As a manager, it’s hard to hear that someone wants to leave your company. Moreover, turnover can also come with high emotional and operational costs too. The good news is that these exit conversations don’t always have to be unpleasant. Perhaps this person has found a great opportunity, and you’re happy to have been a stepping stone on their journey towards something better.
But sometimes, a person is leaving because of issues within your control, which you failed to manage. At times like that, it may be tempting to try and make them stay.
As I’m going to talk about in this article, this is sometimes the right thing to do. However, I will add a big caveat upfront – someone who has decided to leave will inevitably leave in the future, even if you convince this person to stay for the time being. People planning on leaving an organisation have already crossed the bridge mentally once, making it a lot easier to do the second time.
The difference between good retention and bad retention
Before diving in too deep, let’s set the stage by talking about good and bad retention. Every company experiences turnover. Sometimes it’s extreme, as it has been during “The Great Resignation.” But other times, you may feel like you’re doing okay because your organisation is experiencing high retention.
However, there’s such a thing as good and bad retention.
Good retention is when you successfully engage and keep the people your competitors want because they’re a valuable asset to the company. These people have created a lot of value for your organisation. Likely, such people will only leave once their best outcomes lie outside of the organisation. It may be after two years or twenty, but there will be a point where growth and development have to happen elsewhere.
If the person has been an asset to the organisation, the ideal situation would be to move them to a new project or department where they could excel and grow. But often, that opportunity just won’t be there. Good organisations recognize this and allow those people to go with pride and feel that they are an extension of the company itself.
On the other hand, bad retention is when you've got a system where nobody ever leaves, but for the wrong reasons. For example, maybe not much is asked of them. Nobody has any motivation to do anything new or innovative because nobody gets promoted or recognised for performing well. It’s not common, but occasionally, you might find a department, area, or even a whole company in which no one has left in ten years. This situation can be just as bad as high turnover.
How to know if you’re going to have a retention issue
Retention is the responsibility of the employer, not the individual. It’s in an organisation’s interest to explore what people need to stay longer. It costs a lot to hire and train, and it takes time before the company achieves a return, so the last thing you want is a constant churn of good people.
It seems silly to say, but the easiest way to find out if you're going to have a retention issue is to ask. To better understand retention, we suggest that companies ask both a present and future attrition question. At Culture Amp, we recommend asking the following two questions in your employee engagement surveys.
Present attrition: I rarely think about looking for a job elsewhere.
Future attrition: I can still see myself here two years from now.
This language is designed to measure the alignment between individual and the organisation over the medium term. You’re not asking the person to commit – you’re just asking them to reflect on their perception of the organisation’s direction over the next two years.
What to do when an employee wants to leave your organisation
Number one: they’ve already fired you as a manager or leader, so admit your mistakes.
If you can acknowledge that you’ve made mistakes, you may be able to convince them to stay. They may not be leaving for the right reasons, or perhaps they don’t have all the information they need to make an informed decision. Whatever the reason, if you honestly believe you made a mistake and can engage them to help you fix it, you may have a chance.
For example, maybe you haven’t given them the support they need, or there’s a systemic issue that you failed to see. In these circumstances, the first step is acknowledging that you didn’t do a good job understanding what they needed or explaining the available opportunities.
The next step is to outline what you’re going to do about these issues and pain points and asking them to stay. However, this approach will only work if the company takes responsibility and action to resolve these issues. Rather than focusing on tactical things, like money, explore the systemic issues that got the employee to this point and amend those.
You rarely get two bites of the same cherry
I know from experience that you don’t get two chances. When I first tried to leave Rising Sun Pictures, I felt that I’d reached a point where I’d taken all I could from the role. I was young and wanted to try other things. When I spoke to the founders, they outlined some opportunities they had planned to give me and offered to accelerate these. They followed through, and shortly after, I became the general manager and happily stayed for another five years.
The next time I decided to leave, it was for different reasons. It wasn’t an easy decision, but I felt that I was ready for something new. Once again, they offered me a huge opportunity to try and convince me to stay, but I knew it was time for me to leave. It was a difficult decision to make and explain to them, but it was something I had to do.
When people at Culture Amp tell me they’re thinking of leaving, I often tell them this story. They’re often feeling incredibly stressed, and hearing this helps validate their emotions and calms them down.
It’s only human to feel surprised when someone wants to leave, but it’s important not to come across as surprised, shocked, or upset. It’s okay for your employees to feel what they feel. The key is helping them understand why they’re having these thoughts and supporting them to make the right choice.
Money is never a good enough reason to stay
It’s never useful to try and engage a person to stay if all they ask for is more money. If this is the case, you’ve already lost the battle because they’ve reduced their decision to a purely monetary transaction. If you match their new salary offer, they’ll be gone within six months when someone else increases that number.
As discussed above, It’s not necessary or appropriate to try and stop everyone who wants to leave your organisation. There’s good and bad retention, and turnover is natural.
In a healthy organisation, perhaps half the people who choose to leave are doing so for the right reasons. Even if they’re leaving you in the lurch, it’s important to consider the long-term benefits from their point of view. Trying to convince someone to stay to solve your short-term pain is largely selfish.
But if managers can engage in open and productive conversations with their employees, these conversations can reveal insights that are beneficial for both the broader organisation and the individual involved.
Upfront conversations about retention are also a critical way to drive alignment and increase retention. I’ve talked before about how I used to ask new hires at Culture Amp, “How can I help you get your next job?” Managers can also conduct “stay interviews” with their direct reports to understand why current employees choose to stay and what they like and dislike about their current role and experience.
At the end of the day, the individual may still feel like there is a mismatch, and it’s time for them to leave. At that time, we highly suggest conducting strategic exit interviews to identify your strengths and opportunities as an organisation. While you have to let them go, both of you may learn something in the process.
5 ways to improve retention at your organization – right now
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