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How to stop playing the 'Blame Game' in the Great Resignation (2/2)

Brian Sommer Profile picture for user brianssommer May 20, 2022
In the first part of this article, I outlined some of the reasons for the 'Blame Game' that goes on between employers and employees. In this concluding part, I offer up some ideas on how to stop playing this pointless game.



HR vendors are an impatient lot.

They can’t wait to rush you with new cure-all technologies to solve an array of workforce maladies. They’ve got remedies for employee engagement, employee experience, culture fit, succession planning and so much more.

Oh, and if those don’t quite fit your needs, they also have specially fortified applications complete with advanced technologies like machine learning, big data, smart analytics and more.

Buying a solution before knowing what problem you want to solve is a waste of time and money. And, worse, it might not work.

If your firm actually talked to employees (not just send them an annual survey or make them use a digital mood ring app), you might learn what they really want. I have a hunch that people will stay longer if you do/offer the following. I have placed these new requirements in three categories (below).

Aligned expectations

Deep Recruiting Interviews – People and companies play games during job interviews. The jobseeker is trying their best to tell the recruiter/manager what they think the company wants to hear (not what they really think). The recruiter, who is under pressure to complete the interview in a manner of minutes, isn’t really paying too close attention. The recruiter is often looking for key buzzwords or safe responses to a couple of tricky questions. No one in this process is actually learning anything useful about the other. As a result, the company hires someone they don’t really know or understand and the employee will be stunned to find that the work or employee experience doesn’t match up to their expectations. So, the employee will be planning their exit within days of arrival.

Better employers would do well to spend more upfront time getting to know candidates so that they can set more accurate expectations of the job/role ahead. The more time spent with a candidate can help ensure you understand their career aspirations, desired personal/professional balance, training requirements, attitudes regarding work from home/travel/overtime, and much, much more. The goal in this greater familiarity is to ensure that the fit is there. If the fit is poor, that employee won’t stay any time at all.

This type of interviewing works. It surfaces all kinds of sub rosa wants, needs and desires of jobseekers. With that knowledge, the employer and jobseeker can have a more earnest conversation and mutually decide if there really is a good fit here.

Job, First Job or Career – Another misalignment occurs when someone accepts a position thinking it could lead to a career with the employer. If the employer just needs a warm body (or as some hiring managers crudely put it: a butt in a seat), the career expectation won’t be met and the employee will be off to greener pastures as soon as possible.

Granted, not everyone wants to climb the corporate ladder or become the CEO. That doesn’t mean that they don’t want to be recognized and gain additional responsibilities as warranted. Unfortunately, many firms only think of career paths for a small subset of their workforce. Worse, if they have bright, ambitious people in entry level positions, they may not have a mechanism for quickly identifying, developing and promoting these individuals. And so, these best and brightest leave.

Great firms assess everyone and chart a career path and career velocity for each. If you’re interviewing people and not able to articulate a real (not hypothetical) career path for them, they won’t likely stay with your organization. Only a bad employer thinks they can keep great talent for years and years without offering them a chance for more pay, responsibility, recognition, etc.

Aligned expectations work both ways. Employees want to see a number of things that matter to them be things that their employer takes care of well, too. Any misalignment, whether intentional or not, will trigger job churn, job losses and morale/engagement issues.

Stay Acquainted – Workers change over time. Their personal situation can change due to children, commuting, health, elder care, education, financial and other issues. While you might learn a lot about jobseekers via deep interviews, you need to stay in touch with them once employed to ensure the unwritten contract between worker and employer is still current and valid.

This comment is not meant to trigger alarm bells – I’m not recommending HR pry into an employee’s personal life but I am suggesting HR listen to the emerging needs and wants of their workforce.  I’m a big fan of focus groups and group meetings where employees are encouraged to suggest possible new benefits, recommend policy changes, etc. Unfortunately, employees don’t often trust such techniques as they fear that speaking up will brand them as a potentially dissatisfied employee or that their feedback will trigger some kind of retribution. The fact that people have this fear speaks volume about:

  • How little the firm actually knows about its people
  • How rotten the company’s culture really is

The best leaders do things to trigger interaction with their team. Here are some simple but highly effective ideas:

  • Have the leadership step out of a quarterly division meeting for a few minutes and let employees generate a list of rumors they want management to dispel or validate. The CEO can give $100 to the person who had the ‘best’ rumor.
  • Leadership should never get on a plane without finding out who else from the company is on the same flight. They should then try to get the employee seated next to them and/or get that person upgraded.
  • Likewise, any time a company leader is visiting a location where one or more employees are remotely working, they should make every effort to visit with these people.
  • Leaders should always take a junior team member with them anytime they are planning a visit to another facility, a key supplier, etc. Not only are these great learning experiences for the employee but the leader will gain insights into the worker/workforce, too
  • Each leader should take one staffer offsite for a 1-on-1 lunch each week to connect and understand their team

There’s an old adage that familiarity breeds discontent. From an employment perspective, there’s too little familiarity or awareness of one’s workforce. If there ever was a time when management needed to learn about its workforce, it’s now. Get on with it!

