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Engaging today’s employees – Managing Attrition

November 2, 2009
Drum Out the Sun
Image by digitaltree515 via Flickr

I have just come out of yet another corporate HR Review in which Attrition/Retention figures were shared. And leadership once again reaffirmed their expectations and concerns regarding the high percentages. HR once again promised to work on them.

Sounds familiar?

I am sure the HR folks have the usual internal dialog going, about how Attrition is not going to be controlled unless line managers own their role in the process. And I am sure line managers are wondering why HR doesn’t do more to stem the tide!

Sounds familiar?

Thanks to the slowdown attrition went down, but now with things picking up, the percentages are going up.

So what does this tell you?

I personally think we need to relook at this issue. I think the corporate world has been in denial way too long, and needs to move to acceptance. Wake up people! or should I say Wise up!

The world we live in has changed. Value systems have changed. The way people conceive a career and look at their jobs has changed.

Steve Crescenzo and Marc Wright enjoy a well e...
Image by Krishna De via Flickr

Sure we should continue to look at employee engagement, morale, culture, environment etc. But what each of these terms MEANS to an employee of today, are different from what it meant before.

I was recently speaking at a round table and spoke about Gen Y‘ers, when one of the audience said something that made a lot of sense to me. He must have been 50+, but he said, we’re ALL Gen Y’ers. And the moment he said it, I knew he had said something important.

We’re all spoiled for choice today. We’re all getting used to twitter and bite sized conversation, with a desire for quick bit of information/entertainment, wherever we are. Technology has yet again influenced our society, just as it always has before.

So I ask you, what keeps an employee engaged today? Change. Doing different things. A majority of us want to be doing something different every once in a while. We get bored with routine.

Movies are shorter. The dramatic pauses, long dramatic sequences are a thing of the past. The editing is slick, and we move frame to frame with rapidity. Music is getting a similar treatement, as are our newspapers and other information media.

The HUMAN Resource album cover
Image via Wikipedia

Employees no longer see long term careers with organizations. They would like to do their bit, add value, do something exciting, learn something new and then they start looking for a new challenge.

In this scenario as organizations struggle to improve retention figures, there are 2 ways to handle this issue.

1. Accept that attrition has become a part of life. Have processes and talent pipelines in place. Organizations which have effective incumbency and fresh talent pipelines in place, don’t have too much of a problem with attrition. They have a talent engine which ensures a regular supply of manpower almost JIT.

2. Change the outlook on engagement. The new world employee, which is you and me and the others, wants to have continuous challenge thrown her way. Build this into your processes. Find ways to job rotate talent. Those you can’t, ensure they get into Cross functional teams, or are exposed to new experiences/learning in other ways. If you can’t change their job, change their location. Or the team in which they work.

3. Change your outlook from employee citizenship to employee tenancy. Understand that they’re here for 3-5 years, and treat them differently, reorient systems, policies around tenancy instead of citizenship. Already organizations are walking away from Gratuity as part of CTC. Most employees would prefer it to be monetized today. Similarly, what other processes can we tweak, remake? Is a good question.

Only organizations that are growing at a decent pace, will be able to do the above. Stagnant organizations, slow moving organizations will see a steady drain of top talent.

Tools of the Trade
Image by punk_drizzle via Flickr

Most organizations are today providing world class work environments, compensation plans are getting so standardized, that they’re not a differentiator any more. You can only outpay the competition so long. Most organizations are putting in place robust and standardized HR processes and policies. Where then do the differentiators lie?

1. As above – Build Talent management processes and Change the outlook on engagement

2. Truly, with line management – The one thing that CANNOT be copied is how well supervisors manage their people. If you can get this in place, then you’re in good shape.

A graphical representation of the Managerial Grid
Image via Wikipedia

If I were you, I would be asking myself, what does my workforce need in order to be engaged? Am I giving them what they want, or what I think they want?

The problem with Employee Engagement surveys – you only get answers to the questions you ask. You ask about work environment, they’ll tell you. You ask about leadership, they’ll tell you. What you’re missing out on, are the questions you are not asking!

Run the survey, but make sure you have a system that generates open free-wheeling dialogs, these will lead to insight into areas unexplored, and that’s the differentiator!

Lastly, a process that most organizations have not yet opened up to, but which my good friend, and global HR head, Prameela, pioneered. She calls it the Boomerang. By which she means putting in place processes that ensure Returns of employees who attrite. A process that tags a bungee cord to an employee upon exit, almost an umbilical, which is active and keeps a connect, so that when the employee is ready for another change, which she will be, she will consider a Return.

