Retention is a Red Herring

My first real love in high school was Melissa. Freshman year in Missouri. We were both 14. It was full of all the note passing and PDA that the school would allow. It was a fun, exciting, and scary 9 months or so of a relationship...and then it ended. It wasn't a knock down drag out kind of break up, it just seemed as though we found interest in other things and started to lose interest in each other. It just fizzled, and for both of us it seemed. This was also the case for my college girlfriend...It was great, and then it just kind of shifted directions. In any event, they ended and yet, I still care for both of them deeply. If either of them called me from a roadside and needed help, I'd be there in an instant. And so it is with some of our workplaces.

We'd all like relationships to last forever, but very few of them do. Which is why retention is a bad metric. I'm not saying keeping good people isn't a good thing, but using retention to determine company health is misguided and based on misconceptions.

Loyalty, Engagement, and Motivation are Not the Same

I was very loyal to Melissa, I never once gave another girl a second look while we were dating. The same has been true for the girls I dated since. I was very loyal to all of them. And I think to a degree, I still am. I would still speak kindly of them, defend their character, and be an advocate for their happiness. I want them to be happy and successful. I was and am loyal...and yet, I am not with them any longer. Loyalty does not always mean staying together, it means we are advocates of one another and we support one another.  In a relationship, loyalty is how I advocate and support YOU.

During our relationships, I was pretty doting. My dad was an incredibly romantic role model. He would buy my mom flowers at least monthly it seemed, opened doors, surprised her with happy events or presents (including a car she wanted) and was very affectionate. As s result, when I am in a relationship, I am all in. I open doors, deliver small bouquets of flowers, give her little notes throughout the day to let her know I am thinking of her. I am all about us being happy and together. I am engaged and doing things that tighten our bond. In a relationship, engagement is how I advocate and support US.

After a while, our interests become different. Rarely in life does a person go through as much personal and emotional awareness change as in high school or college. It's where we learn the most about ourselves because mistakes have seemingly less severe consequences. At that point, we are still only largely responsible for ourselves. So we learn, grow, and change. As a result we make choices that change the direction we are heading, and at that point, we sometimes realize that my path and your path are no longer the same. But we are motivated to pursue our own path and do our own dance. In a relationship, motivation is how I advocate and support ME.

Conflating Metrics and Making an "ASS" out of "U" and "ME"

Imagine if we conducted the end of a personal relationship the way we ended work relationships? It's an inherently flawed analogy since in a work context it is "assumed" one party has power over the other and respect is "assumed" to flow mostly in one direction. The assumption is the employer has the authority and deserves the respect. How else can you explain the expectation that employees give two weeks notice, but employers are not held to the same standard? I think this double standard is the reason for many employee/employer break ups don't go well.

Break ups are going to happen. Relationships will end. But HOW we end them, determines a lot about what happens afterward. People suffer from severe recency bias when it comes to the end of a relationship. Times of change are when emotions and stress run highest, which is why those events in our life stand out. And in those moments, how we are treated determines our loyalty moving forward. Our engagement and motivation are already gone or headed out the door, but loyalty can still be impacted. Loyalty will determine how that person talks about you as an employer, loyalty will determine whether they go on Glassdoor and flame you, loyalty will determine whether they leave you with an easy transition or missing crucial information. 

It's not about retention, it's about loyalty. This is why some of the best companies to work for might still have low retention statistics (Google ranks 5th as a great place to work according to Glassdoor and also ranks 4th in companies with the highest turnover.) The assumption that high retention equals a great place to work or low retention equals the opposite is dumb. Melissa was a great girlfriend and we had a great relationship...but I'm not with her anymore. Retention has nothing to do with being worthy. But loyalty does. And loyalty and retention, as I mentioned, aren't the same.

People Remember the Ending More Than the Middle

When I read about a company on Glassdoor, what I see is not how great or poor that companies is as a place to work, but rather how that company handles break ups. Do they do it with respect, or with vitriol and dismissal? Do they see people as having intrinsic value or interchangeable commodities? If you throw people away or get pissed because someone is motivated down a different path, likely, your Glassdoor reviews (and word on the street) will reflect it. And in the age of mobile talent, that reputation as an philandering workplace that treats people as throw-away items, won't attract self-respecting employees.

When someone leaves of their own accord to go on to something bigger and better, celebrate! When your kids graduate from college, what would it be like if you got mad instead of celebrated? They aren't being disloyal by leaving. They just need to move on to grow. How you handle that separation says WAY more about you than it does about them.

Reputation over Retention

So if you want to track retention, that's fine. But more important is measuring loyalty after someone leaves. Do they still speak of you fondly, or did you leave a bad feeling in their stomach? Did you end it with respect, kindness and advocacy, or with anger, spite, and defamation? Ending the relationship with mutual respect can only help you. There is NO downside to celebrating the opportunity someone else has been able to find, there is only downside to the opposite.

Be bigger than your petty feelings of abandonment - you wouldn't sacrifice your future (or your company's) for them so don't expect them to do the same.When the labor market is tight, your brand is crucial to attracting new talent. Make sure you are paying attention to HOW people leave and WHY, not just how many.

And I could be wrong. I'd like to hear your thoughts. When have work break ups gone well/poorly for you and what was the result? 

Dave NeedhamComment