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When the Honeymoon's Over

Employee engagement tends to wane over time. You can intervene—and keep the spark alive.

August CoverEmployees have similar feelings during the honeymoon phase of new jobs as love-struck romantics do at the beginning of a relationship. At first, the rush of love makes each day a thrill. Heightened emotions give the sweet feeling that the relationship will always be this good.

Eventually, the seven-year itch sets in—often well before seven years.

Instead of a broken heart, the employee has a job that suddenly doesn't seem so great. And the company has a disengaged worker who can hurt customer satisfaction, productivity and the bottom line. 

In love, infatuation tends to last one to three years, says Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist who studies relationships—though not specifically employee-company couplings. Human resource professionals and others say the corporate "itch" hits after a year and a half to seven years, depending on the industry, type of job and other factors.

But sooner or later, it hits.

"The human brain is always monitoring how much energy is expended and whether that energy is worth it,'' says Fisher, an anthropology professor at Rutgers University. "It's built to say, 'Is this a good deal for me or not?' "

When the initial attraction wears off, companies may be in trouble if managers don't:

  • Watch for the signs of diminishing engagement.
  • Analyze turnover statistics.
  • Address the causes of waning engagement.
  • Work to keep employees engaged.

Seeing the Signs

In business, the seven-year itch is more like a two-year itch, according to the Kenexa High Performance Institute, a division of Kenexa. Its researchers looked at 840,000 responses on employee engagement collected from companies in the United States and Britain and found that, at the two-year mark, 57 percent of the respondents were disengaged.

That's generally the time when turnover rises across ages, education levels, genders and job types, says Rena Rasch, team manager at the Minneapolis-based institute. One exception is the technology industry, where turnover spikes at three to five years, according to Kenexa's research.

Often, the best employees are most likely to leave, says Andrea Ballard, SPHR, owner of the Olympia, Wash.-based consulting firm Expecting Change LLC. One Gallup Poll, she points out, found that 78 percent of employees responded "yes" when asked whether they would leave their current company if offered another job. Most of the 2,341 employees polled in 2011 were categorized as actively engaged workers, based on survey results.

Analyze the Data

Ballard and others say data on turnover rates and employee satisfaction are important for understanding when a company may be in danger of losing key staff. "If you really drill down … you see patterns," Ballard explains.

Senior Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer Joseph Cabral does just that at North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System, a $7 billion system with 43,000 employees. "When you're spending 62 percent of your revenue on human capital, you have to focus … on the people," Cabral says. He studies turnover and keeps tabs on employee satisfaction survey results.

"The first two years, our employees are ecstatic. Three to five years, they're still engaged. Five to seven years, it drops dramatically," he says. "What our employees are telling us is they've been here a while and are starting to think, 'Now what?' "

For another health system, Southcentral Foundation based in Anchorage, Alaska, retaining its 1,400 employees remains key. Many jobs that require medical specialties are hard to fill—especially in Alaska's harsh climate.

When the system was first turned over to Alaska natives and American Indians by the federal government in 2000, turnover was stratospheric. By 2008, it was down to 37 percent. Last year, it was 17 percent. Still, for entry-level positions, turnover tends to surge after two or three years on the job, says Michelle Tierney, vice president of organizational development and innovation, who supervises the foundation's HR department.

Ballard, who was a corporate human resources director for 15 years, says the honeymoon ended at around four or five years for staff at accounting and law firms where she worked. At that point, accountants and other professionals were supervising junior staff but still had loads of work to do themselves. They had gained enough experience that corporate recruiters came calling with offers for jobs with more-regular hours.

"They really started to be profitable at that four- to five-year point, and then we'd lose them," Ballard laments. Frustrated supervisors got tired of losing good staff members.

Cause and Effect

Identifying issues that affect engagement and retention in your organization represents the next step in maintaining a strong employee-employer relationship.

Cabral has found that the biggest source of dissatisfaction among experienced North Shore employees is a feeling of injustice and frustration that poor performers aren't weeded out. He says employees want more of a difference in how high-performing and low-performing workers are managed, including giving line managers more tools to recognize top performers and training to deal with low performers.

Gini Quiroz, training and development director at the Austin-based restaurant group K&N Management, has seen a correlation between employee satisfaction and managers' frequent communication with workers.

The restaurant group has an online board for workers to leave comments for managers. And each store has a "coach's box"—a section of the restaurant where the manager is required to spend part of the day, offering praise or quickly intervening when problems arise.

"When people have the knowledge they need to do their jobs and are getting feedback, they are more engaged and satisfied," Quiroz says. "People want to know how they are doing."

Ballard says managers often forget positive feedback. She recommends conducting performance reviews more often than annually and providing feedback immediately after a big project. That way, "You have a much stronger pulse on that employee and if they are satisfied in their job," she says.

Rasch advises asking departing employees why they are leaving. That can help HR leaders figure out whether the reasons relate to pay, hours, management conflicts or other issues that can be fixed—and whether the employee can be convinced to stay.

Cheaper to Keep 'Em

It's "better to retain employees long-term than to have to replace them," Rasch says. Replacing workers involves interviewing expenses, the loss of training dollars already spent and other costs.

