Manager Mysteries & Mishaps Podcast

Handling employee turnover. [Interview]

This episode discusses a variety of topics related to employee turnover and how managers can navigate the potential negative impact.


Leaving an organization is never fun. In fact, I'd say it tends to be more awkward than anything. Whether it's voluntary turnover like resigning or retiring, or involuntary turnover through an individual firing or a large layoff, most people don't know how to handle those situations very well, especially managers. But it doesn't have to be that way.

In episode 12, I reviewed some common reasons for turnover, how turnover data should be handled and even how best to handle firing employees. Well, you can think of this episode as an extension of that one. This time around, I interviewed Michael Foss, Chief Human Resources Officer at Neovia Logistics. Michael talks about a variety of topics related to employee turnover, such as what managers should do when employees resign, how managers should handle situations when an employee is fired, and also how managers can navigate the potential negative impact of turnover on their teams.



Turnover always happens, it's kind of a fact of organizational life. One overarching topic is how people managers can best handle turnover in their teams. That is a huge topic though, so I'm going to break it up a bit. We'll start with facilitating exits, the people who are leaving. And so for my first question, let's say it's a voluntary turnover, so employee just left or put in their two week notice. What should or could the manager do?

There's a couple of different approaches that need to be considered in that. And so one, it's what is the individual employee who has tendered the resignation, what were some of the drivers behind that? And as a manager, it's important to get that context, even if it's sort of unactionable or at no fault of the organization or manager. It's still good context to understand, especially as managers think about how do they make themselves be more effective coaches to their teams.

Understanding what are some of the drivers and priorities that individuals look at when they evaluate their career growth I think is an important data point to continue to gather as a leader. The other component though, which is potentially even more critical, is the teammates who are staying, the retained part of the team, will be watching the way the manager reacts and deals with that resignation process. And if that manager reacts negatively, that's a really interesting signal for employees when they evaluate the health of the relationship they have with their manager and it can erode a lot of trust, which may beget further turnover. Instead the more graceful and grateful approach to the employee's time with the organization and celebrating the successes they had and the impact they had made I think will make teams overall feel more confident about their experience with the organization and also build further trust with the manager.

Because ultimately as a manager, what we need to understand is that employees are going to leave. It's just sort of a fact of employment. One way or another, an employee's going to leave over time. And so as a manager, what you need to be able to do is continue, sort of a business continuity perspective, you need to be able to continue the delivery of the outcomes that you're responsible for amid disruptions in your team. And the more notice you have of pending disruption, the more effectively you can plan as a leader. And so in order to get that type of dialogue with your team, you have to have a high degree of trust and the resignation, which is how we started this question, that resignation is a good litmus test for the rest of your team to understand how much can they trust you as a leader.


How should, or could, managers approach involuntary turnover like firing an employee?

Those tend to be tremendously more difficult, right? What I've observed is there's two types of involuntary termination. There's the performance based and at that point it's not really a question in the team's mind on whether or not that individual was performing adequately. Typically the team feels the pain of that low performance before the manager even does because the team is having to sort of make up for a lower level of performance. And so again, if it's handled with grace and a degree of gratefulness, I think the leader can position themselves well to be trusted and the team will I think respect that they're managing the performance of team, and ultimately it's a healthier type of team environment when they do so. The other is the surprise involuntary resignation. So an employee makes a mistake that really can't be overcome and they need to be exited quickly.

In those cases the rumor mill tends to take over really quickly. And there's a lot of complication on what is a manager allowed to say and not say in those circumstances. And in that case, I think relying on counsel from your HR team is really important to use them as partners and coaches in helping you understand, like how do you rebuild that trust with your team, especially if your team saw that as a surprise. So what managers should really think about is that they're not alone. There's typically a support infrastructure to help them be successful in those difficult situations.


What can managers do to gain insight into performance-based issues sooner than later, to avoid waiting too long to address them and potentially hurt the team's performance?

