Let Your Exit Interviews Leave the Building

One of the most intuitively appealing HR concepts is that of the exit interview.  If we only knew what was going through the mind of those who chose to leave our company, we could fix our turnover problems.  The thing is that there is more than enough research data to show that exit interviews are not useful in predicting or fixing turnover.  Yet, just the other day, I got a newsletter e-mail from a reputable management publication with suggestions on how to make my exit interviews better.

Exit interviews are not effective for several reasons, including:

  1. Low response rates. There really is not an upside for the leaving employee to participate, so why go through the stress and confrontation?  So, whatever data that you get is unlikely to be representative of the people who leave.

  2. Lack of candor.  Most people who would be willing to participate are also not very willing to burn bridges.  So their responses are going to be more about them than your organization.

  3. What do you think the leavers are going to tell you that you should not already know?  If a particular manager has higher turnover than the organization at large, it is probably because he/she/they is treating people poorly.  You do not need an exit interview to figure that out.

It is the last point that deserves a bit more attention.  The biggest problem with the concept of exit interviews is that they are reactive, trying to put the horses back in the barn, so to speak.  To keep turnover down, organizations should be addressing those things that lead to turnover before they become significant issues.  Identifying and acting upon turnover requires a commitment to gathering data and acting upon it.  Two steps you can take include:

  1. Using turnover as a performance measure when validating pre-employment tests.  You can lower churn for many entry level jobs by understanding which people are more likely to stay in the position and use that information in screening candidates.
  2. If you think you are going to get good information from people who are no longer engaged with your organization during the exit interview, why not get it from those who still are engaged and more likely to be candid? When you gather employee engagement data through short surveys over time, you can determine what the leading indicators of turnover are.  It takes commitment to view surveys as a process rather than events, but doing so can provide a high level of insight into employee turnover.

There will also be macro-economic factors that drive voluntary turnover that organizations may not be able to impact.  But, as the light at the end of the COVID tunnel becomes brighter and companies return to new-normal staffing levels, it provides a fresh opportunity to be proactive in understanding turnover.  This is a better approach than relying on failed techniques of the past.

Changing Behaviors, Not Just Attitudes

Events of 2020 accelerated companies’ interest in all things around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I).  This has brought out a lot of “experts” in the field and a multitude of unconscious bias training (UBT) programs to address the problem of discrimination in the workplace.

The idea behind UBT is that a change in an attitude (bias) will lead to a change in how people act (prejudice) so that they will show behaviors that promote DE&I. This is very different from typical development programs which focus directly on behaviors. And, while it is fair to say that our understanding of the effectiveness DE&I programs is at an early stage, there has been research done which is fairly sobering on the topic.

This report outlines what seems to be effective in the DE&I training space.  The relevant key findings are (emphasis added):

  • UBT is effective for awareness raising by using an Implicit Association Test (IAT) (followed by a debrief) or more advanced training designs such as interactive workshops.
  • UBT can be effective for reducing implicit bias, but it is unlikely to eliminate it.
  • UBT interventions are not generally designed to reduce explicit bias and those that do aim to do so have yielded mixed results.
  • Using an IAT and educating participants on unconscious bias theory is likely to increase awareness of and reduce implicit bias.
  • The evidence for UBT’s ability effectively to change behavior is limited. Most of the evidence reviewed did not use valid measures of behavior change.

I emphasized that last bullet because I believe that is where we need to focus.  If behaviors do not change then we cannot achieve DE&I.  Organizations should not spend money on DE&I programs (UBTs or otherwise) that do not show these changes.

The report hedges a bit in noting that valid measures of behavior were not used in the research studies.  Rightly, this puts the onus on organizations to define the actions that need to be changed.  For instance, use of appropriate language, giving others the opportunity to share ideas, etc.  Note that these are different from organizational goals (e.g., representation in management positions), which should be measured, which are outcomes of D&EI behaviors.

Once the behaviors are defined, then a method for evaluating them needs to be implemented.  A 360 feedback instrument is likely to be effective for interpersonal behaviors.  When well designed, these encourage raters to evaluate what they observe in others rather than giving opinions.  This provides the opportunity for those being rated to be given meaningful feedback and gives those responsible for designing UBT programs information on areas that still need more work.  How to provide this feedback is a topic for another post.