Conversely, employees who stay—and who stay engaged—positively affect the bottom line. An online survey of 29,338 employees in the United States and abroad conducted by Kenexa in 2010 showed that a 25 percent increase in employee engagement levels correlates with a 42 percent increase in total shareholder return and a 46 percent higher return on assets.

North Shore's numbers bear out engagement's impact on key indicators that affect business results. "We started to look at business outcomes and how they tie back to an engaged workforce," Cabral says. One facility, for instance, had a very high rating for customer satisfaction; it turned out engagement levels were "through the roof." The annual turnover rate at the facility was 4.9 percent; a facility with lower engagement scores had 10 percent turnover. When Cabral sees these types of correlations, he analyzes what leaders in the high-performing facility are doing so he knows what's working.

At Southcentral Foundation, disengagement that leads to turnover is especially harmful because it disrupts the relationships between patients and medical staff. As employee engagement scores and retention rates rise, so do customer satisfaction scores and health care outcomes, says April Kyle, human resources director.

Aside from the bottom-line cost of losing capable workers, Ballard warns of the organizational development costs for a company losing future leaders. Companies that don't develop strategies to forestall the itch are those whose leaders "can't figure out why they don't have a succession plan."

Use Data to Make Changes

Employee satisfaction survey results can inform HR teams on where they need to focus their attention.

North Shore typically earns employee satisfaction ratings of up to 80 percent, compared with an average in the health care industry of 69 percent. So, now HR professionals aim to catch up to better-scoring industries.

The health system fields employee satisfaction surveys quarterly so leaders don't have to wait to spot trends. Results are sent to HR executives at each facility so action can be taken right away. For example, if surveys from a site show numerous complaints about a manager, "we take almost immediate action," Cabral says.

He studies jobs that generate the lowest satisfaction levels among employees in order to craft policies and practices to address the issues. For example, for nurses, who have high-stress jobs, North Shore offers flexible scheduling and convenes forums that give them a voice.

At Southcentral Foundation, Kyle says, employee satisfaction survey results are shared with workers so they know what issues department leaders plan to address. "Using the data to make changes is where the money is," she notes.

Fisher recommends tailoring retention and engagement strategies to workers' personality types. According to her book Why Him? Why Her? (Henry Holt and Co., 2009), four temperaments emerge depending on the brain chemical dominant in a person's biological makeup: estrogen, testosterone, serotonin or dopamine.

For example, dopamine-dominant types are creative risk takers. An employer might offer them novel tasks to tackle. Serotonin dominance creates calm workers with social personalities who like order and networking; these employees might prefer road maps that lay out their career paths.

Keep Burnout at Bay

Many workers move on because they can't find balance between work lives and personal lives. Kenexa's research found that both male and female employees who thought more highly of their companies' efforts to promote work/life balance had less intention of leaving. HR professionals can provide this balance a number of ways.

K&N Management employs a chaplain who travels from restaurant to restaurant and helps employees work through problems related to relationships, religion, finances or anything else they want to talk about.

At an accounting firm where Ballard worked, employees got one day off a year to volunteer at a food bank. Volunteer work lets employees get to know people from other departments. Having friends at work, Ballard points out, is highly correlated with job satisfaction.

Volunteer work can give employees a renewed appreciation for their jobs. Faced with putting a mountain of frozen carrots into single-serving bags, a colleague volunteering alongside Ballard once said, "I'm not going to complain about sitting and doing tax returns all day."

In addition to sponsoring specific projects, companies can let employees choose individual volunteer opportunities in their communities—whether it's a monthly afternoon in a school or an occasional day working at a charity. "If it ends up keeping them as an employee for another two, three, four years … it's worth it," Ballard says.

Giving employees extended time off can help reduce turnover, Ballard says. One accountant she worked with wanted six months off to compete in an international sporting event. The firm let him piece together vacation and other benefit hours to make it happen.

Southcentral Foundation's Kyle makes sure employees are able to carry personal leave over from year to year so they can take long stretches of time off. "To be good at work, you have to be able to get away from work," she says.

Law firms—where burnout is a threat—offer sabbaticals. But HR professionals in companies that can't afford paid-time-off programs should think about offering employees unpaid leave. Employers "would be surprised at the number of people who would be willing to self-finance their sabbaticals if they knew they had their job when they came back," Ballard says.

Train to Retain

Training opportunities can keep employees from leaving.

At K&N Management, Quiroz finds that laying out career paths for employees helps retention. Each year, the company brings in well-known speakers for a leadership development seminar. About two-thirds of K&N's restaurant general managers were promoted from within; some started as cashiers. Managers' annual turnover rate is 10 percent—compared with 24 percent for the restaurant industry, says K&N's human resources and brand director Allyson Young, SPHR.

"One reason we think people don't have an itch at seven years is because they're not doing the same jobs for seven years," Kyle says. "It's figuring out—when someone really gets the ropes here—how to allow them to grow within the organization."

North Shore has a Center for Learning Innovation that offers enrichment classes on site and at local universities. One hundred workers recently were chosen to upgrade their skills in medical coding.

Cabral says the end of the honeymoon period can be a problem, even if employees don't leave. Many workers who would like to leave can't, so they just stay and are miserable. They "absolutely have an impact on your bottom line."

The author is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area.

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