I mean, you certainly don't want to encourage team members to be talking negatively about each other. That's not a healthy environment at all. So you got to be really careful about how you're asking for feedback among peers. But a highly engaged manager who is having frequent one-on-ones, who's having frequent team meetings, who has more regular milestones and check-ins and on project work, these things can start to become leading indicators of when there's some risk. And ultimately what the real value of that is it allows the manager to intervene sooner so that performance doesn't really become an issue. And if the performance continues to degrade, it's likely another something else. And it's not that the manager can always fix that, but figuring that out sooner the better, to your point, I think is really what we want to be able to accomplish.


Could you go a little bit more in depth into how a manager could impart gratefulness and grace in both voluntary and involuntary turnover exit processes?

So I actually had a teammate resign fairly recently and he was concerned about coming to me about it. And part of the reason was he saw me as a mentor in his life and he was afraid he was going to disappoint me. And so then when we started to have that honest dialogue, my feedback to him was this place is not your end destination. Like this was never the end game. The end game for you is going to be much larger, it's going to be much bigger. And I'm glad that we got to be a part of that journey.

And it doesn't mean that your and my relationship ends, right? It just means that you have had an opportunity to grow beyond what this company can offer you. And now that that equation has become a little bit lopsided, you've made a healthy decision for your own development, and I applaud that. That's a wonderful thing. If I'm able to sustain that trust with the individual, I can still call them and tap into his expertise and his knowledge and use his brain from time to time. Like those things don't go away. If me as a manager, I'm able to be graceful and grateful for the effort and impacts that this individual made with the time that they spent with my team. And then there's no reason why I should be secretive about that.

That story that I told the individual one-on-one, I replicated that exact same story in a team meeting and the individual is there as well and were able to corroborate that that was the conversation we had and it became more of a celebration. And then I know a lot of companies really struggle with like should you have a party and cake for someone who's leaving and there's an opinion and I'm not going to take a stand on that. But within the day, like companies come and go, at least in the United States, we don't offer lifetime employment. That means their employees need to look at their careers and their interaction with the company is sort of a zero sum game. So as long as me, Michael, as long as I'm getting 51% of the value and then my company is getting 49% value, that means this is a good situation for me.

Right? And that value could look like a lot of things. It could look like pay, it could look like development, it could look like prestige or whatever it is, the things that I take intrinsic reward with. As long as that equation in my point of view is weighted in my favor, that's great. And sometimes companies come in and they offer a little bit of disruption into that equation and then it's on the employee to evaluate that. And then as long as there's a healthy team environment, then a good manager should be objective in that conversation. And so in this resignation process, we created a plan. There was a runway in which the exit was not highly disruptive to the team. We had a plan in place so that process is continued. Our stakeholders never really noticed a disruption other than they had to email someone differently.

And that was it. I mean that's the ultimate thing. So now two things have happened. One, my stakeholders have not experienced any unnecessary pain and disruption on my team. So that's great. And two, the individual has gone off and continued to grow in their career and now sees this was a positive moment in their career, in professional life.


How can managers navigate negative team impacts that are brought by turnover, whether it be increased workload, different communication channels or even things like negative emotions?

Yeah, there's a few things in there. So increased workload I think it's part of the economic model we work in, there's always going to be increasing workload. And that goes back to my equation thing, right? So if the workload outpaces the value that the employee is getting out of the relationship with the company, that equation may tip where the employee is not getting that 51% so to speak. And that could lead to turnover and the employee may be frustrated in that process, which I think is kind of what you were hinting at with some of the risk of negativity. I'm not going to pretend I have a solution for that. I think we are in a time and age where there's always going to be the expectation to do more with less.

I think it's a challenge for managers to create some sort of balance with their stakeholders, with their resource requirements and their demands on their team. And I don't think that balance is always gotten right and I think that's part of…managers are employees too, managers are developing too. Whether or not you think of yourself as an expert in any aspect of your work, you're still growing just through the experience over time. That's a really long way of saying get the feedback as to what was the motivation of leaving and hopefully it's genuine feedback. And it doesn't mean you're going to be able to take action on it all the time, but that information is valuable.


