We’ve Got to Stop Over-promising and Under-delivering, or Retention Will Suffer

Oct 8, 2013

It’s natural to do everything you can to convert a potential candidate you’re interested in. However, mistakes made during recruiting process and in the onboarding stage can lead that person to leave early.

Recently, a friend of mine left his job after 18 months. He had spent four months looking for a job and deciding that one was the right fit. He even relocated to a new state to take it. He was as excited about it as can be. So what happened?

  1. The company represented itself as growing quickly and it turned out it wasn’t. It was growing but slowly.
  2. The company sold him on the leadership’s incredible credentials and the opportunity to work closely with such executives since it’s such a small company (about 50 people). In reality, the executive leadership already had its inner circle and they weren’t letting anyone else in.
  3. The company underpaid him relative to his market value. He was willing to take it in exchange for personal growth and longer-term career opportunities. A year into it, they even gave him a raise but when he looked around and saw little potential for professional growth or mentoring, no advancement opportunities, and that his peers were earning way more than he was, he didn’t feel fairly compensated.
  4. He moved to a new state for this job, yet no one in the company tried to help him assimilate in the new area. He didn’t know anyone in his new state and no one made an effort at making introductions to locals. His boss never even took the employee out to dinner. There was no culture of hanging out together, so the employee was isolated from his natural social circle and did not have a new one. When his spouse came to visit him in the office once, the boss and the other execs said a quick hello and went about their day. They did not make good on their promise to help the spouse find a new job. The spouse was pushing for moving back to their home state soon after that.

When this talented individual, who has an Ivy League education and more than 10 years of experience, realized this was not going to be his dream job as he expected, he started looking elsewhere. It’s not that the job was bad; it’s not that he wasn’t developing professionally at all; it’s not that he completely hated his new city. However, in his words, it was just ‘meh’ relative to expectations and promises. For the most talented of individuals, ‘meh’ is not enough.

How did this well-respected company lose someone talented it spent months recruiting?

Its main mistakes are all too common: over-promising/under-delivering and undervaluing the personal.

In a market where jobs are scarce such behaviors can fly. Employees will tolerate a lot to keep their jobs and make sacrifices in their personal lives. However, as the market gets better, the talented ones start looking sideways.

In the job market of highly educated and experienced professional, the market is almost always tough. Even when it’s not, it should be treated as such, because when the market gets better, the temptation to leave will grow again.

Many companies make the mistakes illustrated in the story above. Take note and avoid these pitfalls:

  1. Over-promising the company: “We’re growing 50 percent a month”; “We’ll be raising $10 million next year.” It’s great that you believe in your company and that you have optimistic projections, but if they don’t pan out, your new employee will start to rethink the wisdom of their decision to join.
  2. Over-promising the role: “You’ll have mentoring directly from a C-suite exec,” “You’ll be part of the strategic decision making process.” Six months later when all the employee had was one lunch with the COO who was on his phone half the time, those promises start to look like lies.
  3. Underpaying relative to market: It’s hard to believe this is still happening in the age of transparency and free flow of information. It’s extremely easy to look up what people in your cohort are making and get at least a range. If an employee is at the low range, they will find out. Companies have to be clear about what they are offering that might make the job worthwhile regardless (for example, flexible hours, better career development, higher growth that will lead to opportunities later, job stability, better benefits). If you can’t articulate why your company is worth working for regardless of lower pay, expect to lose people as soon as the market gets better.
  4. Ignoring families: The families of employees need to be just as excited about their loved one joining you as the employee is. When there is an emergency to take care of on a Saturday or the employee is going to miss dinner due to a deadline, you want the family to be supportive, not annoyed. Invite the spouse and maybe even the kids into the office, take them out to lunch (or dinner), and sell the company vision to them just as you would an employee. Keep them engaged and updated.

That’s just the basics. Good employers work hard to keep the entire family happy. They help the spouse find a job or raise money for a new business. They help get the children into the school of choice. They assist in finding a caring facility for an elderly parent. By doing this they create a lot of goodwill but also they create ties to the community that make it harder to leave even when a better opportunity comes along. This is an area where smaller companies actually have an advantage. It’s much easier for them to provide that personal touch.

When talented people decide to join your company, they are taking a risk: with their career, their livelihood and their personal happiness. Make that risk worthwhile by under-promising and over-delivering and by placing high priority on personal and family happiness.

My friend recently joined a startup in the same industry, in his home state. He is taking in less pay than the previous job, but in exchange receiving equity in the business and a real opportunity to work with top executives in the industry. He doesn’t know how it will work out yet, but he does know the other job wasn’t working out in the long term so is happy to cut his losses and move on.

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