This is the third episode in a trilogy. I started with new hires and onboarding two episodes ago, then I talked about the tenure curve last episode. This time I’m putting a finishing touch on the employee journey – when they leave.
I could list a lot of stats about turnover, mostly negative stats around how much money turnover can cost your company. But I’m not going to. Instead, I want to explore turnover itself.
There are a ton of “this vs. that” comparisons when it comes to turnover. Was it preventable or not preventable; could you have done anything to stop or delay the employee from leaving? Was is voluntary, like quitting or retiring, or was it involuntary, like being fired or downsizing? Is turnover rare in your company, or frequent? Isolated to a specific department or location, or is it widespread across the entire organization? Does the employee’s departure have a huge impact on anything, or none at all? Was it expected or unexpected? Was the turnover good or bad?
That’s a lot of questions, and each one is important. But the answers are more on a case-by-case basis, and some are more relevant for your team or company than others. Instead of focusing on them individually, I wanted to cover some general themes that could incorporate those questions in various ways.
In this episode I’ll be going over three topics. First is the mystery of some common reasons for turnover. Second is the mishap of turnover data. Third and finally is the mystery of how best to handle firing a team member.
Let’s say you just fired someone on your team. Why? Well, you know why. Could be that the employee consistently under-performed, there was a legal issue, they were hurting other’s performance, and so on. Lots of possible reasons, but you knew the exact reason why you fired them.
Now let’s say someone on your team just quit. Why? Now we’re in different territory – you’re much less certain of the exact reason when an employee quits than when you fire them. Could be a laundry list of reasons.
To narrow that list down, we at Quantum Workplace conducted research that included almost 100,000 employees. It represents a combination of voluntary and involuntary turnover indicators across a large variety of organizations. Although we found a variety of underlying themes, I want to review three of them here.
Employees are more likely to quit or be fired when they’re less happy with their jobs, don’t enjoy their work, think their jobs aren’t interesting or challenging, or when jobs don’t utilize their strengths. Employees might quit because they find other opportunities that do seem interesting or challenging, or they might be fired because they disengage from work that’s not enjoyable to them.
Make sure you know whether your team members enjoy their work, that at least some projects or responsibilities are interesting or challenging, and that you’re utilizing their unique strengths some of the time. I’m not suggesting that their work should always be enjoyable, that everything they do has to be interesting or challenging, or that they’re always utilizing their strengths. That’s unrealistic – just doesn’t happen. Instead, you can work with your team members to build up those feelings around their jobs. A side project here, a stretch goal there, something, anything, to allow them to grow in ways that they want to grow.
Employees are more likely to quit or be fired when they don’t like working for their immediate manager, when they believe their teams don’t effectively collaborate and leverage individual strengths, and when they believe their coworkers aren’t committed to producing top-quality work. So we’re expanding out a bit here. The first theme was entirely about perceptions of the work they do, whereas now we’re branching out to perceptions of other employees.
People sometimes just don’t get along, and that’s understandable. Especially at work – people have different backgrounds, personalities, ways of thinking, ways of doing things. But you should do your best to make your working relationship with your team at least tolerable, to meet them in the middle whenever you can. Especially to not be a micro-manager or to show the less obvious negative management traits that I discussed in episode six.
The other two components of poor team dynamics revolve around collaboration by utilizing strengths, and perceiving that others are committed to doing their best work. The first theme ties in nicely with this, because it’s not just about ensuring individual strengths are used in general, but that they’re used in conjunction with other team member’s strengths. In teams that rely heavily on collaboration, work doesn’t happen in a vacuum – what I do affects you and what you do affects me. By first focusing on individual strengths, then building that into team strengths, everyone benefits. And if employees are more interested, challenged, and satisfied with their jobs, they’re likely more committed, which can further strengthen team relationships and productivity. So it’s win/win all around.
