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How to Ride the Great Resignation Wave

Experts warn of a surge of voluntary employee departures ahead. How can HR professionals prepare?

​Over the past year, three of the nine teachers at the Friends Preschool and Kindergarten in Milford, Mich., left their jobs. One retired, and two quit because of COVID-19-related health concerns for themselves or a family member. A fourth needed extensive time off to attend to her children. 

“Preschools and child care centers struggle with staff turnover during the best of times,” says Tammy Rittmueller, the school’s director. “The pandemic has only heightened this dilemma.” 

See’s Candies, based in South San Francisco, Calif., shut down all operations and furloughed many of its 5,000 employees when the pandemic hit in early 2020. 

“After the furlough, the skeleton crew that remained worked diligently to reopen as soon as we could safely do so and start bringing our furloughed employees back,” says Chad Paulson, senior vice president of HR at the confectionary company. But, he explains, “there was a lot of uncertainty regarding the length of the furlough, and many of our employees were able to find alternative employment prior to being called back.” 

Organizations large and small across the country are reporting that employee turnover rates are already reaching record highs this year. Labor analysts say they aren’t surprised, with many predicting a giant wave of voluntary employee departures caused by a pent-up demand for new jobs.

“Now that the vaccines are in motion, employers should be prepared for a turnover tsunami,” warns Melissa Jezior, president and CEO of Eagle Hill Consulting, a management consultancy in Washington, D.C. 

About 1 in 4 U.S. employees plan to leave their employer as the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, according to a November 2020 survey conducted by Ipsos on behalf of Eagle Hill.

A separate February 2021 report found that 52 percent of 2,000 employees surveyed in the U.S. and Canada plan to look for a new job in 2021, an increase from 35 percent a year earlier. That’s according to Engagement and Retention Report, which was released by Achievers Workforce Institute, the research arm of Toronto-based employee recognition software company Achievers. 

“You’re not going to walk away from this unscathed,” Jezior cautions HR professionals. 

The Exodus

Employees are most likely to leave a current job for one with better compensation and benefits or better work/life balance, according to the Achievers report. Burnout was cited by a majority of the 1,000 workers who said they plan to quit their job this year, according to the Eagle Hill survey.

“Employees with children at home remain a flight risk at this point,” says Cara Silletto, author of Staying Power: Why Your Employees Leave and How to Keep Them Longer (Silver Tree Publishing, 2018), who adds that workers on the lower end of the pay scale also are more likely to seek greener pastures. 

“In general, the lower the wages, the faster the person can find a replacement job,” Silletto says. She is also president and chief retention officer at Magnet Culture, a retention consultancy in Louisville, Ky. “The higher skilled [the] people are, the harder it is for them to change industries.” She defines lower-wage workers as those earning less than $18 an hour.

Weathering the Storm

Turnover costs organizations in both time and money to recruit and train new employees—not to mention the loss of institutional knowledge and reduction in productivity while positions remain vacant. 

To help retain employees as the economy improves, HR professionals can take steps now to reduce the predicted voluntary departures.

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“Identify top performers you don’t want to lose,” Jezior recommends. “Empower managers to sit down with employees every other week” to conduct stay interviews designed to make sure workers are satisfied. “Once people make the decision to leave and start looking and applying for jobs, your chance of keeping them is much lower. You’ve already lost the battle.”  

Other recommendations for strengthening your employee retention efforts:

Address employee concerns. Listen to employees’ challenges and look for solutions.

Flexibility has been key at Renaissance Academy, a home-school and hybrid educational program with 35 employees in Farmington Hills, Mich. A new instructor gave notice a couple of weeks after she was hired because she was uncertain whether her own children would be learning from home or in person. 

“After some conversation, we swapped a class that was a little out of her comfort zone for an already developed course,” recalls Heidi Pair, the school’s assistant director. “After feeling supported and encouraged, the new instructor stayed and has become a valuable part of our team.”

Present realistic job descriptions. Turnover tends to be highest among new hires—often because the job doesn’t match their initial expectations. Once they experience what they perceive to be the downsides of a job, they quit. The solution is to expose potential candidates to the worst parts of the job so they know what they will be doing before they accept. 

Is the factory hot and noisy? Walk potential candidates through it during the hottest and loudest part of the day. Is it difficult to take time off? Make that clear to applicants during the first interview. Employers tend to rush to fill a job with the first decent candidate, which results in a poor fit and a need to fill the position repeatedly.

“Look at your hiring processes,” says Ginia Chapline, chief operations officer at Texas Trust Credit Union, which has 300 employees and is based in Arlington, Texas. “Hire for culture, not just skills. Make sure the person is a good fit for the organization. Have a successful onboarding process that eases new hires into their new work environment.”

Establish strong onboarding, mentoring and advancement opportunities. New hires have weak ties to the organization, so it’s easier for them to leave. To retain them, help them make connections as quickly as possible, Silletto advises. 

“I see two buckets of workers today,” she says. “One group is called the ‘trees.’ Like oaks, they are deeply rooted in the organization. They aren’t leaving until retirement or they get poached with a better offer. The other group is the ‘revolving door.’ These are primarily new hires, and they’re always a flight risk.” 

