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Getting Good At Turnover October 28, 2011

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership.
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In July 2009 I wrote a post in which I described my efforts to minimize turnover during an extended salary-and-bonus freeze at my employer in the middle of the last decade. See: Retention Strategies. Back then I was trying to figure out what a mid-level manager could do to create a work environment that would be harder to leave behind, even for a bump in pay. Nevertheless, employee turnover is unavoidable, it happens for a variety of reasons that are usually outside the control of the reporting manager, and the best thing to do is find a way to manage the transition as quickly and smoothly as possible. Organizations should work on improving retention, but they should also learn how to become good at turnover.

Managers usually hate the idea of turnover because of the disruption in a previously-predictable work routine, and they can become positively distraught when a star performer announces that they’re resigning to take a different job. On the other hand, the unexpected departure of a poor performer can be a blessing, allowing the manager to spend their time on more worthwhile activities.

Side note: I strongly believe that the organization gets far more benefit when managers give their attention to the star performers than when they spend time trying to coach poor performers. Stars meet expectations without much help, but they have the potential for breakthroughs and independent leadership that will have long-lasting implications for growth and profitability.

Regardless, turnover is a distraction and causes a short-term loss of productivity for the team — if only temporarily — as the workload is re-distributed among the remaining staff and replacement hires (if authorized) are identified and trained.

It’s important to manage the exit process for the departing employee. Assuming that the separation is amicable (no special circumstances that require formal HR procedures), and that the departing employee is not joining a competitor (calling for an immediate and supervised escort out the door), and that this isn’t part of a company-wide workforce reduction program (with its own set of legal requirements), then the exit process can be something that’s handled locally by the immediate manager, typically during a “two weeks’ notice” interval. Obviously the manager should assess whether there’s anything that can (or should) be done to prevent this person from leaving, but it’s been my experience that by the time someone submits their resignation, they’ve made up their mind and almost certainly have already accepted another job.

At that point I’ve got two questions. First: “Are you running away from something or running towards something?” What I’m trying to understand is whether this person is leaving for a better opportunity, or if they’re trying to get away from a bad situation. I’d like to think that I’m pretty perceptive about what’s going on in the workplace, nevertheless I want to be sure I’m not overlooking something. It probably won’t make a bit of difference for the departing employee, but this is information I can use to help understand and possibly improve the environment for those who remain.

The second question is “Is there anything can I do to help?” If this person is leaving for a better position elsewhere, I think it’s good manners and good karma to keep everything on good terms. I try to think of former colleagues as alumni who’ve graduated and moved on, but are part of a larger professional network. I don’t see any value in being openly upset or bitter about the situation. Our careers intersected and overlapped for some finite period of time, and eventually one of us was going to move on to something new. That doesn’t mean we might not work together again at some point in the future.

Another side note: I’ve always liked the idea of a “Hollywood model” in the workplace. To make a movie, producers assemble a group of people with specific skills, some of whom may have collaborated in the past. They work together for months or years, ultimately finish the movie, have a big party, and go their separate ways. Some of those people may re-assemble later on a different project. I think that would be an interesting way to work, as part of a for-hire community of complementary resources.

This post has gone on long enough. There’s more to say about re-distribution of the work that was assigned to the former colleague, and hiring and “on-boarding” of new people, but I’ll save that for another time.

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