A typical wooden returning boomerang
Image via Wikipedia

If we could start measuring Returns, and have a process to raise the number of returns, there is a significant benefit to be derived:

1. Instant culture fit

2. Ready ability and knowledge of the political scenario and minefields

3. Half-ready network of allies

These guys hit the ground running, and how!

So when are you going to devise a Boomerang process for your organization?

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24 Comments leave one →
  1. June 25, 2013 5:43 pm

    Brilliant write-up.
    Really liked the idea of Boomerang – I am glad we have HR leaders working on this concept in a rather concerted manner.

  2. May 28, 2010 9:21 pm

    If only more than 35 people could hear about this!

    • gurprrietsiingh permalink*
      June 8, 2010 4:28 pm

      A lot more than 35 did visit and read it… Although I know what you mean, and wish I had some CEO blogs/sites linking in to this one!

  3. November 4, 2009 12:32 pm

    I’m wondering – what if business / functional leaders have to take ownership for attrition in their teams? And their KRA’s and KPI’s tracked this? After all don’t we all know that most people leave because there is no emotional connect with their work? And very often they cant see their dreams and aspirations being fulfilled through their jobs. And they want ‘moksh’ from the mind numbing stuff that has no light at the end of the tunnel. And most of them think their boss is an ass hole!

    I’m wondering what if the traditional HR outfit didn’t exist? What if the business leaders were ‘intrepreneurial’? Would they still externalize and blame HR? Or blame anyone else?

    The Boomerang and such creative initiatives are what HR needs to focus on. Processes that are pro-actively targeted at building a better tomorrow – rather than reactively ‘break-fix’ the past!

    • gurprrietsiingh permalink*
      November 4, 2009 8:28 pm

      Wow! Powerful stuff Sujit. What if we eliminated an HR Department (outsourced transactional stuff like payroll etc), and just added the dev components to the KRA/KPI of the line managers. Now that would make for an interesting organization.

      I think this would work!

    • July 27, 2010 7:28 am

      Actually Sujit, I know of one MNC organization where this was indeed the case – line managers’ variable pay was linked to two metrics – their teams’ employee survey score and their attrition metrics. It was the only organization I know in which business leaders and managers would be after HR people always to get advice on people issues!

  4. November 3, 2009 1:21 pm

    Reminds me of an article I wrote recently 🙂

    There are various factors that are making people change their approach to the traditional way of work and defining success.
    Most people yearned and look forward to the chance of moving from Industrial work to knowledge work – looking forward to produce intangibles like analysis from tangible things like widgets. However there is a growing realization that knowledge work (at least in the way it is done most of the time) is not the holy grail of work.
    In fact, the Wall Street Journal featured an article called When Work is Invisible So Are Its Satisfactions where Homa Bahrami, a senior lecturer in Organizational Behavior and Industrial Relations at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business is quoted as saying “Not only is work harder to measure but it’s also harder to define success. The work is intangible or invisible, and a lot of work gets done in teams so it’s difficult to pinpoint individual productivity.”

    What is changing in India and the kinds of people I have been following – is that they are much more willing to take risks in searching for their creative expression.
    This willingness- I believe – comes because of four main reasons:
    1. people have started discovering role models
    2. the costs of the tools are very low
    3. there is a robust support system in the community to support such experimentation.
    4. The ability to act on a desire to contribute to the larger cause.

    With the rise of virtual communities – and the ability to find a group of enthusiasts about even any obscure interest – people find appreciation and feedback and mentors across the world. Continuing the photography example – communities on Flickr – the photosharing site have helped the aforementioned amateur photographer to learn from better people and also to discover similar enthusiasts in their own locations.
    Writing used to be a lonely activity – however a recent public novel writing contest on the microblogging site Twitter helped established and aspiring writers be motivated enough to be focused on completing their novels – with an explicit goal of getting it published soon.
    Such support systems and the approval they provide are often more real than the perceived lack of enthusiasm of immediate family and friends who really can not understand the context of why someone is excited by photography or writing a novel and not their regular job.

    • gurprrietsiingh permalink*
      November 3, 2009 1:38 pm

      Excellent inputs Gautam! As always…please also share the link to the article with us!

