Workplace Wisdom

How to Keep Your Staff from Heading for the Exits

My office is on the fifth floor of a five-floor building and, although I take the elevator up, I usually take the stairs down. Every so often, I find someone from another office standing somewhere on the stairs on their cell phone, scheduling a doctor’s appointment, checking on a child, or having an argument.

Something about the apparent seclusion of the stairwell clearly encourages the callers to believe they’re positioned within a “cone of silence” with full privacy. Even though I clear my throat, clatter my shoes, hum, etc., to let the callers know I’m approaching, I’ve heard medical details, deeply personal concerns, and insults. But yesterday, for the first time, I heard something really scary:

Okay, and I have a co-worker who’s also frustrated!

Not only was this dissatisfied employee looking to set up an interview so she could leave her current job, but she was offering to take a colleague with her.

Why and how do things get so bad that an employee has to skulk around in a stairwell? There are so many — too many — possibilities. It’s probably too late to recover this particularly disgruntled employee, so if the interview she’s scheduled doesn’t work out, she’ll surely keep looking for another job. But can other employee escapes be prevented?

Keep Employees On the Job and Off the Stairs

Here’s a truism I’ve observed in most companies: When you lose one employee — for any reason — you lose two. Or more.

Unfortunately, once a turnover cycle begins, the mere thought that other people are leaving can trigger thoughts of departure. That’s the case even among un-disgruntled staffers, who may start thinking something like this: “Gee, I wonder why so many people are leaving. Maybe something really is going wrong here. Maybe I should think about getting out too.”

This line of thinking can occur even among employees who were doing fine, weren’t actually unhappy themselves, and who, prior to their colleagues’ departures, wouldn’t even have considered making a change.

Take Steps to Prevent Mass Exodus

Do you know how your employees are feeling about their jobs, their work environment, and their futures?

All managers should be keeping tabs on their team members’ “temperatures,” caring about their individual successes and satisfaction, and knowing them well enough to have a sense of what’s important to them.

In addition, from time to time, it can be valuable to hold human resources-led or “skip level” focus groups in which senior execs meet with employees without their direct managers present. Team members may speak more freely in these groups, and can help identify any big themes or trends that need to be addressed systemically throughout the organization.

But merely identifying the themes behind an employee exodus, or even finding the root causes, is not enough. The leadership must be able to respond to employees’ concerns, whether they’re structural or personal.

It’s unlikely that all the issues employees raise can be resolved — or can be resolved all at once. And it’s possible that not every dissatisfaction should be resolved — sometimes the culture or expectations of a company and an employee’s preferences just aren’t a match.

But at the very least getting staffers involved in ongoing discussions with management can help ensure that the leadership will know when people are starting to feel so frustrated that they’re flight risks. Before they’re standing on the stairs.

Onward and upward,


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