Workplace Issues

Hang On to That High Performer!

Employees are far more likely to feel pushed to exit a job than pulled by a new opportunity.
David McCannNovember 30, 2011

Many CFOs aren’t fully comfortable with or interested in dabbling in human resources, but most place high value on retaining the top talent in their own finance organizations. Understanding the patterns of employee departures can help executives satisfy that need.

In these days of fewer job movements, managers risk being complacent about their staff’s stability, suggests Leigh Branham, a leading expert on employee retention and engagement and principal of Keep the People, a consulting and training firm.

“I have a friend who is a CEO, and he says all of his CEO friends are high-fiving each other because the war for talent is over and employees are tree-hugging their jobs,” Branham says. “Personally, I don’t think that’s a lot to celebrate. It just disguises disengagement.”

The employment-market pendulum is bound to swing the other way at some point, yet companies routinely are nearsighted on that topic. Branham notes that when the economy is good he’s hired to do more exit surveying than engagement surveying, and vice versa when the economy is bad.

During the past few years, Branham has collected about 800 responses to a survey on his website from workers at all levels who left jobs. The data is likely to be more valid than information from companies’ own exit surveys, given departing employees’ fear of burning bridges. Taken together, Branham’s data portrays opportunities for managers to mitigate the risk of losing key staffers.

One lesson is that if you sense a key performer is thinking about leaving, take remedial action immediately. Sixty-nine percent of respondents said they left within a year of first thinking about it, and about half of those did so within six months. A window of opportunity, though small, is clearly present: 66% of the departed workers said their employer might have kept them by making some changes.

The survey also asks whether participants were pulled out of the organization, such as by an attractive offer, or pushed out because of dissatisfaction. Only 10% said the reason was exclusively “a pull,” compared with 53% who said it was “a push” and 37% who said it was a combination of the two. “I think a lot of managers would be surprised to hear that,” Branham observes.

Participants were also asked to choose the specific greatest cause of departure from a list of 39 possible reasons. The top 10 most-cited reasons were all push factors. The top response, at 10.6%, was lack of trust in senior leaders. “People’s antennae are more attuned to what senior leaders are doing because of the malfeasance that’s gone on in the last 10 years at the most senior levels of companies,” Branham opines. “It’s making people expect more.”

Next on the list, with a big drop to 5.7%, was insufficient pay, followed closely by undesirable culture, lack of concern for employee development, lack of honesty/integrity/ethics, unfair treatment, lack of communication, and excessive workload.

Only 4.6% of respondents cited a pull factor as the chief reason, such as the decision to change careers, an unexpected new opportunity, relocation, spending more time with family, starting a business, returning to school, and illness.

People who feel pushed to leave a job also tend to perform at less-than-optimal levels while looking for a new employer; 71% said they gave less effort after deciding they wanted out.