Today’s businesses face a perfect storm of skills gaps, low unemployment and poaching, pitting recruiters in a veritable battle against the elements — and then they need to factor attrition into the mix. For this reason, keeping top performers from leaving has to be job one for employers.
The best employees at any organization carry a lot of the work load and the weight when it comes to morale. But with so many competitors vying for top talent, how can an organization keep them from jumping ship? It starts with understanding why they might leave, and ends with giving them what they want to stay.
Why are they leaving?
Top performers leave when the organization fails to deliver an experience that motivates them, engages them and aligns their personal and professional aspirations, Lauren Mason, principal and strategic lead for Mercer's Global Rewards Practice, told HR Dive via email. Factors that drive workers to look for greener pastures could be boredom, dislike of a manager or frustration with the company’s direction.
Recognition is another factor that motivates talent to stay put. "Top performers are motivated by more than money, but care even more deeply, maximizing their talent, testimonials and track record," Eddie Yoon, founder of EddieWouldGrow, a growth strategy consultancy firm, told HR Dive in an email.
Ultimately, it comes down to engagement, John Jones, North America talent business leader at Willis Towers Watson, told HR Dive. "Although there are aspects of the work and the environment that top performers may really enjoy, too many factors that disengage employees outweigh staying," he said in an email. Poor career options, lack of new experiences, inflexible schedules, poor diversity and dismal working environments can all leave a bad taste in the mouth of top talent. Couple those with mediocre pay or narrow benefits offerings and you’ll see them jump ship.
"Increasingly, we are seeing that top performers are driven to belong to purposefully driven organizations that they are morally aligned to and whose vision they believe in," Catherine Hartmann, North America rewards practice leader at Willis Towers Watson, said in an email. When top performers have the option to go anywhere, she added, they will likely migrate to a company that is the best in all aspects.
Employees are looking for more than a paycheck, Denise Moulton, VP of talent and research at Bersin, Deloitte Consulting LLC, said; "They are looking for meaningful work and an opportunity to grow their skills. Employees want a career path and need to understand what success looks like today and in the future."
Reading the signs
But how can employers reduce attrition? Some signals may hint at a great employee getting ready to move on. "The most obvious is a lack of engagement," Moulton said. A manager may see performance dips, lack of interest or even complaints they are overwhelmed. Some recruiters may notice increased social media or networking activity — possibly indicating an employee is building up their profile or extending their reach in advance of looking elsewhere.
"If they are questioning whether skills, growth and long-term opportunities exist within their current organization," Moulton warned, "they may become restless and look to find these opportunities elsewhere."
But rather than wait for signs of restlessness, Mason suggests being proactive. "Employers should keep a pulse on engagement via employee engagement surveys that measure commitment and intent to stay with the organization," she said. If those leading indicators start to slip, employers should investigate the root cause of the issue.
Employers should analyze the experience of top talent to see if they’ve had any career movement of late, or if they’re overdue, advised Mason. Are they offered and taking advantage of development opportunities? Are wages and wage growth competitive? If promotion isn’t on the visible horizon, lateral career moves can re-vitalize top talent that’s getting antsy. This strategy can "spur innovation by bringing more diverse backgrounds together on teams," Mason said. If a premium employee experience doesn't seem to be in the cards, she said she suggests partnering with business leaders to find a way to improve employee experience and ensure retention.
"Obviously, the first step is helping to show high performers what their career path will look like," Brian Kropp, group vice president, HR practice at Gartner wrote to HR Dive. He said he believes it’s critical for high performers to see how they are going to get ahead, where the next promotion is, what they need to do to accomplish those goals. But don’t wait for performance review time to chart goals, he noted. Companies should maintain ongoing communication with all employees, especially top performers, to make sure they’re being heard and their needs are being met.
Hartmann agreed that communication is key: "Organizations should ensure they have a strong employee listening strategy in place with open, frequent and effective communication with this population." Use flexible models that adapt to the variety of retention drivers for a group and find out the key motivators for the population.
Jones suggested keeping top talent busy and offering new and interesting opportunities within the organization. This could include stretch projects, but "assure them that a misstep won’t cost them a delay on their career journey," he said. "Employers should let them know the organization has their back and is willing to let them grow."
Top performers are usually looking for unique ways to challenge and differentiate themselves from the rest, according to Moulton. She suggests embedding on-the-job development opportunities like stretch assignments, mentorships or special projects, to promote skills development, engagement and retention. "When top talent actively seeks ways to do more and expand capabilities," she said, "organizations should take any possible measure to address the needs."
Yoon believes top performers care and are acutely aware of their track record: "They want to know that their work has meaning, purpose and a legacy." Celebrating high performers, not just within the company, but beyond in the wider profession, can be key.
Relationship building is imperative, too. "It is critical for HR and TA functions to develop talent strategies that are future focused and look beyond simply filling today’s open jobs, but also consider the importance of nurturing and growing the workforce of the future," Moulton said. "By creating a relationship with talent, employers can understand and align employees’ long-term goals with organizational vision and strategy."