There can be objective individual measures as well.  For instance, the diversity of a person’s LinkedIn connections or hires/promotions that she/he/they was involved with.

We should always remember that any organizational change begins with people acting differently.  The important starting point in a successful DE&I initiative is understanding what are the behaviors that you want to impact.  That will be more effective in designing meaningful programs than hoping that insights from an IAT will be sufficient.

Making Work From Home Work

OK, let’s all take a deep breath and say it out loud, “Work from home is not going to be temporary.”  There, we did it.  Now let’s talk about it.

We need to acknowledge that WFM is not going to be one size fits all from an organization’s standpoint.  Some companies will look for as many people to return to the office as soon as possible as their CEOs swear that productivity and creativity can only occur face-to-face.  Others, after realizing the cost savings of reducing their office footprint, reduced stress of employees not commuting, and maintained productivity will encourage it going forward.

Eight or so months into WFM, we also need to acknowledge that it is not for everyone.  Some people (well organized introverts) thrive in the environment while others (people with a high need for affiliation) struggle in it.  And there are many who are in-between.  They would like to interact and work with others a few days a week, but appreciate those days where they can work with fewer distractions and in a safer environment.

Given these variables, how can we adapt to WFM or make it work for organizations and employees?  Let’s walk through some big steps and see where the key points are.

  1. Organization Design.  This is the time for companies to look at their WFM experiences and make policy decisions.  Some of this should be business driven (Are we productive with what we are doing now? Do COVID-19 impacts on our business support how much space we have?). There should be employee input via a survey, or some other method, that allows everyone to have his/her/their voice heard.  Don’t assume you know what everyone wants and be sure to stay away from just a couple of anecdotes.  From this info you can then develop go forward policies.  Oh, and don’t worry—not everyone is going to like the new policies.  Just like before COVID-19 when there were people who wanted to work from home but were not allowed to.
  2. Implementing Change.  Most WFM policies I’ve seen have been done on the fly—which is not a criticism.  Rather, most employees saw the impact of COVID-19 so there was not the resistance to change that we normally see when organizations choose to pivot.  However, as you transition from a reactive state to the new normal one, you’ll need to use your change management techniques, such as:

    a. Be transparent—describe to employees the data you gathered and why WFM policies are either going back to pre-COVID-19 or changing.

    b. Describe the benefits of the change from an employee’s perspective.

    c. Have resources (technical, informational, skill development, etc.) available that support the change.

    d. Measure the impact of the new policies so you can make future decisions based on data.
  3. Recruitment.  Once a WFM policy is in place, you’ll want to be able to describe it clearly when attracting new talent.  Your WFM requirements, or lack thereof, will be attractive to some and repellent to others.  And that’s OK.  Just be sure to let people know what they are in for.
  4. Selection.  Remember before when I talked about which people thrive or suffer in WFM?  This is important information to use when selecting new employees going forward.  You will want to review your job descriptions and competency models to be sure they include any changes that would come from your WFM policies.  For instance, if you are moving to a model that allows or mandates a lot of working from home, you will want to include characteristics like need for autonomy in your selection protocols.  Be sure to validate any tools you use to measure this and other skills/abilities/personal characteristics.
  5. Training and Development. Despite the occasional video conference faux pas, I think most of us were pleasantly surprised how quickly people gained skills at using this software.  Those in the learning and development area have also adapted their materials and approaches to video.  You should be providing training on how to get the most out of not only video conferencing technology, but other tools that allow people to collaborate across distances.  In a WFM environment, some people will benefit significantly from instruction on how to be productive in a home environment.  Also, continue to keep up with professional and leadership development so that people do not stagnate.  There are a lot of great online training experiences out there and without travel expenses the true cost has gone down.
  6. Performance Management.  An employee concern about WFM has been, “How will I get promoted?”  The manager’s concern is, “How will I get productivity?”  Of course, these two things go together.  WFM has exposed poorly designed performance goals and objectives.  It is likely that your business has changed post-COVID.  It is a good time to revisit your performance standards and measurements as well.  As before, develop S.M.A.R.T. goals, but now with an extra emphasis on measurable, especially if people are participating in WFM.  This helps to minimize lack of face time issues as employees can more easily demonstrate their performance. 
  7. Coaching and Feedback. WFM minimizes spontaneous interactions between employees and their managers.  This means that they both need to make additional efforts to schedule conversations to stay in touch.  This will help with the visibility employees want and the accountability managers are looking for. There should be some structure to these conversations so that they cover current performance as well as career development.
  8. Managing the Change.  Whether you think we are closer to the beginning or the end of the pandemic, we can all agree that there are going to be more changes to business and WFH before it is behind us (e.g., another wave of cases, kids going back to school or back to distance learning, etc.).  Just as you want to gather employee and other stakeholder information when forming policies, you will want keep track of how attitudes towards the policies, the pandemic, and the business shift.  Acting on these issues as necessary will help you maintain or increase employee engagement and make policy adjustments.

