Chronic Employee Turnover Is Almost Never About the Employees

bad-adsSenior executives often call me when they are at their wits end with people on their team:

  • “I’ve tried to make things work, but my VP of HR is just not delivering the results I need.”
  • “My Communications Manager just won’t step up to the plate. We seem to only react to things without any strategy.”
  • “The world changed around us, but Finance is doing the same things we did ten years ago. I’m getting no useful information and feel like I am constantly dragged into the weeds. We need to rethink what we are currently doing, but frankly I’m more worried about all the problems we are not even thinking about yet.”
  • “Our IT department is a real bottle neck. We want and need streamlined processes, better information sharing, and improved productivity. But all we get are surprise expenses, empty promises, and long delays. Even simple requests seem to get buried in obfuscation and complexity.”
  • “Our Chief Marketing Officer is not doing anything that drives revenue. We’ve spent money to upgrade our social media presence, revamp our website, and conduct extensive customer surveys. But our revenue is still flat-lined.”

Some of these concerns might sound like people problems. But twenty years of experience as an executive recruiter has taught me that what looks like a people problem is often a situation problem. An occasional bad hire is nearly unavoidable. But if you churn through executives every few years, your chronic turnover almost certainly runs deeper than just one bad egg. When your department or executive team has a pattern of failure, it’s likely that your work environment sets people up for failure (however unintentionally).

The First Law of Holes is, “If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.” In the face of chronic turnover, don’t hire anyone new until you fix the underlying issues. Chronic turnover problems won’t be solved by blaming individual employees and then going out to immediately hire more. As Einstein noted, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Instead, chronic turnover is best solved by looking beyond the individual people and exploring any issues in the work environment. Before you move forward with another round of hiring, step back and look at your own role in these seven common causes of employee failure.

1)      Are you using an outdated business strategy? Maybe the way you’ve always done things no longer works. Nothing runs on autopilot forever. If it’s the wrong task for the times, it won’t matter who you assign to do it — they will fail. The skills required for success ten years ago are not nearly enough to achieve success today. Almost every job has an increased demand for results, coupled with dramatically higher complexity and ambiguity in the work. You can’t just use old job descriptions and salary budgets to hire new people … but many people still try to.

2)      Maybe the best people are just not that into you. Do you have trouble attracting great people to your open jobs? Or do you interview great people, only to see many of them withdraw from a second or third interview? That’s a signal that you, your job, your organization, or your industry are just not that attractive to the people you want to hire. No one stands in line for an iPhone 3G anymore, even though they did a few years ago. Have you considered that the job market might have changed around you and the best people have better options elsewhere? When was the last time you benchmarked your salaries against the competition? Do you really understand who is available in your job market and who you are competing with to hire them? (Almost nobody does this kind of market research when hiring.)

3)      Are you still placing .22 caliber people in a .357 Magnum job? Growing organizations outgrow people. Your internal positions inevitably become more complex as you grow. So your next HR Manager will face dramatically different challenges than your last one. Just because the last HR Manager was willing to work for $90k does not mean you can use the same salary budget to replace her. When you hire, you need to think about the future, not the past. And if you need a new business strategy (see #1), are you ready to pay a salary premium to hire someone with those skills? Strategy never comes cheap, but far too many managers hope (in vain) to find it in inexpensive candidates.

4)      Are you disappointed with everyone you interview? Perhaps your recruiting team is only considering the people who fit your salary budget, or perhaps your recruiting strategy only reaches the people who respond to job advertising (only about 18% of the total candidate pool responds to recruitment advertising). If you want different recruiting results, you need to align your HR practices with your business strategy.

5)      Do you hire new people to shake things up, only to be disappointed after you hire them? Do you find that your people will not step up to the plate? Do you give new people big audacious goals, then disappear while they get stuck in the thicket of executing? Do you hover at the big picture level, never getting in the weeds with them, making them feel like they are going it alone? Do you ask new people to build consensus with your overworked, understaffed current team, or do you help pave the way? And when it comes to conflict — be honest with yourself — do you reward your team for encouraging healthy debate, or reward them for getting along and not rocking the boat? Change agents need more support than senior leadership usually provides them, and they always cause more chaos than their managers prefer. You can’t say you want to hire change agents and creative thinkers and then not facilitate their ability to foment change.

6)      Do your new employees charge ahead, or freeze like a deer in the headlights? There’s an old saying, “The fish stinks from the head.” Do you share the credit and take the blame? Or vice versa? If your new hires know that they will be blamed for every error, how many risks do you think they will take? Do you swiftly make gutsy judgment calls in the face of uncertainty, or do you expect your subordinates to take those risks instead? If you are always traveling or behind closed doors, is your team forced to guess at what you are thinking? Do new employees have to figure out their mistakes from group emails or other employees? Or do they get honest, direct, and regular feedback?

7)      Do you have a rule for everything? Are your employees trusted to exercise good judgment or do you have a thick set of policies for everyone to follow? Maybe your HR policies were initially designed to mitigate your legal risk, but after years of adding small edicts to your employee handbook, your office now exudes the depressing atmosphere of a police state, repelling the very people you want to attract. Police states are rarely nimble or fun. (And in a sad bit of irony, some employment attorneys suggest that all those oppressive policies might actually increase your legal risk.)

If you find yourself blaming the person who failed in a job, you’re probably looking in the wrong place. You’ll almost never find the solution there.

Before you look at new people, look at yourself. Chronic turnover problems are best solved by looking long and hard at how you might be contributing to the very problem you are asking someone else to solve.

3 Responses to Chronic Employee Turnover Is Almost Never About the Employees

  1. Homa Chaudhry says:

    Love article. Says what we need to change in work environment.

  2. […] indignation at someone’s failure, great HR instead cools you down and points out that there are environmental factors that set them up to […]

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