Right environment

People won’t stay at a company where their physical or mental health is at risk. No one, but the most desperate, will work in an unsafe environment and will seek new employment elsewhere as soon as possible.

Physical Safety/Attractiveness – Thankfully, regulatory groups like OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) help ensure that a workplace is physically safe for employees.

But just because a workplace is safe, doesn’t mean it’s attractive. A few years ago, a study found that employees decide in their first hour of employment whether they’ll stay with the company more than a few months or whether they’d recommend it to a colleague. Their key criteria for this: how inviting/clean the reception and HR offices were when they first showed up for work.  Harsh florescent lighting, broken floor tiles, uncomfortable furniture, etc. aren’t doing your firm any favors for attracting and retaining talent.

Psycho-bosses – Too few firms ferret out bad bosses or even try to understand just how much turmoil, job churn, etc. they create until a significant amount of damage has been done.  No one deserves to work for a sociopath, a narcissist, a megalomaniac, a paranoid, etc.  I know I’ve had more than a few bosses who were first-class nut jobs and only got to their positions because they lied, cheated or bullied others to deliver some kind of result that they readily took credit for.

People leave bad bosses far more often than a bad firm. Find out which of your managers/leaders is your retention problem and get rid of them. They’re killing your firm.

Pay to Stay/golden handcuffs

For many decades, companies have used pensions, 401Ks and other instruments to help people save for retirement but shouldn’t these same tools also help with retention?

I’ve noticed people stay, materially, longer with companies when they have stock options. Maybe it’s the multi-year vesting periods or the hope for a big payout in the future that is so enticing but it does create stickiness. And, if acquiring talent is so time consuming and costly, shouldn’t firms be looking for techniques to get people to stay?

In contrast, what no one discusses about 401Ks is that these very portable assets create a very un-sticky workforce. Years ago, people stuck around to get a company pension. They didn’t want to leave that firm as that pension was a retention motivator. Businesses fueled the move to 401Ks and some even got caught raiding the underlying assets within the old pension plans. While I’m not advocating a return to pensions, I am pointing out that company benefit packages today offer little that encourages employees to stick around.  This may be the single biggest war for talent error there is.

What benefits designers should be creating are more and bigger 401K, FSA or HSA matching opportunities or other benefits that further cement great employees to the firm.  For example, would your firm match the first 5% of an employee’s 401K contribution initially but then raise that by 1% a year starting in year 2 until it is maxed out?

Also, remember that what creates stickiness for one demographic employee group may differ for another. For example, older employees would likely love benefits like:

  • Long-term care benefit that continues even after employment (and at a very favorable price point)
  • Option to acquire low-cost elder care for one’s older dependents

Meanwhile while younger employees want other benefits. Know your workforce and design accordingly.

My take

Whining about (or doing nothing different about) job shortages is not a strategy. And, this isn’t a new problem either. Years ago, numerous fast-food chains and retailers struggled to get workers. The best run firms figured out that many of their workers were high school and college aged students who wanted money for college. These firms created a tuition education benefit for these workers.

This was an inspired idea at the time as many fast-food establishments were experiencing a churn rate of 10-12X per position per year. The cost to locate, hire and train people was high and then to have to do this a dozen times per year per position was killing the bottom line (and operations) of many franchisees.

These programs worked as retention soared and turnover fell by a form factor. A 2018 article in US News & World Report provided an in-depth look at the higher education benefits of numerous fast-food companies.  But, will this work today or will employers need to create a different benefit? My guess: it’s time to revisit and tune this benefit.

If you have far less workforce churn, you should achieve greater profitability. Your recruiting and training costs should diminish. Customer satisfaction should increase as more experienced and knowledgeable personnel are interacting with customers.

But to get these operational results, business leaders have to engage with their workforce and find out what they want and need. Old methods will likely deliver substandard results. It’s time to change how we look at retention, the jobs/careers we offer people, and, what makes for a sticky employment environment. Are you ready to rethink today’s workforce and its wants?

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