In the previous episode I said I was gonna go over different aspects of the employee journey, starting with new hires and onboarding. I reviewed the evolution of stages that a new hire goes through from start date to their first-year anniversary. Now I’ll be expanding on that to include all tenured employees.
The best analysis I’ve found that includes different groups of tenured employees is what we at Quantum Workplace call the tenure curve. This curve is based on the relationship between level of engagement and tenure at an organization. We’ve found that engagement levels tend to be at their highest for new hires, or employees with less than one-year tenure at an organization. Then there’s a huge drop in engagement, pretty much a nosedive, for employees with one to two years of tenure. Engagement decreases a little bit and levels off for employees with three to fourteen years of tenure, so that covers a huge group of employees. And finally, engagement goes back up for employees with fifteen years or more of tenure. Though when I say “goes back up,” it’s only a little bit – nowhere close to the engagement of new hires. Imagine a slightly lopsided U, and that’s the tenure curve – a trend that starts high, goes down, and then goes up a little at the end.
One thing I wanted to say before continuing is that these group averages are just that – averages. Whenever anyone talks about group differences, whether they be gender, tenure, age, whatever, we shouldn’t be quick to assume that a group average, like average engagement, applies to an individual. Like in your team – if you have a team member who’s a new hire and one who has six years of tenure, you shouldn’t assume that the new hire is automatically more engaged than that other employee. When we talk about averages, we’re only talking about high-level trends, which may or may not be applicable to an individual team member who’s part of that group. But that doesn’t mean group averages are useless. Far from it. They offer rough guidelines to think about possible causes or outcomes in that group, which can expand how you think about those groups and allow you to develop a stronger appreciation for their unique situations.
In this episode I’ll be covering the mystery of the tenure curve through the lens of four employee groups, which are new hires, employees with one to two years of tenure, employees with three to fourteen years of tenure, and finally employees with fifteen years or more of tenure.
If you haven’t listened to the previous episode, episode 10, then I strongly encourage you to check it out for a more in-depth review of new hires. To sum it up, a lot of changes occur in a short amount of time. Within a few months, new hires get used to a new organizational culture with its values, mission, and ways of doing things. There are logistical points like setting up insurance, benefits, and salary deposits. Then getting settled into their new physical or digital workspace, being around different coworkers, interacting with their manager, learning the basics and then the complexities of their job role. And on and on and on.
New hires probably feel more engaged because they’re going through the honeymoon phase of their relationship with the organization. During this phase you often get starry eyed, thinking about everything you can do to make your team or the organization even better than it already is. The sky’s the limit. You also receive a lot of attention. You might meet or talk with your manager daily for a few weeks. You might get constant tips and suggestions from coworkers or go to them frequently with questions. And you might even interact a lot with other teams to know what they do and how they inform or impact your job role.
Another way to frame the honeymoon stage is a term called new relationship energy, or NRE for short. With NRE, everything’s exciting because it’s new. It’s a journey of constant discovery, often good discoveries. But at the same time, this NRE can sometimes distort how a new relationship is viewed. Or in this case, new hires might sometimes overestimate just how connected they are, how engaged they are, with their jobs, teams, and organizations. This doesn’t mean their feelings are wrong, not at all. It just means that when the NRE eventually wears off, and it always does, then engagement will be negatively impacted as different perceptions take root.
The main takeaway from this first group of employees is that new hires are probably more engaged than other groups because of their NRE and going through the honeymoon stage.
This is when the NRE fades. What was once shiny is now dimming, and cracks in the foundation are starting to show. Fewer learning opportunities present themselves as readily as they did before, and what opportunities there may be tend to require you going out of your way to find them. And as you get to know your coworkers more, as well as how your organization’s values and mission are actually upheld or not, office politics may start creeping in.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you receive much less attention than when you were a new hire. You may not interact with your manager much outside of a weekly team meeting or a twice-a-year performance review. And you may interact less with your coworkers—depending on your role and function—as you become more of an expert in your own responsibilities.
Two different theories come to mind when I think about the drop in engagement between new hires and employees with one to two years of tenure.
