It’s inevitable. At some point, key performers are going to leave your organization. It’s something every HR professional, manager and business owner will deal with. While many employees are good at hiding their intent to move on, there are warning signs an employee is about to quit.
But identifying those warning signs – and creating an action plan to deal with the potential exit of your top employees – can be most effective if a plan is already in place.
In some cases the signs are obvious: Showing up late for work, skipping meetings, not following up on projects and showing less of the zest for their job that made them a valuable team member.
But some signs are not as obvious and that’s where Paul Carver breaks things down. Carver is the President of Pluvian Consulting LLC, where he coaches business professionals and individuals to understand their talents, grow their strengths and reach their goals and dreams. Pluvian Consulting uses the Clifton StrengthsFinder®, Q12® and EP-10TM tools to assist clients. Pluvian Consulting is not associated with Gallup, Inc.
“Since time is of the essence, it my strong preference to meet it head-on,” says Carver, who is also a graduate of Harvard Law School. “That means having a conversation with the employee as soon as you can be ready.”
Below, Carver outlines key steps and action items to consider when there are warning signs an employee is about to quit. For the ease of reference, let’s call your valued employee Jane, says Carver.
Prepare yourself for how the conversation with Jane will play out. I have a bias for responding quickly because it communicates you have the ability to solve problems and you care for Jane. I also have a bias for mission and values-driven decisions. In other words, what you’re willing to do to retain Jane considers your experience with her and your core values and the business’s mission statement.
The tone of the meeting is very important. The meeting is about her, and it is also about your business. This is a delicate balance to maintain — keeping it about both of you. That means you need to listen as much as you talk.
Pay attention to tone as well. Set a positive tone. Avoid negatives.
Let’s say she says, I’ll stay if you raise my salary by $5,000 with every other Friday off. Your response needs to remain focused on the value you see in her. Consider these options:
- “I can’t do that, I’d have to do it for everybody else too.”
- “I can’t afford that.”
- “Everyone has to work a five day week; that’s the way the company functions.”
Notice that all of these focus on you. In essence you are telling her she has to fit into what you want. Her needs don’t matter.
Consider these alternatives:
- “As my best salesperson, I want to keep you if I can, what’s your thinking about having the Fridays off?”
- “I like having you on the team. You’ve created a special position here with my approval and I want to keep you if there’s a way to do it. Have you thought about taking on a different role which would come with a higher salary?”
“By asking her questions, you put the focus on her,” says Carver. “You get a chance to listen, and you set up the conversation for a negotiation. Remember, this scenario assumes she already had a job offer elsewhere, but often you can have this conversation without having to compete against an offer. The important lesson is to balance the focus on both the company and her so that she knows you value her.”
Below is a chart of the variety of reasons an employee may consider leaving and some responses and considerations concerning what efforts are recommended to retain them according to Carver:
Issue: Relationship with manager—unfair promotions; no feedback; favoritism; No chance to use own judgment; don’t have the right tools; my opinion is not important.
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. Managers are the cause of and solution to almost all of your employee issues. The evidence is too clear to deny. Great manager? Great team, happy team, productive team. So when you sit down with your employee to discuss why she’s thinking of leaving, gather all the facts you can — with an eye to the next meetings you need to have: with the manager and with each team member. If you are the manager and you get feedback on any of these issues, treat it like a code red. Sometimes the best of your intentions with one employee have a negative effect on another one. Remember balance and team cohesion. The question is: How do you recognize outstanding achievement without antagonizing others? That answer lies in objectivity and communication. So with Jane thinking of leaving, the first discussion is around what she perceives to be unfair or missing. If her perception is true, make the correction with her manager. If her perception was formed from incomplete information, then communication is the issue. That’s another manager concern. Coach your managers to set expectations, communicate standards of excellence and invite full team participation and coach their team to success. This, combined with a commitment with Jane to fix the shortcomings, should be enough to retain her — so long as the changes are real and timely.
Issue: More money or other compensation
This one’s pretty straight forward. Find out what the number is. Then you just have to decide if you can or want to pay it. Sometimes it’s going to be beyond your means. You can still counter with something lower. You already have a relationship and she knows exactly what the job is with you. She probably will take less than the other company is offering to keep the position she knows with the relationships she has. If you can’t offer cash, offer a perk and work out the cash value. At the same time it’s worthwhile to put into perspective what it will cost if you have to adjust the whole team or the whole company to replace her. Think about whether you are behind the industry in pay. Consider whether you have perks that your competitors don’t have that even out total compensation. Whatever your story is, explain it clearly when you meet with her, make her an offer and deliver it.
Issue: I want to be closer to Home
When you dig in to find out what’s behind this concern you usually hear about her dinner discussion where she’s reminded she’s always late because of traffic, etc. Flexible schedules are a good first response. In early and home early are great responses to the commute, and there’s no added cost to you. If that’s not right, then a work from home and work in the office flex schedule is a great approach. Sure some work can’t be done at home. That’s what a 2 there and 3 here schedule addresses. As long as some of the work can be done from her home, there is likely no downside here. Research demonstrates remote workers log more hours than 100% on-site workers and, if managed right, have equal engagement. Creating a program like this communicates your commitment to employees.
