Embrace Employee Turnover

I’m hearing so much whining these days about how hard it is to find good people, and then how they move on to another job so quickly. I feel like I’m at the same yearly family reunion where the same grumpy uncle keeps lamenting how the world has changed and kids are going to hell.

I–maybe like you–were a tad dismayed when I saw the trend, but I’ve grown to love it and even welcome it.

Let’s get the facts straight, first. In the US, anyway, the average tenure of a college-educated professional is 4–5 years. Millennials change jobs just slightly more frequently than older workers, in spite of the bad rap they get.

The primary reason they change jobs is to make more money (the PC terminology is career advancement). That’s why it’s harder to keep employees happy at smaller firms, precisely because there are fewer rungs on the career ladder. That’s also why it’s harder to keep employees happy when there are two or more principals, since there is less room remaining at the top.

Here’s why I welcome employee turnover (but only if it’s for the right reasons):

  1. It forces you to have systems and operating procedures so that you don’t take a hit when an employee is swapped out. I have a client where every employee has a mandatory month of sabbatical, in addition to vacation, and their email is disconnected during that time. Talk about a healthy need for processes!
  2. In the same vein, you’ll have a stronger onboarding methodology. Doing it the right way sets the stage for a respectful relationship with an employee, and it’s a wonderful start to every relationship.
  3. You’ll be able to change directions more quickly as the old guard moves on and the new guard welcomes how you plan to adapt to a newer world.
  4. You won’t be as likely to overpay people, and longer tenure is the primary reason you do.

Employee turnover is really bad, though, if it’s not for the right reasons. Here are the top candidates to explain bad employee turnover:

  1. You aren’t very good at hiring people. The deficient ones keep slipping through your filters, and then they move on with or without your help. You keep talking yourself into people while also ignoring the warning signs.
  2. Your culture sucks, and you may not even know it. You’re controlling, unfair, or you let talented assholes keep their jobs. Or you give abusive clients too much rope, you don’t respect employees’ personal lives, you play favorites, or you don’t handle conflict well. You're not going to fix that with ping pong tables and latte machines.

When someone leaves, do not try to keep them. You’ll overpay for that privilege and you’ll be setting a bad precedent. Instead, celebrate their next step and do everything right.

After all, more employees are going back to the former employees–after a stint elsewhere–than ever before, and you’re not really being the adult in the room if you burn that bridge. The ones who come back really want to be there and they are usually fantastic team members.

Here’s a bonus idea for you. When that new employee starts, give them a secret diary and urge them to write down every first impression they have during that first two weeks of work. Then, after they’ve built up the courage to share those things with you, ask them to pick and choose and conduct a session to show you how your firm stacks up, good and bad. After two weeks, they’ll think that the way you do things is normal and there will be less to learn.

I’m puzzled by how little attention people pay to constant recruitment. This is one of the main jobs of every principal at the firm. If your positioning morphs into a lead generation plan to find the right clients, we need to think similarly about employees. Except that your positioning is your culture, and the lead generation plan is the stuff you should be doing all the time and not in a full blown panic when you hear that someone is leaving.

If your really good employees are hard to find, that’s more likely a narrative you’re telling yourself instead of facing something else that’s just under the surface.

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