The first theory is the psychological contract. At a high level, this contract is a set of expectations, hopefully mutually agreed upon expectations, between an employee and their employer. Like if you join an organization, you expect to get paid for your work. Likewise, your manager expects that you will be productive. And on and on with tons of other increasingly complex expectations.
In relation to the engagement drop, I believe that’s partially because of a breach of the psychological contract. That the employee believes the organization didn’t hold up its end of the bargain. If new hires are managed well, they develop a certain set of expectations for how they’ll be treated and managed as they continue working in the company. More often than not, however, those expectations aren’t upheld. There’s kind of a…system shock. Employees might expect consistent newness through learning opportunities or attention, which they received a lot of as a new hire. As it dawns on them that things have settled down and this may be how it’s always going to be from now and won’t go back to the way things were, the contract is broken, to them. They might feel betrayed, abandoned, or maybe even think that their manager and organization never truly cared about them as a person.
The second theory is the hype cycle. Or Gartner’s Hype Cycle, more specifically. Gartner is a research company, and one thing they do is keep a finger on the pulse of cutting-edge technology. They release their hype cycle every year to showcase and forecast the adoption and maturity of different technologies. The cycle has four distinct phases. First, technologies eventually reach a “peak of inflated expectations.” Second, after failing to fulfill those unrealistic expectations, perceptions of that technology plummet into what’s called a “trough of disillusionment.” The technology then, if it survives, slowly yet surely goes through a “slope of enlightenment” and eventually reaches a “plateau of productivity.” This plateau is when the applications of the technology are more realistic and better optimized.
So spinning that hype cycle to employees, we have a really good explanation of why there’s a sudden drop in engagement. New hires reach that peak of inflated expectations because of their NRE. Then they fall into the trough or valley of disillusionment, of questioning their role, the organization, and so forth.
In combining the two theories, we have a breach of expectations from distorted overhype, which then leads to a quick decline in engagement. To combat this as a manager, my recommendation is to do two things. First, keep the momentum going from when the employee was a new hire. If their first year was managed well, you need to keep managing them well even after that first year. Second, gradually set more appropriate expectations with the team member. It shouldn’t be completely on them to come to terms with the fact that things will be different after their first year. Instead, talk it out with them, guide them, ensure that you’ll continue being there and supporting them as they gain more experience in your team.
The main takeaway from this second section is that the drop in engagement from new hires to employees with one to two years of tenure can be a difficult time for employees. Of broken expectations, of disillusionment. But you’re there to help them. To set more realistic expectations as the time comes, and to ensure you continue supporting those team members as best you can.
So after engagement plummets from new hires to employees with one to two years of tenure, things settle down a bit. Engagement levels out...but at its lowest point. And this group is huge too because it covers about 11 years of tenure, compared to one or two.
I believe employees settle at lower levels of engagement in this group because of one overall theme: they hit a ceiling. That ceiling can look very different from person to person and could take on a variety of forms. Though I’d say the most common ceiling revolves around advancement.
For some employees, they hit a promotional ceiling in their organization. There’s just no room to move up in the organizational hierarchy, maybe because there aren’t any open manager or leadership positions, external hires are made for those positions, current management or leadership doesn’t see that kind of potential in the employee, or maybe the organization is just too small or flat. That would be disengaging – to want more responsibility, manage or lead others, or take on a more strategic role, but it just doesn’t happen.
Another advancement ceiling is a developmental ceiling. With this one, maybe you’ve learned everything you can in your specific role and you’re just getting bored doing the same thing over and over with nothing new. Or maybe you want to learn more, whether it be taking on different responsibilities, wanting to take online classes, learn new software, but your manager or organization won’t or can’t let you. That your development is completely on your free time and on your own money. That would also be disengaging – to feel like you’re not growing when you want to, and not feeling like your development is supported by the organization.
There are other reasons as well. Could be that you’re getting too much responsibility, like an overload, or that you can’t or don’t know how to effectively manage and prioritize your time with those increased responsibilities. Could also be that as you remain in the organization, others leave. Naturally, the longer you stay in an organization, the more people you’ll see quit or be fired, and some of those who are now gone might’ve been friends, people you trusted and got along with, maybe even mentors or people you respected and looked up to.