Do you see any trends in turnover, whether it be about frequency, technology, how they're handled, that you are interested in or excited about over the next couple of years?

Interesting question. I mean my mind goes into where all the articles are around automation, AI, robotics. To be honest, it never really concerned me. I don't know if that's naive or not.


That people would be automated out of their jobs?

Yeah. Like I think, sure. But I also think there's continual pressure to deliver more and more. And so it's not necessarily that people are automated out of their jobs. Jobs may be automated, but it's imperative around employees to continue to grow. And if an employee refuses to grow, that creates real risk of becoming redundant. But as long as employees have a growth mindset to match the economic expectation on the company, the hope and desire is that they're able to continue to grow and be productive and also gain value from their experience in their roles. And I think that's probably one of the reasons why I don't really buy all the concern around the impact on turnover when it comes to automation and robotics and AI.

Because all these things require humans to be a partner in the process no matter what. It's just that the roles will continue to evolve. I mean 10 years ago consulting with some of the Fortune 10 companies in the world, they would call us up and ask questions about like, "Well how do I curb turnover? How do I curb attrition? It's a real problem." And that was my aha moment and I quoted Ben Franklin, which is there's only two things certain in this world, death and taxes. I would say there's only one thing certain in employment and that's employees will leave.

One way or another they are going to leave. And so then your job as a manager is less about retention of the employee and more about retention of the capability. And so then if you start to look at it as how do I as a leader of a scope of work at this company build a sustainable, scalable model so that no matter what disruptions come our way, be it employee turnover or other externalities, I am able to deliver consistently on the outcomes that allow this organization to be successful. That is your job. And yes, we rely heavily on our teams to do that. But as leaders we should be thinking carefully about do I always need the employee to be a butt in a seat to do that?

We're in an interesting time where we talked a moment ago about automation, AI, robotics, there's the gig economy where people are just taking jobs for moments at a time. There's whole fields of study around these different alternative workforce models. I mean the toolset available to managers is richer than it's ever been before in order to sustain that capability over time. I think a lot of managers are technical experts in their respective fields and aren't necessarily versed with how to use these tools. And that's where the partnership of a really strong organizational or HR type of capability becomes a critical enabler of that objective of sustaining the delivery and capability of any organization to create those outcomes.

But that to me is the actual challenge. It's not how do I retain my employees, it's how do I retain that capability. And then going back to even the beginning of our conversation when employees do leave, be grateful and graceful because if too many employees leave too quickly and you don't have the right mechanisms in place, you're going to be at serious risk in being able to deliver in your scope of work. And ultimately as a leader, the company has entrusted you as a steward of a tremendous amount of resources. We can look at it from an HR perspective and say people are special snowflakes and I need to be kind and all these wonderful things. Yes, yes, yes, but companies are cold hearted number machines and so you've been trusted with X millions of dollars of resources and there is an expected return on those resources - that's your job.



I want to recap and emphasize two points that Michael made throughout the interview. First is the graceful and grateful approach to handling turnover as a manager. I just really liked that idea. Celebrate the successes and impact of individuals when they're resigning and approach situations that involve firing employees with grace. This not only shows your maturity as a leader, but also signals to your remaining team members that you can be trusted and respected.

Second, near the end of the interview, Michael made a really awesome point about the transactional nature of being a manager. Your job as a manager is less about retaining employees and more about retaining capabilities. Likewise, organizations expect a return on value based on the resources you're responsible for as a manager. These statements may initially seem a bit cold and distant, not warm and fuzzy. The thing is though, that's reality. Your fundamental priority as a manager is to constantly assess the value of your team's capabilities, ensuring that you manage and utilize those capabilities as best you can. When a team member is consistently creating conflict, not performing well, disengaging, et cetera, that's a signal for you as a manager to determine whether turnover is the most appropriate response to take for the sake of your team's capabilities.

And that's it for this episode! Join me next time on Manager Mysteries & Mishaps where I'll conduct an interview about managing remote employees.

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