head and food to eat. After all, your job is how you pay for both of those things.

Think about the last time you decided to change jobs. Even if it was a job you hated, you still probably asked yourself questions like:

  • What if the new company is as bad (or worse) than this one?
  • Will my new boss be a jerk?
  • Can I trust the new place to live up to their promises? Will they disappoint me?
  • Will my [Spouse, Parent, or that know-it-all brother-in-law] say they told you so?
  • What if your new teammates hate you?

   Chances are you struggled with the decision. You probably asked friends, family, and perhaps even some very close co-workers, about what you should do. Weighed your options. Stressed about it. Lost sleep over it.

Once you made your decision you went to work making sure you had a “soft” landing. If you were lucky and had some time you started watching job listings, polished up your resume, and started interviewing. You lined up your next job, or at least thought hard about where you’d look.

One last question. In the weeks (or sometimes months) before you let everyone know your decision, how were things going at work? That’s what I thought.

The “Tells” an Employee is About to Jump Ship

It is very rare someone quits a job without planning for it. During the stressful months before leaving your job you were probably distracted at work. Staying focused at work is hard enough when you’re all in. It’s impossible when you’ve got a foot out the door.

You imagine your work and your teammates from the rear-view mirror. Then you devote less time to thinking about the work in front of you and more time day-dreaming about doing that work somewhere else. Your time-horizon shrinks. There are three main “tells” where this shows up at work:

  1. Work performance
  2. Motivation and organizational citizenship
  3. Work relationships

During this time a good leader will recognize something is up. Maybe you experienced this too. Your boss noticed something wasn’t right or something about you had changed. And if they noticed early enough they might have even convinced you that leaving wasn’t the best option.

There are tell-tale signs when an employee considers a move. I say considers a move because nothing is set in stone until the jump is made. As a leader, if you learn to pay close attention, you will catch these signs in time to determine for yourself: Do I want to try to keep them on board? Or am I okay losing this particular crew member?

Research-Backed “Tell-Tale Signs” of Turnover

What are these “tell tale signs” you ask? The bad news is there are hundreds of them. Everyone reacts to stressful situations in their own way. But the good news is that some signs – 13 of them to be exact – are way more important than others. And Professor Tim Gardner knows just which ones to look for.

Vanderbilt University Business Professor Tim Gardner studies why people quit jobs. One interesting recent study narrowed down the “subtle but consistent behavioral changes people often make in the one to two months before they leave their job.” This study identified the 13 key behaviors that consistently predict when someone was looking to jump ship.

[Check out this study, plus all the other research on Approachable Leadership here.]

Using a data set of thousands of voluntary quits along with performance data and other observations Gardner and his team found these 13 items stood out as early warning signs that someone was about to leave for a new job. They show up 60 to 90 days before the actual quit.

Here’s the “baker’s dozen” of behaviors most likely to predict turnover:

  • Work productivity has decreased
  • Acting less like a team player
  • Doing the minimum amount of work
  • Less interested in pleasing their manager
  • Less willing to commit to long-term timelines
  • Negative change in attitude
  • Less effort and work motivation
  • Less focus on job related matters
  • Expressed dissatisfaction with their current job
  • Expressed dissatisfaction with their supervisor
  • Left early from work more frequently
  • Lost enthusiasm for the mission of the organization
  • Shown less interest in working with customers than usual

Gardner explained his research this way:

“It appears that a person’s attitude can create behaviors that are hard to disguise. As the grass starts to look greener on the other side of the fence to you, chances are that others will soon notice that you’ve lost your focus.”

In our next few posts we will focus on each of the three “tells” (decreases in productivity, motivation, and relationships) and the “baker’s dozen” behaviors associated with each of the “tells” Gardner identified.

What is your experience? Have you ever quit a job? If your boss had paid attention would they have noticed any of the “tells”? Did you have a leader who turned you around? Let us know in the comments.