So that’s a lot of potential reasons for lower engagement among employees with three to fourteen years of tenure. Could be one or two of those reasons for some people, could be all of them, could be others that I didn’t mention. What’s important for you, as a manager, is to figure out two things. First, does any of what I said apply to you? If so, talk things out with your own manager to see if your situation can be improved. Second, reach out to your team to see if anything I talked about applies to them.
At this point it’s more of a discussion of re-engagement. What can you do to help a team member reconnect with the organization? There are some things you simply can’t change or influence in your organization. Like if a team member wants to move up in the organization and it’s just physically not possible, that could mean it’s time for a difficult, well-intended talk about them considering looking for a job at another company. And this doesn’t mean firing them or suggesting to them that their job is on the line. It means being direct and honest that there are no promotions possible now or in the foreseeable future. And that if they feel less or disengaged because of that lack of promotion potential, then if their life situation allows for it, to consider looking elsewhere.
There are times that what’s best for the individual may seem like it’s not good for the organization, especially if the individual is knowledgeable, driven, well-liked, highly productive. But think about that for a minute – if the employee has all those qualities yet continues to not be promoted, then they could very easily become disengaged, eventually impacting their productivity and overall team productivity.
Likewise, if an employee seems to be hitting a developmental ceiling, they may need to move to another team, under a different manager, to re-engage. Remember with new hires about the honeymoon phase and NRE. Similar thing here – to be re-engaged, maybe an employee needs a change of scenery. Different coworkers, different manager, different role and responsibilities.
But those are kind of extreme situations. Before those alternatives are considered, you could give those employees stretch goals, put them on a task force for a project, have them job shadow another role to learn about other skills that could then be applied in your team. There are a lot of possibilities here, but ultimately it’s about learning why those employees in that tenure group might be less engaged, and then to work with them on re-engaging.
The main takeaway from this third group is that employees with three to fourteen years of tenure might feel less engaged because they hit a promotional or developmental ceiling. Lift or remove that ceiling for them as best you can. In more extreme situations, you may even need to have a heart-to-heart that it’d probably be better to part ways than for them to stay in your team. Not all problems in your team are fixable – you can only offer and do so much before you’ve exhausted all possibilities.
Employees in this group are an organization’s old-timers. Even if they’re in their 30’s, their still old-timers. They’ve been with the organization through a lot of changes, ups and downs, hirings and firings, re-definitions of company values and missions. They’ve seen it all.
Employees with fifteen years or more of tenure generally have a stronger connection—are more engaged—with the organization because it’s become such a strong and consistent part of their identity. Part of who they are. They’ve likely helped shape the culture in some way, and employees in this tenure group tend to hold jobs in higher positions, which can also increase a sense of personal connection and ownership.
Really that’s all I had to say about this group, through the lens of engagement. I know that was pretty short, but the main thing to keep in mind, and kind of a takeaway, is that anything I said in previous sections – like the honeymoon phase, keeping the momentum going, re-engaging, and all that – can also be applied to this group.
As a recap of this episode, I discussed the tenure curve of engagement across four different groups. New hires tend to be more engaged, probably because of NRE. Then engagement drops for employees with one to two years of tenure, likely because momentum isn’t kept up and they feel a breach of psychological contracts and enter the trough of disillusionment. Then engagement levels off for employees with three to fourteen years of tenure, and that’s probably because of an advancement ceiling effect due to promotional or developmental limitations. Finally, engagement goes up a bit for employees with fifteen years or more of tenure, likely due to a stronger feeling of identity within the organization.
I again want to emphasize that the group averages I discussed don’t apply to every single individual in that group. Some people will have higher engagement than average, some lower. What’s most important is for you to have conversations with your team members, to understand whether these trends do apply to them, and then respond accordingly.
And that’s it for this episode! Join me next time on Manager Mysteries & Mishaps, where I’ll discuss the last stage of the employee journey – exiting.