Turnover, Retention and the Crusade to Assign “Responsibility”

Ask most any HR Leader “what’s your biggest pain point?” and I guarantee that retention/turnover will be up there amongst the top 3 answers. Quite often this answer is partnered up with its companion “recruiting/hiring” since, of course, they share space for all eternity on the organizational mobius strip. 

Depending upon one’s company, the responsibility for lowering turnover/increasing employee retention may be a shared goal (as it should be) or may belong to a specific department: usually HR. 

Which is crap.

When Stan in the Distribution Center resigns it’s not due to the interactions he had with Karen in the HR Department or Sherrie in Recruiting. (Recruiters are another group that tend to have their performance measured, inaccurately, on turnover numbers). It’s quite likely that Stan didn’t even resign because of his direct supervisor or department manager. Oh I know; every speaker at every HR conference for the last 2 decades has posted a slide with the seemingly profound words “people leave managers…not companies!” (And then they act like they are the first person to ever say this and all the attendees furiously scribble these seemingly transformative words in their notebooks). 

I detest that pablum statement. Are there horrible, toxic and downright inept managers out there that drive people away from organizations? Of course there are. But people do leave companies; I certainly have. People may have the best manager in the world BUT that manager’s hands may be tied by the company. 

People quit, resign, mentally check out, get fired and just plain stop-showing-up for a variety of reasons. And yes; while some people get fired for an egregious act wherein they may go out in a blaze of glory, there are sufficient numbers of people who are terminated for performance because, well, they just stopped trying or caring.

NONE OF THIS IS THE FAULT OF THE HR DEPARTMENT. Heck, I would argue, again, that quite a bit of it is not even the fault of the person’s manager.

The reasons why people leave their jobs can be classified, fairly simply, into either PUSH or PULL factors.

Push factors are those over which the organization has control. This includes factors such as overall company culture, pay and benefits, working conditions, trust (or lack of trust) in leadership, and opportunities (or lack thereof) for development or career progression. Push factors may also include the annoying co-worker in the next cubicle, the lack of up-to-date technology one has to do their job, and the company’s propensity to rule via death-by-a-thousand-cuts-HR-policies. 

Pull factors are those things that are outside of your organization (and outside of your control). These factors include family responsibilities (a move, family care issues), personal decisions (returning to school), commute and travel issues, and personal/family finances that necessitate a change.

Some may argue that the siren call of a competitor (they pay more! they have free snacks in the breakroom!) is a PULL factor. In the vast majority of cases I disagree; the number of regular employees (i.e. not top tech talent, the superstar marketing professional, etc.) who are recruited (sourced, called, woo’ed) for another job is pretty slim. But even if it does happen, there is some underlying PUSH factor that leads the person to go through an interview and application process beyond simple curiosity. 

They want to leave. And NOTHING you can do is going to get them to change their mind. 

So what IS the role of Human Resources?

HR’s responsibility is to recognize and understand the reasons why people leave the organization, identify the problem areas, and develop solutions to lesson the impact (financial and otherwise). This requires gathering data (exit interviews anyone?) and synthesizing it, appropriately, to provide some real multi-layered answers. 

There are areas, fully in the control of HR, where adjustments can be made:

  • Attraction and recruiting initiatives lay the foundation for retaining talent and HR/TA needs to get this shit right. The “employer brand” should be real and truthful; there should be no sugar-coating of what the day-to-day reality of working at the company is like. Never (ever) should applicants be promised one thing to get them in the door and then the organization delivers an employment experience that is entirely different  
  • HR, with some heavy-lifting from managers, manages the onboarding experience from the time-of-offer to a date well after the newbie employees start. HR should dive deep to ensure onboarding includes sufficient aspects of cultural assimilation, socialization and opportunities for relationship building (in addition to all the “how do you DO your actual job”) 
  • HR staff should work with managers, and equip them with the training, time and resources, so they can provide a high-feedback/high-touch work environment. Do some supervisor/manager training? Sure. But back that up with the time and money to let them do-what-you-hired-them-to-do.

In addition, there are certainly other areas where HR professionals can have an impact on some of the PUSH factors including offering pay and benefits that are competitive and at appropriate levels and ensuring development opportunities truly exist (and aren’t just paid lip service on the company career site). HR professionals should also do some soul-searching and find ways to ‘lighten up’ on the draconian, bureaucratic HR policies and procedures that provide much of the fodder for the “I hate HR” crowd. 

Easier said than done of course. Depending upon ones’ level in the organizational hierarchy (i.e. any layer below the CHRO) and/or the size of the organization it can be a downright futile exercise. Karen the HRBP covering a small region for an enterprise with 50,000 employees unfortunately doesn’t have much input into the drafting of the corporate HR policies or defining the compensation philosophy. (YET SHE IS STILL TOLD SHE IS RESPONSIBLE FOR TURNOVER!) 

Here’s the deal though…

So often, when lectured by a CEO/Owner/Big Shot VP that she is responsible for lowering turnover, Karen in HR (as mentioned above) who is sitting out at a regional site and has no real power to make deep and abiding organizational changes, will do a bunch of “activities.” She’ll hand out water bottles with the company logo, order in pizza, and kick off an Employee of the Month award. 

But no one’s going to stay just because they might – one day – win the “Employee of the Month” award and receive a $25 gift card and their name on a plaque hung in the breakroom.

The Push/Pull factors are still there.

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How much do I like this diving into this topic? So much that I’ll be speaking about it at the Talent Success Conference in September. 

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