Gallup Suggests That Employee Turnover in U.S. Businesses Is a $1 Trillion Problem — With a Simple Fix

April 25, 2019

A recent report from Gallup estimates — conservatively, it says — that a trillion dollars is what U.S. businesses are losing every year due to voluntary employee turnover. A few weeks later, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that the number of American workers who quit their jobs in 2018 topped 40 million and represented 26.9% of the workforce.

When Gallup talked to exiting workers, they found two fascinating bits of information: First, more than half (52%) of them said their manager or organization could have done something to keep them from leaving. Second, 51% said that in the three months before their departure neither their manager nor any other company leader had spoken with them about their job satisfaction or their future.

At the end of its report, Gallup suggested, “Train your managers to have frequent, meaningful conversations with employees about what really matters to them. What’s frustrating them? What are their dreams? Where do they want to go?”

With a trillion dollars on the table, businesses may also want to take other steps to curb turnover and keep their workforce happy and engaged. Here are eight proven tactics for improving retention:

1. Develop personalized action plans for each employee

Lack of advancement opportunity is the No. 1 reason why professionals leave their jobs. LinkedIn put that insight to work several years ago. As the already ferocious fight to retain engineering talent heated up, it created a proactive retention program so that managers and other leaders wouldn’t find out about a star employee’s career aspirations at their going-away party.

LinkedIn identified engineers who had been rated “exceeds” or “far exceeds” expectations and then engaged senior leaders in the company to meet with targeted employees. The conversations were designed to 1) acknowledge the contributions of these engineers, 2) express gratitude, and 3) learn what was keeping them at LinkedIn and what would cause them to leave.

Based on those conversations, individualized plans were developed for engineers that included giving them opportunities to build X or learn Y, depending on their stated interests.

2. Create opportunities for employees to learn and advance — and share their expertise

Many employees exit when they feel they have the capacity to take on more and aren’t given the chance. They want to tackle new challenges and master new skills and knowledge. So starting a professional learning and development program just makes sense.

A good way to start is to survey your workforce to find out what are the skills, hard and soft, they’d like to develop. Then find the experts in your own organization and ask them to teach a course. Giving employees a chance to share their knowledge and to teach others can be a powerful retention tool. Also, lining up your company’s leaders to teach a course or two sends a powerful signal about their support of L&D efforts.

3. Provide career coaching from your top employees

Given that a lack of opportunity for career advancement is the top driver of attrition, companies that want to slow down turnover should offer coaching or mentoring for their top performers.

Google has found coaching, when done well, not only promotes career development, it lifts retention. The company has conducted extensive research into what good managing looks like and has identified the 10 behaviors that its best managers share. No. 1 on the list is being a good coach.

So nearly a decade ago, Google launched Career Guru, which allows employees to receive one-on-one coaching from seasoned Googlers around the world. Coaching sessions can touch on topics ranging from innovation and leadership to presentation skills and team development.

The program is a win-win, with employees getting insightful advice from company insiders and coaches finding an elevated sense of purpose by helping colleagues.

4. Give your workforce autonomy and the space to be creative

It’s critical for managers to trust their employees and to avoid the temptation to micromanage them. Giving employees the space and permission to solve problems on their own can drive your business forward.

Former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi gave her worldwide workforce the license to tackle problems creatively. As one example of that, teams at PepsiCo were free to create new flavors of Lays potato chips that reflected local tastes. Which led to tikka masala chips in India, seaweed chips in China, and — in an idea that clearly didn’t come from central planning — cuttlefish chips in Thailand.

5. Recognize achievements, big and small

When professionals start looking for new opportunities, the job hunt isn’t always sparked by a manager who is silent about development. Talented employees often begin looking elsewhere because their manager is silent about recognition. In fact, two out of three employees say they would walk from a job if they felt unappreciated.

To boost job satisfaction, managers should celebrate achievements and milestones of every shape and size. Meghan Biro, the founder and CEO of TalentCulture Consulting Group, says recognition is most effective when it is timely, genuine, and appropriately scaled to the achievement. Sometimes, that may mean a promotion and a bonus; other times it may just call for a note. Doug Conant, the former CEO of Campbell Soup Company, put this notion into action by writing more than 30,000 personalized thank-you notes during his tenure.

6. Set clear expectations

In 2018, LinkedIn Learning surveyed nearly 3,000 professionals about their biggest frustration with their boss. The clear winner: A manager whose expectations were vague or in constant flux.

Expectations should be delivered clearly and consistently, starting during the hiring process, continuing with onboarding, and then moving on to regular one-to-one meetings.

7. Actively support volunteerism and community outreach

Company-sponsored volunteer programs are still an underleveraged tool for boosting retention. Even though turnover drops by 57% when employees feel connected to their company’s philanthropic and volunteering efforts, only 38% of U.S. employees say their company has a volunteer program.

8. Give employees flexibility in when and where they work

Work flexibility was one of the four major trends we reported in the 2019 Global Talent Trends report. “Work flexibility is becoming the norm,” said Jason Phillips, the vice president digital HR and global chief of staff at Cisco. “The challenge is how fast organizations provide it. Those that can are going to be in a far better position to retain top talent over the next three to five years.” More than half (54%) of the talent professionals we surveyed for that reports cited retention as one of the main benefits of workplace flexibility perks.

PwC, the accounting and consulting giant, has built a culture of “everyday flexibility” that openly encourages employees to work when and where they choose. In embracing “the world’s smartest management strategy,” PwC has nurtured the policy by offering it to everyone, being flexible about what it looks like, and having leadership visibly promote it. The upshot? The firm has been named one of LinkedIn’s Top Companies for the last two years.

Final thoughts: When you reduce retention by improving your culture, you’ll have an easier time finding new hires when your people do leave

The U.S. economy has now had eight straight years of rising voluntary quits, with the total number going from 22 million in 2010 to 40.1 million in 2018. The Work Institute’s 2018 Retention Report says that “while turnover of any kind has a negative impact on organizational performance, and should be controlled, voluntary turnover is more detrimental to organizational performance than involuntary turnover.”

For the U.S. workforce, the tight labor market is a great opportunity for employees to jump to jobs with more compensation, more responsibility, or more of both. For companies, the current high churn is both a challenge and an opportunity.

The opportunity is to embrace one, some, or all of the tactics above. Each of the practices cited can help cut attrition. And the bonus is that nearly every one of these strategies will also help boost productivity, employee engagement, or employer brand.

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