      • November 3, 2009 6:06 pm

        have emailed you the full article – it’s not online 🙂 Kindly don’t share – it’s for an organization’s internal usage 🙂

  5. November 3, 2009 6:55 am

    Another thing that struck me was that you mentioned about line managers feeling that HR could do more to stem the exodus of people. I had done some research a couple of years back on the “Managerial Rub-Off Effect”. Maybe you find it interesting:

  6. November 2, 2009 6:10 pm

    Excellent article Gurprriet!

    You are so right about Change. Even when I look back now, I was always the happiest when there was unpredictability with my job profile, when I had no idea what skill sets my next assignment would challenge..

    I crave change so much that if offered a job in advertising/branding, I wld take it up irrespective of my HR background without a second thought!

    & I have been most miserable & quit when there was no change to my routine. What makes it worse is when we get stuck in an organization whose very cultural fabric resists change.

    There is also a tendency in these old organizations to silo people, so just because you have been doing Learning & OD for the last few months, the next organization puts you in similar role even if you keep asking for a role change, just because it is convinent for them.

  7. Monisha Advani permalink
    November 2, 2009 5:49 pm

    Sounds like a digress but watch the 60 second promo of Rocket Singh, the latest film being readied for a year-end release out of the Yashraj stable. It sums up employee profile, employee expectations… all the raw material that employers can mould with. And how often, employers get it wrong!

    • gurprrietsiingh permalink*
      November 2, 2009 5:52 pm

      I did, and I see what you mean!

  8. Chitra Sharan permalink
    November 2, 2009 3:40 pm

    We should make it mandatory for everyone in the corporate world to read Alvin Tofler who described this transient world that you have written about and gives inputs on how to deal with it.

  9. vishal khanna permalink
    November 2, 2009 3:09 pm

    Hey I second what you have said in fact where we loose out is that we behave very transactional with our employees ” Human Resource ” as they say its in the name I guess , we forget that that what we are dealing with are not resouces or objects like machines they are alive to every change and action around them hence if we treat them as Humans then maybe we begin to understand the difference between resource and live humans

    Secondly I am currently planning the launch of a corporate alumani where the xit interview is done post exit and F&F so that there is no fear of getting a bad reference / money being stuck and administering a questionaire that captures what is making them happy in the new place

    third if we are able to create the same feeling of freshness the employee has when he joins the organisation the energy the enthusiasm the tentativeness balanced with the will to contribute through out his stay I think you can extend his stay and then attrition may just be a natural process talent churn rather than a key HR objective to earn your year end bonus

    You may even look at sabatical work experiences just like sabaticals for studies every three / four years this I havent given a detailed thought to but this has been a thought lingering around the corner in my my mind

    But in the end Boomerang – good concept

  10. November 2, 2009 12:58 pm

    Very well-written post.

    True, employees do not see their careers starting and ending with one employee. But, to be able to do that organisations truly need to understand what matters to employees. According to some of the global research (local contexts can be different) I have seen that the drivers of attraction, engagement and retention are different. Some of the themes from the data revolve around career advancement, learning opportunities, challenging assignments, flexi work arrangements, competitive base pay, bonus / variable pay etc.

    Also, another way to think about the engagement issue is through the concept of life cycle of employees. Employees have different needs at different stages of their lives – solitary worker, marriage, full nest, empty nest etc. (Many banks segment their customers this way). At different life-stages, there are different needs employees are looking to fulfill.

    I love your point about changing the mindset from employee citizenship to employee tenancy – very relevant and this shift would help us re-design processes from scratch.

    Finally, I still feel surveys are useful, as long as we ask the right questions. When I design a questionnaire, 75% of the content is based on employee inputs. I make sure to spend time with a cross-section of people to get to the right issues. Otherwise, you end up with unactionable or irrelevant data. And of course, I always always always ask all my clients to use surveys as a tool to facilitate ongoing dialogue. The survey is not meant to get definitive answers about everything!

    • gurprrietsiingh permalink*
      November 2, 2009 2:25 pm

      Thanks Abhishek!
      You’ve helped trigger a thought about tenancy cycles!
      Excitement in the first 3 months, engagement and value add in the next 12-20, disillusionment/boredom in the next 3-6, and then either exit from role or organization.

      A lot of what we’re discussing here is relevant only to high growth organizations and economies. A lot of this would be irrelevant for Switzerland or a large part of the US and UK today.

      • November 2, 2009 2:27 pm

        Yeah. The mid-life crisis hits employees in the tenure range of 2-5 years. Companies not able to manage it well must be prepared to lose a few heads.


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