The third theme I wanted to talk about is misalignment. Employees are more likely to quit or be fired when their job doesn’t align with their career goals, and when they don’t know how they fit into the future plans of an organization. So technically speaking, yeah, everything I’ve talked about so far in this section is misalignment. Misalignment with your current role and responsibilities, and misalignment with your manager or coworkers.
This third theme expands out to a misalignment with the future. This is training and development, career conversations, effective organizational communication. Your role with this theme is to ensure that you talk with each team member about what their career goals are and work with them toward those goals, wherever they might lead. Also make sure you’re well-informed about your organization’s strategic direction so you can confidently discuss that strategic future with team members so they can better understand their possible career future. This can help reduce uncertainty about their place in the organization, and lets them know you’re supporting them as they and the organization continue to grow.
The main takeaway from this first section is that employees are more likely to quit or be fired when they perceive some kind of misalignment. Could be misalignment with their jobs, with their teams, or with the future. This misalignment gives those employees a reason to leave your company. Because if you know a puzzle piece isn’t gonna fit, then trying to force that piece in is just going to damage the other pieces around it. Same with people – misalignment causes friction, which can lead to disengagement, which can lead to turnover or, worst of all, toxic employees.
Earlier I talked about uncertainty when employees quit. Why are they leaving? One way to better understand that question, and reduce uncertainty, is to collect exit data. For example, just because we have some common reasons for leaving, like from the last section, doesn’t mean those reasons apply to the individual who’s leaving in your particular case. That’s where data come in – understanding turnover in your team, department, or company in a larger, more systematic way.
However, why I framed this section as a mishap is because of a simple yet unfortunate truth: a lot of companies don’t collect exit data. And even among those that do, most don’t use the data they took the time and effort to collect. Like one study found that two-thirds of programs that collect exit data often have little productive follow-up. Sixty-six percent. That absolutely baffles me. Why would you collect data, take all that time and energy doing so, and not use what you gathered? That’s a mishap. A huge one, actually.
Although this may sound morbid, I like comparing the collection of exit data to an autopsy. Something is over, whether it be a life or an employee’s tenure, and you want to understand why it ended. So you investigate and record your findings. With autopsies, we can better understand the effects of certain things on our bodies, like smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, playing full contact sports. This knowledge can then be used to help the living, to give doctors and policy makers evidence to make informed suggestions on things to avoid and things to do so you can live longer and have a higher quality of life.
Same thing with employees. By collecting exit data, you can better understand why employees are fired or quit. You can then use this knowledge to help employees who still work at your company, giving you and other decision makers evidence to make informed strategies on things to avoid and things to do so employees will stay with your company longer and, hopefully, become more engaged and satisfied.
I use that analogy because it’s not enough to just conduct the autopsy or the exit survey or interview, but you actually have to use the data to make lives better, whether in general or at work. So the data need to be collected, tracked, analyzed, and acted on. Over time you’ll uncover themes about why people are leaving or why certain people are fired, and you can use those themes to enhance how you manage your team.
The process for collecting data should be consistent across the whole company when possible, as well as using a common database to uncover trends. This gets more into executive leadership and HR territory, I know, but you as a manager play an important part in gathering and possibly entering those data, in whatever form they take.
One final thing I wanna say is that collecting exit data is not just for medium-sized and large organizations, and it’s not just for full-time employees. Even if you work in a really small company, you can and should collect data any time turnover happens, even if it’s pretty rare. Likewise, for other kinds of exits like retirements, temps leaving, contracts being up for contractors, and also part-timers and interns leaving, you should collect data. These will probably be a bit different than what you’d ask a full-timer who’s leaving, like focusing more on what went well and what didn’t, but it’s still exit data just the same, and it should still be gathered and acted on.
The main takeaway from this second section is that you should collect and act on exit data, regardless of your company and regardless of who’s leaving. I didn’t get into specifics of how to conduct exit interviews, exit surveys, or things like that, because I wanted to emphasize the mishap that so many companies aren’t doing those things when they should. And that when they do, they need to follow-through and not let the data gather dust.
