Viewpoint: Four Ways to Re-Engage a Dissatisfied Employee

By Laura Gassner Otting May 27, 2022
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Viewpoint: Four Ways to Re-Engage a Dissatisfied Employee

Editor's Note: SHRM has partnered with Harvard Business Review to bring you relevant articles on key HR topics and strategies.

Your best employee knocks on your door and hands you their resignation letter. What's your first move? Conventional wisdom says that bigger paychecks and better perks are the way to an employee's heart. But six months later, you may hear another knock—and in they'll walk, waving a similar letter.

In 2021 and 2022, workers have been quitting their jobs in droves, sometimes without even having another job lined up. The number is particularly pernicious amongst mid-career employees, 30- to 45-year-olds, where the average resignation rate was 20% higher in 2021 than it was in 2020.

But the problem isn't just confined to this age group or pandemic dissatisfaction. In surveying more than 5,600 respondents from various industries between January 2019 and December 2021, we found that worker dissatisfaction started as early as age 25—and it's been here since before our worlds turned upside down.

If managers want to keep employees from leaving, throwing money at the problem is a band-aid solution at best. Our data revealed that just 38.2% of workers aged 25 to 45 assign pay as the most important factor in their job satisfaction, even though we found that it was the most common managerial response to the news that an employee is leaving.

More than anything, these employees told us that they crave work that inspires them and creates harmony between who they are and what they do. This makes them more engaged, more productive and more loyal. They want to feel like they're working toward something larger than themselves, as well as understand how their day-to-day job makes that happen, with autonomy to shape their role in it all.

Leaders who are interested in re-engaging these workers might consider giving them more of what they want and need—alignment, inspiration, agency and insight—and not just more money. Here are four ways to do that.

1. Aim for work-life alignment, not work-life balance.

Employees in the 25- to 45-age-range are in the fastest trajectory of their careers, while also experiencing a rapid expansion of personal responsibilities. It's difficult to achieve the ephemeral work-life balance when you are getting married, having children, taking care of aging parents, attending networking events and professional development conferences, and serving on community, nonprofit or school committees.

Rather than looking for work-life balance, these workers are looking for work-life alignment. It's not just about the time they spend at work, but about how this work augments or detracts from the time that they spend away from it, too.

For example, we found that 65% of our respondents wanted to have more control over the teams to which they were assigned, the projects on which they worked and their ability to influence their hours or earning through their side hustle. While one would expect to see that workers gain more control as they rise through the ranks, in fact the opposite was true for women in particular, leading them to leave the workforce at higher numbers than their male counterparts.

Ask your employees how the work they do each day allows them to achieve the career advancement they seek, nurture the families they are growing or manifest their values on a daily basis so that you can work together to address their pain points where it doesn't.

2. Find out what drives them and reshape their jobs together.­

In our survey, the biggest deficit we saw was in employees' relationships with their leaders. Almost all workers said they wanted to work for a leader who inspired them, but only 36% of them say they actually do. Investing in your relationship with your employees is one way to bridge that divide and unlock their motivation.

To understand what drives your employees, ask them what brought them to this job, cause, team, organization or paycheck, and whether that still energizes them. Be open to their answers. What you hear might surprise, excite or confuse you, but it will help you to understand your team better. As you learn more, you can assign them to projects that are meaningful to them and reshape their daily, weekly and quarterly goals accordingly. You'll also deepen your understanding of what inspires them so that you, in turn, can better draw a direct line (for them) towards the company's work and their personal needs in the future.

3. Engage them in the recruiting process. 

For many employees, recruiting feels like something that happens to them and their team, not with them, leaving them feeling less involved, less influential and less important. Recruiting can not only present an opportunity to bring in fresh talent and perspectives, it can also provide space to engage your current key staff to re-spark excitement.

For example, rather than simply posting the old job description for a now-vacant role, managers should take a moment to talk to their employees about whether or not that job description is even still relevant. Ask for their help in improving it.

This process has both external and internal benefits. Position descriptions are not just read by job candidates, but often secretly scanned by current employees. A great job description connects the position's responsibilities to your organization's purpose. Reading it should help your current staff rekindle the joy and excitement that brought them to your organization in the first place, reminding them of how their day-to-day work fits into the bigger picture.

4. Connect their work to the larger picture.

In our survey, only about half of workers aged 25 to 45 felt like they could connect their day-to-day tasks to larger, strategic imperatives. Almost all of the 5,600 respondents (92.4%) reported that they do better work when they see how the quality of their work matters to the big pictures.

Consider your role in this process. Rather than simply passing along larger organizational imperatives, how can you connect the dots for team members who are wondering, "How does any of this affect me?" Help them see direct lines between their day-to-day, weekly, monthly or quarterly work and the company's overall long-term goals.

Rather than standing by as your best workers consider resignation, offer them an alternative and personally compelling path. By giving people more agency, re-engaging them and re-inspiring them, you can create work environments that help them feel like the best versions of themselves. When this happens, they reinvest themselves into their organizations and amplify their own team-building behaviors.

Instead of knocking on your door to give notice, they'll be there with renewed dedication, increased investment and elevated energy.

Laura Gassner Otting is the author of Limitless: How to Ignore Everybody, Carve Your Own Path, and Live Your Best Life. Follow her on Twitter @heyLGO.

This article is reprinted from Harvard Business Review with permission. ©2022. All rights reserved.

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