Issue: Need to be home when the kids get out of school; I can’t afford daycare — it’s cheaper for me to quit and stay home
With the cost of day care it’s not uncommon for some families to give up a job that is only covering the cost of day care. There are a number of directions from which to approach this one. Figure out what salary would realize a net income after childcare costs that would make it worthwhile for her to stay. You pay a little more, but you get to keep all of her valued time and efforts. Another approach is you pay her for part time work she can do at home. Usually the childcare issue is short lived — until full-day school starts. Think of it as only losing part of her for a few years. Make it clear you want her back full time after the kids are all in school. Another option which will depend on your company’s size: consider starting your own day care or subsidizing day care as an employee benefit.
Issue: Dysfunctional working relationship
This one covers a number of scenarios. Each event will have its own specifics. Get to the bottom of it right now! Your meeting with Jane should focus on what she thinks is dysfunctional. It’s a fact-finding meeting. What you find out will indicate what you should do. This can be a manager issue, but it can also be a coworker issue. If it is a coworker issue and the manager didn’t bring it to you, you have a couple of coachable moments — with the manager and with the employee. Whatever it is, resolve it quickly. This all too commonly arises when the team includes someone who is actively disengaged. Gallup’s Q12® describes actively disengaged employees as not just unhappy at work but busy acting out their unhappiness and working to undermine what their engaged coworkers accomplish. Find them and coach them to improvement or toward an exit. Once you do so, Jane will be easier to retain.
Issue: Looking for more free time
This manifests in a number of ways, so use the listening strategy to hear what the specifics are for her. Sometimes a time shift is all she wants — 4 ten hour days instead of 5 eight hour days. Sometimes it’s small amounts of time to do life errands (the stuff you have to do that wrecks the fun you wanted to have on Saturday). Flex schedules are cost and time neutral options. When she starts at 7 a.m. or 11:00 a.m. she can still run the errands at businesses that don’t have long hours and keep Saturday for fun. Finally, let’s say she wants 4 eight hour days. You can think of 100 reasons to say no. Try thinking of one to say yes: I want to keep her and she can get me what I need from her in those 32 hours better than if I have to start over with someone new.
Issue: Demands for work outside normal hours
Whenever you hire an employee there’s an agreement about expectations and a relationship that you begin to build. One of the leading causes of departures is the continual growth of the expectations which causes harm to the relationship. So start with making sure you clearly articulate what your “normal” is. It can be anything your business needs. Just make sure you articulate it so you set the right expectation. Also make it clear what the benefit is that compensates the time and effort. More often than not the failure to communicate at the beginning is the cause for this misunderstand. The second leading cause is the manager who wants to beat everybody else in the company. You have to take control in this situation. If the manager’s actions are driving away valued employees, you have to act.
This can crop up in a number of ways. Perhaps she was going to school in the evenings or on weekends while she worked for you. Now she’s a college graduate or she’s got a Masters or Ph.D. If she’s got a degree that you have a place for, it’s easy to work on a transition to a new position within the company. Or, perhaps you need to create one. You already know her worth. There’s great value in that — evaluate it against the cost of the work you have to do to replace her.
Issue: Looking for meaning
In Half Time, Bob Buford accurately describes the psychological shift many of us confront in our 40’s and 50’s (myself included). We go from doing work — work we are great at, work that makes us lots of money, work that is necessary in the economy, but work that doesn’t’t make us feel like we’re leaving the world better than we found it. That’s when we decide we want to stop doing work and start being our true self through the work we do. For some, that means a job change. For others it means finding an outlet for their passion while still working at the same place. Buford says, “The key to a successful second half is not a change of jobs; it’s a change of heart, a change in the way you view the world and order your life.” So it’s a coachable moment. She doesn’t’t have to leave you to find meaning. Coach her through what “meaning” is for her. Perhaps it’s a flex schedule that allows her time to volunteer. Perhaps it is your support for her volunteer cause. The options are only limited by your imagination.
In the old days there was no middle ground on this one. Now with telecommuting, plane and train connections and the 24/7 business day, you have options. Of course, it’ll depend on the job responsibilities. One option to consider is hiring her as a consultant. Iron out an agreement that addresses the when, where and how of what she’ll provide.
Issue: Won the lottery
There’s the literal lottery, and there’s a number of scenarios like it where you just can’t compete with her alternatives. At that point, let her know how much you appreciate her and that you’ll find a place for her if she ever wants to return. It’s the immortal words of the Passenger song (the title is the same as the lyric): “Let her Go.” If the adorable puppy in the Budweiser ad taught us anything, it’s that when you let them go, they come back to you because of the relationship you built when you were together.
Issue: Extreme bargaining position
This one doesn’t happen very often, especially if you are aware of it and prevent it from happening. So what do you do if it does? Let’s say you have only one sales person. Jane is incredibly talented and closes more than 90% of her qualified leads. If she leaves, your business will suffer a period of stagnation. Obviously, she has a very strong bargaining position. However you still have options. For example, you could offer an ownership stake. Investment in the business is an extremely strong retention device. Alternatively, a percentage of sales-based compensation plan puts Jane in the position to make as much as she wants while keeping your business hopping.