So I’ve covered common reasons for turnover, as well as the general idea that you should collect and act on exit data. I’ve saved what I believe to be the hardest part for last – how you, as a manager, conduct yourself when firing a team member.
Let’s assume this is a last resort – you’ve tried your best to coach your team member, implement some kind of performance improvement plan, meet them in the middle. But none of it worked, and firing them is the best option for you, your team, and the organization.
I’m not going to go over certain logistics like deactivating their email and various other accounts at a certain time, whether to have a witness present during the firing, or to have an escort when they pack up their belongings and leave the building. These are very sensitive topics that can get into legal territory, which can be different from industry to industry, state to state, or country to country. So I’m not gonna go there.
Instead I’m going to focus only on the conversation. First and foremost, have all materials you need before meeting with your team member. This includes a list of topics to cover like what happens with their pay and benefits, what the next steps are, and especially why they’re being fired. This isn’t the time to wing it or be impulsive – you need to reduce as much uncertainty as possible for both you and the team member you’re firing, especially because of the fact that you’re presenting your team member with perhaps one of the most anxiety-inducing events people can experience at work. You’re telling them that their current livelihood, their system for paying for their homes, food, healthcare, and families, are going to be gone soon, at least from your employer. Don’t take this lightly.
The meeting itself should be face-to-face. Not over text, not over email, face-to-face. And this does include remote workers, so face-to-face could still be done over webcam.
When the meeting happens, jump right into it. The employee may not know why they’re there, so the small talk has got to go, especially if you yourself appear a bit anxious, off-put, or not quite yourself. As a manager you send signals whenever you set up an unexpected meeting, leave a cryptic note, or act out of character. As cold as this sounds, get to the point and tell them that, definitively, as in there’s no question and the decision’s final, that they’ve been fired. Leave no room for ambiguity or an attempt for negotiation like “I’ll try harder” – nope, those chances are gone.
Be clear and exact about why they’re being fired. Point to specific behaviors when possible and note that their performance or behavioral issues had been discussed in the past, assuming you did talk with them about all that. This doesn’t mean, however, that you should include your own emotional assessment. Like saying that you’re disappointed in them, that if only they’d paid more attention or listened to you better, then they wouldn’t be in this situation right now. No. Do not do that. Being fired is hard enough as it is, you don’t need to rub salt in the wound.
After those reasons are listed, go over next steps with the materials you prepared before the meeting. And finally, listen. Sometimes you don’t need to, because the employee just accepts it and leaves your office. Sometimes they have nothing to say and only sit there, or sit there and cry, so have tissues on hand.
How you handle this meeting depends a lot on your individual relationship with the team member. But even if you’re really close with them, avoid being overly sensitive or emotional because this can send very weird signals to the person being fired. You’re there to deliver information and answer basic questions, not to make a difficult situation even more emotionally confusing than it already is.
The main takeaway from this final section is that when turnover happens, or in this case, being fired, it can be very difficult emotionally, both for those who leave and those who stay. There can be feelings of disappointment, betrayal, pessimism, loss, anger, shock, sadness. You can be supportive during this event by being prepared both emotionally and with information to reduce some of your team member’s uncertainties.
As a recap of this episode, I discussed some common reasons for turnover, which revolve around various kinds of misalignment. I also discussed the importance of collecting and using exit data. Finally, I reviewed some ways to handle firing a team member. What all three of these topics have in common is understanding. Understanding why employees leave in general, understanding why employees leave in your particular company, and expressing a type of understanding when firing employees.
If you’re interested in learning more about turnover, I’d encourage you to check out two of our ebooks. The first ebook, Top 5 Predictors of Employee Turnover, is what I based the first section of this episode on. And if you’re more interested in conducting an exit survey or interview, then check out the second ebook titled How to Conduct an Exit Survey.
And that’s it for this episode! Join me next time on Manager Mysteries & Mishaps, where I’ll discuss SMARTER goal setting.