Why The Good Ones Leave

It's a conversation no manager wants to have. One of your core employees pulls you aside and says she needs to talk.  And when you do, she says she's quitting.  Why? you ask.  Money is the inevitable answer.  You cling to a small hope—maybe you can somehow wrangle more money for her.  Then will she stay?

Unfortunately, once the decision to leave has been made—even if that decision is delayed by a few weeks or months—eventually, that employee will leave.  What's worse, she'll go straight to a competitor.

How could this have happened?  She was a terrific employee—always pitching in to get the job done, always loyal and low maintenance.

This happens every day in companies across the United States.  Just recently, I spoke with a client who was distraught because one of his managers of 20 years "suddenly" quit. The truth is, when one of your most valuable employees quits, it's usually not "sudden."  There are clues along the way that the manager should have been paying attention to, and that lack of awareness is the biggest reason your employee left.

Let's think about this employee.  Where does she fit into your organization?  It is essential that an organization divide its employee groups into three categories. Group 1 is your core employees—the 20 percent of the organization that goes above and beyond expectations all of the time.  Group 2 accounts for 60 percent; they are what I call the temporary employees.  These people can possibly be motivated to become core employees, or they could become part of Group 3, which is what I call the walking dead.  The walking dead employees cannot be motivated and really don't care.

Managers typically spend way too much time trying to motivate the walking dead or trying to change the temporary employees into core ones.  But what do they do with the core employees, like the one who just gave notice?  Nothing.  The assumption is that the core employees are doing just fine because they usually don't complain.  They are primarily intrinsically motivated, so managers assume these stellar performers don't need attention.

But over time, when the needs of the core employees are repeatedly ignored, even the most loyal ones will become frustrated.  They start to listen when a headhunter calls.  They begin to look around at other opportunities.  And a decision to look is almost always a decision to leave.

When an employee resigns, we tend to assume it's a money issue, and the employee will sometimes let us go on thinking that.  Remember, though, that for this internally motivated person, money is usually not the primary issue.  Employees leave because they do not receive the attention and appreciation they need and deserve, whether they have asked for it or not.  So when an employer offers an employee who is quitting more money, it is insulting and demonstrates even more clearly that the employer does not pay enough attention to the true needs of the employee.

Unfortunately, once an employee gives notice, it is too late to backtrack.  However, you can employ several strategies to keep the door open for the employee's return.

  • Accept that the employee may leave, but help her exit on good terms.  Let her know she is appreciated, and acknowledge that you did not provide the support she needed but that you will work to improve in the future.
  • Keep in contact with the employee.  Rather than treat her like a traitor, remember that she will be going through an adjustment period in her new job as well and may wish to return to your familiar environment.
  • Begin to create a system that both invites the employee to return and also encourages current employees to stay.  This means spending more time, attention, and yes, money, on your core employees.  Although throwing money at an exiting employee is a failing strategy, providing timely, significant bonuses to core employees—while also giving them acknowledgement, resources, and opportunities—makes employees want to stay.

In order to survive, particularly in the competitive industrial distribution industry, you must identify core employees and figure out how to demonstrate attentiveness and appreciation for their work.  And if all else fails, keep the door open for former employees—just in case you get a second chance.


About Paul Glover

With his distinctive, direct and oft-humorous approach, “recovering attorney” and long-time business and executive coach Paul Glover bares his knuckles to present 76 strategies and tips to thrive in the Knowledge Economy in his new book, WorkQuake, published by Round Table Companies. The blogger for FastCompany.com coined the term WorkQuakeTM of the Knowledge Economy to capture his unique insights and tools to implement organizational change in the knowledge economy. Paul’s writing has been featured in The Business Edge, Vistage, Manufacturing.net, and Food Manufacturing. He is based in Chicago.

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