Turnover is not tech's problem–look at engagement

Turnover is not tech

At the beginning of an employee’s journey with an organization, we invest a lot of energy in them. We think long and hard about how they’ll fit with our teams. We plan how their role will tie into our company’s mission in the short term, and how they will deliver on the objectives of their role into the future.

Then, when our best employees leave, we ask them why. Employers, especially in technology, offer generous salary bumps hoping their best people stay.

The people professionals sector has spent billions of dollars and countless hours on the beginning and end of their employees’ journeys. It’s why, when our best people leave us, we think we have a turnover problem.

Only, turnover isn’t the problem.

It’s a symptom, and a painful one at that. But optimizing for turnover means you’re always playing catch-up with what actually drives good people away. It’s a backwards-looking metric.

How can we keep good people from leaving us?
Every day, our employees decide whether they want to stay with us. Or not. Every day, they decide whether to act like the kinds of people our customers love and go that extra mile. Or not.

We call that series of decisions employee engagement. If you want to look at a more proactive indicator than turnover, look at engagement.

A recent Gallup poll found that 66% of employees in the U.S. don’t feel engaged with their organization. Even if we take that number with a grain of salt, and optimistically assume Canadian organizations are doing better than that, it still implies that half of our employees aren’t actively pushing our organizations forward. Perhaps they’re daydreaming of leaving us, or even trying to actively sabotage us by exhibiting toxic behaviour.

Or, perhaps, we have an opportunity in front of us.

What is employee engagement, and how do you keep employees engaged?
There’s no debate: engaged employees are more productive, innovative, and more likely to stay with us than unengaged employees. After many years of research, we know that engagement comes down to these three things:

  1. “Do I understand where the company is going, and do I feel connected to that?”
  2. “Do I feel like I’m still learning?”
  3. “Do I feel like I have influencer here, and like I’m valued?”

People want to work with organizations that are making a difference. By focusing on engagement instead of turnover, we can get in front of the situations where people feel like they’d rather satisfy their needs by leaving, instead of re-negotiating their current context with us.

How do you measure employee engagement?
Engagement is simple to identify if you know what to look for, and put the right people on the lookout. People who manage people are in the prime place to take a temperature on engagement.

With a bit of training and support, you can help your leaders identify, and respond to, opportunities to re-engage their people.

At BlueCat, this is what we train our leaders to look at some of these behavior changes as a sign that they have an opportunity to re-engage their direct reports:

  • Instead of volunteering for projects, or being really vocal and helping their coworkers, an employee pulls back;
  • An employee stops showing up for meetings;
  • Stays home sick more often than normal;
  • Doesn’t answer emails;
  • Is more negative or critical, when they weren’t before;
  • Is more tired than usual;
  • Makes more mistakes than usual or misses deadlines;
  • Some employees verbalize that they’re overwhelmed.

Instead of punishing disengagement – which is consistent with ‘legacy’ HR practices – we encourage our people managers to address engagement head-on, by asking their direct reports how they’re doing. A simple, “Hey, Dave, I noticed you [insert symptom of disengagement] lately and I have to ask, how are you doing?” can turn everything around.

How do you re-engage employees?
Historically, most people didn’t ask questions like this because they were afraid the answer might be something they can’t address. Or, perhaps, that they wouldn’t get an honest answer.

Building the trust that enables honest conversations about engagement takes time, so on my team we’re bullish about keeping lines of conversation open between leaders and their direct reports. The other key piece is showing that we make every effort to resolve an issue when it’s brought to our attention.

To keep the topic of engagement top of mind, we run a short monthly pulse survey and ask some basic questions of our employees. Think of it as a temperature check. On a scale of one to five, we ask our people to indicate their agreement with statements like, “I am happy to work at BlueCat” and “I feel like I have an opportunity to grow at BlueCat.”

Our people managers also have scheduled conversations about performance, career development, and engagement with their direct reports quarterly. We encourage one-on-one check-in meetings weekly, to provide people leaders and their direct reports a space to talk openly and in private, and create an opportunity to bring up issues.

None of these things alone will magically improve employee engagement. However, in combination, this action accomplishes a few things. It signals to our entire organization that we care about solving problems proactively. It gives our people the opportunity to talk about what matters to them, beyond their immediate to-do list. It also gives us a chance to re-engage those people who might be feeling let down, before it even becomes a conversation about turnover.