Employee Engagement Surveys Are Like New Year’s Resolutions

Retention during bad times is easier than when times are good.  It’s a fact; people look for safety in dark times. Ironically, when it comes to retention, bad times are what keep HR pros awake at night.  There is the belief that when business turns upward, employees become motivated to start looking for engagements outside their current jobs.  This concern of not being able to retain top talent is often reinforced by the surveys employers look to for “data”. In the past few months, nearly every major consulting firm has released a study showing employee engagement is at its worst point in years. Fears are confirmed by stories being woven around a common theme.  This theme claims high producing employees are the most likely to look for new jobs in a market upturn. Surveys seem to support this.  I can’t help but wonder if some of these employees who are ready to leave are the same people who in December 2009 told major media surveyors that they made a New Year’s Resolution to lose 20 pounds and start exercising 3 times a week.

Gyms capitalize on the fact that the ratio of resolutions to execution is very low. Therefore, no one scrambles to open new gyms or make significant changes to gym access in order to accommodate the hordes of “Resolutionists”. I don’t believe that most employee engagement surveys take this phenomenon into account.

The employees I have interviewed often list the reasons they have to leave. When pressed, they admit that they are unlikely to move if management would merely make some tweaks to demonstrate things will “start improving”. For example, employees often cite how much they enjoy their coworkers or how much they dislike the interview and hiring process. How many companies fully utilize these keys to retention?

The truth is there will always be attrition among your best people.  It can be argued that much of that attrition is positive.  It can allow you to change outlooks while evolving in new directions. Downturns slow attrition but this comes with the potential cost of stagnating the company. When the market improves it may feel like all your good employees are leaving simultaneously. Many of these people would have already left earlier if new positions were available.  If you plan correctly your company can benefit from this process by making little changes that will keep much of your talent satisfied. You can benefit from this process by picking up your peers' great people at the same time.  You will probably find that making a few small changes is more effective than figuring out how to retain a few good people who would have left regardless. Your efforts and resources may be best spent on those who plan on staying rather than keeping those who are set on leaving.

I don’t think that engagement is any more or less critical today than during the proverbial “good times”. Perhaps a greater priority should be placed on having top performers document the things they do and train the people around them. Shared knowledge lives on. Prepare now to cushion the impact when you lose some of your best and brightest (and trust me you will.) Take the opportunity to recognize, and invest in, up and coming stars around you. As a bonus new talent can walk into your company to work amongst well-trained and motivated peers.

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