Attrition and retention HR analytics focus on the wrong metrics

Brian Sommer Profile picture for user brianssommer September 13, 2016
Focusing on the WHEN a person is at risk of leaving ignores the much more useful WHY and HOW of the leave decision. HR analytics need to move forward - and fast.

via HBR

How useful is an HR analytics tool that tells you something close to (or after) it’s too late. Think of an earthquake prediction tool that alerts you right at the moment an earthquake is happening. Does that sound useful?

The vast majority of HR analytics attrition analytic tools I’ve seen look at factors that an employee might be presenting today and based on prior history, these tools are ‘suggesting’ that these employees could be immediate flight risks. The factors that might be used include:

  • Has the employee been updating their LinkedIn profile a lot lately (when they rarely did so previously)?
  • Has the employee been consuming a lot of vacation time lately?
  • Has the employee exercised all of their stock options or sold all of their company stock?
  • Is the employee now working from home a lot of Fridays?
  • Has the employee gotten a new boss?
  • Has the employee’s work location changed and is their commute longer?
  • Has a previously high ranked/rated individual suddenly experiencing a dip in their performance evaluations?

What these tools do is assess a person’s propensity to leave ‘now’. They tell managers that an intervention may be needed ASAP if the person’s continued employment with the company is to remain uninterrupted.

The HR analytics problem is not WHEN but WHY and HOW?

Most everyone leaves their employer at some point. An analytic tool can help pinpoint the timing of the departure but not WHY the person is leaving. The new analytics are merely showing you some potential signs of a departure (the WHEN factor) but not what drove them to this point (the HOW factor).

A focus on the WHEN is probably not a useful exercise if the current crop of analytics tools are used as the means to tip off management. These tool results may come too late to turn around the person. As a person starts to contemplate a major career change, their mind starts processing a number of factors. The decision to change employers is one that few people take lightly. For weeks/months/years ahead of the real departure date, this person has considered a lot of options. They’ve pondered:

  • Will my current work situation (or boss) change anytime soon?
  • Can I ride out my current situation with any certainty that things will improve?
  • If I stay, will or can my career get back on track?
  • How do I get back to earning more than my peers?
  • How can I continue to juggle personal and current work/professional goals?
  • Why can’t my current boss/employer pay me and/or treat me as well as a different firm?
  • Why should I stay here if I’m not loved, paid fairly, appreciated and not taken advantage of?

A job change is often a complex, multi-faceted decision and one not made lightly by employees. They know their decision can affect spouses, children, income, commutes, etc. To make such a decision requires lots of internal debate. But, once the issues have all been examined and the decision is essentially made, it is really hard for an employer to get a person to reverse those decisions. An employer might get a brief reprieve but most employees will bolt – especially, if the root causes of their dissatisfaction are not fully addressed.

And that last sentence is the key one – are companies using these analytics to focus on the timing of people’s imminent departures or do they want to do something about the root cause of their departures?

Predicting is easier than you think

In a short but great piece in Harvard Business Review this month (September 2016 “Why People Quit Their Jobs”), a study by CEB is reviewed as to WHEN people decide to leave their employers. One aspect of the research really got my attention: people think about changing employers whenever they cross certain life thresholds (e.g., turning 40 years old, attending reunions, re-connect with peers, etc.).  I noted that most all of the time points in the article are predictable.

HR leaders could easily predict when employees might start to question their continued employment and could get well ahead of the decision process. Instead of waiting for someone to turn 30 and notifying their employer that they are leaving, HR could start checking in with the employee at age 27 and plotting a mutually beneficial career plan that keeps the person happy, engaged and employed with the company. Those early conversations could put in motion changes that make a difference before the person reaches an intractable mindset later on.

The more you think about this, the more you realize what HR should be doing but isn’t. Is HR really trying to keep talent? If so, they’d know not only to use an analytic tool that identifies today’s retention risks but also have processes to frequently check-in with all employees, especially at critical inflection (and reflection) points in their career.  The war for talent can’t be won by defense alone. HR must take the offensive to retain talent.

HR needs to do this (and do it well). Managers/bosses are often the number one reason people leave a company. You can check that from the old saying: people join great companies but they leave lousy bosses. If the person trying to intervene is also the one causing the problem(s), then the intervention will not work. It will fail colossally.

The current approaches used by HR analytics today are, sadly, reactive and don’t give enough lead time to address the problem. If an employee has already updated their resume, been out interviewing, cashed in their stock options, etc., then they are essentially gone.

Get the right metrics

Proactive approaches have rarely been created by HR or HR vendors but are badly needed. HR vendors need to do more primary research to understand WHY people leave companies not WHEN. Then, these solution designers can create employee timelines that suggest the best points when HR should be having a detailed career discussion with the employee. Again, primary research is needed to help HR figure out what and how to drive that conversation so that the employee stays motivated and remains with the company. To do that, HR needs to understand:

  • Who are the employee’s cohorts/colleagues and where have their careers taken them inside or outside the firm? What does that network look like?
  • What is the desired career path of the individual and what is required for them to make the next step? How can HR ensure this happens at the right time in this person’s work life?
  • What part of the organization (or which boss within the firm) does this person want to work with and how does the current organization unit (or boss) compare? Should HR get this person or their boss moved?
  • What personal/professional balance issues have arisen or are foreseeable for this employee? How can the company lessen these conflicts?

My take

When I attend the HR Technology Conference & Exposition show in Chicago next month, I’m sure I’ll be inundated with briefings from HR vendors about their latest analytic and engagement technology. Those topics seem to be all you hear about at HR analyst meetings these days. I’ll be looking for those firms who have sorted out the WHEN, WHY and HOW questions and have done the real investigative work to back it up.

Until then, I suspect:

  • employees will keep surprising employers with unexpected departures
  • bosses won’t understand why people are leaving them
  • interventions are rarely succeeding or succeeding long-term
  • people will continue, to quote Dear Abby, to seek true love elsewhere
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