Her goal isn’t to convert the revolving doors to trees, but to lengthen employees’ tenure through strong onboarding, mentoring programs and promotions. For example, some people once spent their entire career as a bank teller. Now, that job is a steppingstone. By adding levels to that position, employees feel they are advancing and are less likely to jump ship.

“The flat hierarchy of the ’90s is the opposite of what today’s new workforce wants,” Silletto says. “They want the assistant manager, manager and senior manager positions to give themselves a sense of advancement within one role.” 

Use stay interviews, not exit interviews. Exit interviews provide insights on why employees are leaving. The idea is that once an employer knows what factors are contributing to employee departures, it can prevent an exodus.

But Mohammad Qais Momand, vice president of Dunya University in Kabul, Afghanistan, doesn’t want to wait for an exit interview to find out employees aren’t satisfied. “Why not have such interviews during the employee’s career?” he asks. That way, the employer can make improvements.

When Rittmueller took over as Friends’ preschool director, replacing someone who had been in the position for 23 years, she used stay interviews to find out how the staff felt about changes.

“I have been using this information to guide me through the rest of the present school year and in making plans for the next,” she says. “In a small business such as our school, it’s important the staff buy into the mission being set, to be part of the planning, to have a voice. It’s my hope this involvement will keep my staff engaged and wanting to stay.”

Offer accommodations. Silletto suggests focusing on those with young children at home or who have aging parents that need more care.

When one of her employees had two children, ages 6 and 9, at home for weeks without anyone to help, Silletto granted extended paid time off and flexible hours so the employee could work whatever time of day she was able. 

“I rerouted some of the more time-sensitive items to other staff who could be more accessible for our clients,” she says. “Some employers might claim they can’t be that flexible, but she is the most loyal employee because I helped her through that hard time. It builds loyalty when you truly take care of your people and don’t apply a one-size-fits-all strategy.”

Communicate frequently. The best way to reduce turnover is to understand why employees stay and why they leave.

“The key is constantly getting input from the employees, whether it’s direct communications between managers or HR, or pulse checks, or training programs,” Paulson says. “The No. 1 priority should be to understand the employee’s perspective and then to translate how it matches the employer’s goals.”

Be accessible. “Make it easy for employees to communicate with HR,” Chapline says. “Our HR team is developing a new text platform to communicate with employees in a quicker, more mobile way. We’ve also made it easier for employees to reach HR by phone and resolve an issue on the first call.”

Educating Managers

HR can help by training managers to communicate clearly, following through on commitments and being honest about issues that impact employees. 

“If the employee doesn’t believe you are willing or able to resolve the issue, they won’t share,” Pair says. “Also be willing to ask, ‘How can I help?’ and bring them into the problem-solving toward a solution.”

Today’s employees don’t expect to work for the same company their entire career, so retention strategies need to adapt accordingly.

“We need to focus on how to extend someone’s tenure as long as possible and make it a great experience so they are more likely to refer their friends, come back to 

us at some point or become a client,” Jezior says. “It’s not about reducing turnover, but rather about elongating tenure.”  

Kathryn Tyler is a freelance writer and former HR generalist and trainer in Wixom, Mich.

Illustrations by Yuta Onoda

Early Warning Signs

To maintain a stable workforce, HR professionals should analyze data available to them to help identify employees who are likely to leave. Here are some early warning signs that indicate employees may have one foot out the door:

Major life changes. “Keep an eye on who is graduating with an MBA or who is starting a family,” says Melissa Jezior, president and CEO of Eagle Hill Consulting, a management consultancy. “Big life changes often drive turnover.”

While such personal information can be hard to gather, developing good relationships and trust with employees can help, says Chad Paulson, senior vice president of HR at See’s Candies.

Missed promotions. Employees who are disappointed about being passed over for promotions might begin to look elsewhere for opportunities to advance. Keep a list of workers who applied for promotions, and check in with those who weren’t selected to ensure they feel appreciated and to help them better prepare for the next opening. 

High department turnover. Look at turnover data by department, division and manager to pinpoint where higher turnover rates exist. The employees in those divisions are at risk of leaving if you don’t quickly identify and eliminate the problem. 

Paulson made a surprising discovery when he investigated high turnover in See’s Candies plants a couple of years ago. “We weren’t conducting an annual review of the competitive market and hadn’t realized our pay had ceased to be sufficiently competitive,” he says. “By simply analyzing the market and providing competitive compensation, we were able to stem the tide and enhance our recruitment and retention efforts.”

Reduced communication. Employees who fail to promptly answer calls or e-mails or who miss deadlines might be considering a move. 

“A quiet employee can just as easily be a struggling employee as a satisfied employee,” says Heidi Pair, assistant director of Renaissance Academy, a home-school and hybrid educational program. “Our instructional staff doesn’t meet in person during the summer months but uses that time to plan for their courses and build the virtual component for each course. For us, an early warning sign is minimal or no communication and little evidence of planning.”

Absenteeism. “Taking time off in the middle of the day shows employees might be doing interviews,” says Lance Anderson, SHRM-SCP, an HR and recruiting consultant at Anderson and Co. in Grand Prairie, Texas. Employees who are complaining, being less productive or job hunting online while at work might be considering a job change.

Don’t wait until they quit, Jezior advises. “Find out who you think is most at risk and start putting in some preventive measures today,” she says. “Who are your problem managers? Deal with them today.” —K.T.