Anyplace But Here:
Why Employees Leave Your Company
“How long do we want employees to stay?”
I challenge you to ask that question of any leader in your company, all the way up to and including the CEO. After that, ask the question of other employees in the company. Will the answers be the same? Will anyone even be able to give you an answer? Do employees even know the company is trying to retain them? The answer is probably “no” in all cases.
Elaborate employee retention initiatives entitled with catchy acronyms are regularly implemented at employers across the country. But never is there any mention of how long employers actually want employees to stick around. Everyone is obsessed with employee retention, but no one really knows how long employers want employees to stay—and therein lies the problem.
So how long do employees currently stay at their employers with or without all the “best practice” retention initiatives? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4.6 years. That is the median number of years the American worker has been with their current employer. That means half of all workers have been with their current employer for less than 4.6 years. Kinda makes you rethink the ever popular interview question “where do you see yourself in five years?” The short and truthful answer . . . “working at a different company.”
If your company’s goal is truly to retain employees for some specific length of time, there’s an easy way to do it. Offer your employees a legally-binding employment contract and you can count on as many happy years of marital bliss as you want. However nearly every company instead offers employment at-will which is the business world’s version of a non-committal relationship. I get it—you don’t want to be stuck with the slackers that slip through your hiring process.
It’s the aversion to attrition coupled with the aversion to commitment that drives employers to engage in expensive tactics they hope will promote retention. Some employers aim to boost retention by doing no more than providing employees with stuff…lots and lots of stuff. They provide everything from retractable foosball tables in every restroom to touchscreen beer dispensers at every work station. But employees get acclimated to the fabulous lifestyle and employers don’t realize those perks might help attract people, but don’t inspire undying loyalty.
All of this means it’s time to let go of the assumption that any employee is going to stay for any specific length of time. You already know employees won’t stay indefinitely, nor do you really want them to. Instead of retention being focused on tenure, retention should be focused on outcomes—the outcomes you want employees to accomplish in their roles. Your company measures employee performance based on outcomes, why not measure retention in the same way? Would your company would rather have an all-star performer for two years or a mediocre performer for six years? Of course you would prefer the all-star! Good retention is not about how long people stay, it’s about what they do while they stay.
It is important that your company’s leaders and all its employees understand that idea. That understanding helps your organization have productive retention conversations. As long as you approach retention as a tenure issue, you are basically saying to employees “hey, we possibly want you stay here, buttt we’re just not sure for how much longer.” With that approach, you might as well start installing those retractable foosball tables.
Now imagine a world where you instead said the following: “You are about to reach the goals we hired you to accomplish and we would love for you to stay with our company. Let’s talk about some of the company’s future goals we think you will be excited to work on.” Notice you did not commit to a term of indefinite employment, but you did give the employee a compelling reason to consider staying. Does this approach guarantee that every employee will opt to stay with your organization? Nope. It does, however, dramatically increase the likelihood that the right employees will at least know you want them to stay. And if you can accomplish even that much, it’s time well spent!