Improving Employee Retention Is an Outcome, Not a Strategy

January 10, 2020 Robin Schooling

4-minute read


According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average tenure of an employee in the United States is 4.2 years, while the annual average turnover rate across industries and demographics is 44.3%. That’s a lot of people leaving their organizations and, more importantly, leaving their organizations well before the people who hired them wanted them to leave. The impact can be wide-ranging: increased costs, lower productivity, a decrease in revenue, and plummeting morale amongst other staff as they watch their peers moving through the revolving door.

In the typical organization, when turnover rises the CEO/owner taps the HR Leader on the shoulder and proclaims, in no uncertain terms, “It’s your job to improve retention!”

Does HR need to take action? Of course. Sadly, what often occurs is something akin to trying to nail Jell-O® to a tree. The HR team declares they will implement a “retention strategy,” which is often nothing more than a bunch of seemingly random activities that attempt to promote loyalty and organizational affinity. T-shirts are distributed, pizza parties are hosted, and someone decides to resurrect the long-discarded “employee of the month” award.

The reasons people leave jobs are complex but can generally be classified as either a “push” reason or a “pull” reason. Pull reasons are primarily outside the organization’s control and include things like commute/travel issues, personal decisions (i.e., returning to school), or family responsibilities (i.e. a move, family care).

Push reasons, on the other hand, are those over which the organization has control: working conditions, job responsibilities, leadership style, development/career opportunities, pay and benefits, and overall company culture. While it may not be easy, expedient, or even within the realm of possibility to change some of these internal factors, the first step is to develop an understanding of why people are leaving.

Retention, to put it simply, is not a strategy. Rather, improving staff retention is the outcome when purposeful and incremental fixes are implemented at the various stages of the employee lifecycle. It takes some work, along with data analysis and gathering feedback, to uncover the underlying issues. But it’s important to realize that laying the foundation for employee retention begins at the beginning.

Talent acquisition

Companies begin setting future employees’ expectations at the candidate attraction stage when they spend a great deal of time and money on employer branding, telling their story, and promoting the differentiators that their employment experience provides (“Here’s why you should work for Acme Corporation as a Software Engineer!”). Values are highlighted, benefits are touted, and messaging is pushed out in an attempt to entice candidates to convert to applicants based on slickly produced recruitment marketing campaigns.

Questions to ask:

  • Are we being truthful (painfully truthful) when we’re explaining our jobs, culture, and expectations?
  • If we highlight our company values, can we honestly say that we live those values?  

The hiring process

Once an applicant begins their journey, they start to form opinions about what it will be like to work for the organization. In this stage they experience organizational processes and have interactions with their potential peers and colleagues. And while they may accept the job and you think all is swell, their memories of these initial experiences, good or bad, remain with them.

Questions to ask:

  • Is the application process easy, seamless, and trouble-free?
  • Do applicants have to run a gauntlet to get to the offer stage?
  • Once an offer is extended, is the hand-off smooth?
  • Is communication consistent, appropriate, and timely throughout the process?

Onboarding and cultural socialization

A new employee’s entrance into the organization is a critical phase; not only is it time to ensure they understand their job and its expectations, it’s also the time when they’re exposed to the cultural norms (formal and informal) and they begin to build the interpersonal relationships and networks that are vital to their success.

Questions to ask:

  • Are new hires quickly connected to internal networks, with access to people, resources, and information?
  • Do our managers play a strong role in onboarding? Are they, for example, reaching out to new hires post-offer and prior to day one?

Performance management

Back during the courtship phase with a new employee, in an attempt to entice them to come aboard, your company may have given assurance (in alignment with the EVP outlined on the career site) that professional development, internal mobility, and career growth are highly valued. Feedback is important.

Questions to ask:

  • Do employees have easy access to job opportunity announcements?
  • Do we provide for both internal and external professional development opportunities, including training budgets and allowing employees to attend professional conferences, events, or internal training classes?
  • Are our managers adept at providing feedback and coaching for success?

When faced with the need to improve retention, HR can most assuredly take a strategic approach in a thoughtful, data-driven and systematic manner. If turnover is a challenge, the key is understanding the reasons people leave, identifying problem areas, and then developing impactful solutions across the entire employee lifecycle.


The Proven Links Between Retention and Employee Experience

4 Focus Areas for Nurse Retention

12 Surefire Tips to Reduce Employee Turnover

About the Author

Robin Schooling

Robin is managing partner for HR and people strategy with Peridus Group.

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