8 Questions You Need to Ask to Turn Around Employee Turnover

Oct 15, 2013

Some of you like turnover, I realize: after all, you’re recruiters. But others on this site are in-house recruiters who’d like to keep who they’ve recruited. It doesn’t seem to matter if you are a small company or multi-national, selling food, clothes, or technology, or servicing patients or homeowners. Employee turnover is affecting every organization in every industry from New York to California, from Canada to Japan. Even India and China are beginning to experience high rates of turnover.

That begs the question: Why do employees leave?

A quick Google search reveals nearly a million reasons, far too many to mention here. Unfortunately even the least-discriminating person can see that most are anecdotal and rhetoric. The culprit? Few managers, HR included) rarely if ever collects data, other than going through the exercise of an obligatory exit interview. Even fewer mine the data after the fact. The solution becomes pass the buck or hit-or-miss tactics.

Finding a solution(s) that works lies in asking the right questions, aggregating data, and then continuously analyzing it. Once a company takes a deep dark look into the data it has buried in employee files and spreadsheets, reducing employee turnover generally boils down to one of several common sources.

Topping nearly every list for employee turnover is poor supervisory fit or poor supervision. Research has proven time and again that employees don’t quit companies, they leave supervisors.

If your organization is experiencing turnover, first place to look is the supervisor. I am taking a humongous leap of faith in assuming that the company is doing a good job at screening out high-risk employees and selecting the right ones.  To be fair, there might be other causes and supervisors can’t be the scapegoat. But before you find yourself running down rabbit holes and blaming your own recruiters and HR professionals, it is realistic to consider the supervisors’ role.

Poor supervisory fit has several faces.

The most popular and undeniable cause of turnover is an interpersonal conflict between supervisor and employee — something in each person’s make-up just rubs the other person the wrong way. It could be attitude, or communication style. It could be different approaches to work. Often times neither party is wrong or right, good or bad, their styles just don’t work together … and the employee leaves voluntarily or involuntarily.

Interpersonal conflict is not always the cause.  Often it’s just mismanagement. Research consistently confirms that more than half of front-line supervisors fail due to poor management skills, often the result of little or no people-management training. Many front-line supervisors are hired based on past technical accomplishments but lack adequate experience or training managing teams and motivating other employees to complete projects. Internally, many workers are promoted to management as a reward for tenure and loyalty.  Both strategies are recipes for higher turnover and lower productivity.

To eliminate supervisors as a cause of turnover, you need to ask:

  1. Has he or she received adequate training?
  2. Does one supervisor have more or less turnover than another?
  3. Is turnover high on one shift or in one location but good in another?
  4. Does the supervisor have performance goals that include retention, turnover, and employee engagement?

To evaluate other potential causes of turnover, ask:

  1. Are employees leaving after three to five years or during their first 12 months?
  2. Are you providing millennials enough opportunities to learn?
  3. Are you providing generation X enough opportunities to advance?
  4. Are your wages and benefits competitive … and do they meet the needs of a multi-generation workforce?

Higher turnover is a trend that will be more common in the near- and long-term future. It is increasing in many organizations from a shrinking labor pool, even among those companies who have not experienced turnover in the past. HR and managers feel compelled to fill open positions quickly with less-qualified people. (Qualified includes job fit, team fit, and cultural fit, not just education/experience.)

Long-term employees (especially Baby Boomers) who are retiring or leave the organization are replaced by younger employees who tend to change jobs frequently. It is not uncommon for a 20- or 30-year employee to be replaced with a millennial who tends to change jobs every two to three years. Even Generation X hops more jobs compared to baby boomers and veteran/traditionalist generations.

Solving employee turnover has a lot of chicken-or–the-egg thinking in it. The right solution requires a good hiring process and effective leadership development. It means placing the right employees on the right teams with the right managers. Likewise, equipping supervisors and managers with the right people management skills and resources is no longer optional and a just “nice-to-have” but essential for improving productivity and sustained business growth.

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