Our work lives have always involved managing change and COVID-19 has made this more pronounced.  It is now time to do so in a more thoughtful and forward looking way.  We can do this more effectively by recognizing that some changes, including WFH, are not temporary adjustments, but are permanent in one form or another.  HR benefits employees and organizations when it recognizes the wide-spread impact of WFH and adjusts its practices and manages the change effectively.

Are Companies Getting Cold WFH Feet?

The pendulum normally swings back when we see paradigms shift.  As many companies made the move to work from home (WFH) with the onset of COVID-19, this article (which lacks data, by the way) there may be some rumblings from some companies to bring people back to the office (safely, of course).  Is this really a WFH issue or a management issue?

It is to be expected that WFH will not be a permanent arrangement for everyone who is doing it now.  Whether due to circumstances, preference, or company culture, some people (and companies) are going to prefer to have people in offices.  But, to make WFH effective, companies have to adjust how they manage people and not just pretend that the same approaches will translate from the office to home work environments.

For instance, people experience more autonomy when working from home.  That can either be leveraged for faster decision making (with perhaps less consensus) or problem solving time can be built into weekly schedules.  Or teams can develop new approaches to problem solving that account for WFH.

Others in the article are concerned that it is more difficult to build relationships when working remotely in that there are fewer opportunities to spontaneously interact.  One company’s solution was renting a large cottage where their (small) company could get together.  Of course, there’s nothing awkward about spending “voluntary” week or two in a house with your boss.  I have a better idea.  It uses old tech, but I think it might work.  How about using that calling feature on your phone to reach out to people?

An approach mentioned, and one that one of my clients with “essential” workers has been using, is a blended one.  The HR team determined how much on site coverage was needed to address employee and management issues and the staff has alternated days in the office to cover those needs and doing WFH on the others days.  This has allowed for distancing, having some personal interactions, and a recognition that some work is done better at the office and other work can be done just as well remotely.

One executive in the article mentions the difficulty in training new employees, who would typically go through 6 weeks of classroom training and OJT.  And, if your mindset is that is the ONLY way to train employees, then remote work presents a problem.  If you are willing to innovate, then it is more of an opportunity. Just as pre-COVID not everyone wanted to work at an office, as we adjust to COVID, not everyone is going to want to WFH.  It is reasonable to assume that while many people will go back to working 40 hours a week at an office, there is going to be a substantial number that do not.  Companies should be looking for ways to adapt to that reality instead of forcing old squares into new round holes.

Can We Prevent Top Talent From Walking Out the Door?

Biographical information (biodata) has been used to predict turnover and performance for a long time.  The idea is that certain verifiable aspects of a person’s life are indicators of future behavior.  To use an adage from an earlier time, if a person has changed jobs frequently in the past, s/he is not likely to stay with you very long.

We can now fast forward this idea to employee retention.  Or, put another way, can we predict which people are going to leave a company?  This article seems to indicate yes and it should not come as a surprise.

Putting aside privacy concerns for a moment, this approach goes beyond determining if a person is the right fit for a job due to their personality or values.  Rather, it potentially blends ideas that we would always think of creating turnover (bad boss, less pay compared to peers, length of commute, etc.) as well as those (number of startups in area, change in housing costs, etc.) that perhaps we had not thought of.    The added layer to the analysis is that it allows HR to say, “Wow, this is a person we don’t want to lose (or could not replace), let’s make some adjustments” or “Eh, that person is an underperformer anyway, so good riddance.”

More importantly, it treats retention as a dynamic, rather than static, state.  Previous biodata models would say, “This person has a 70% chance of staying 2 years or more.”  This data model might say, “Right now, this person has a 90% chance of staying through the end of the year.”  But, 6 months from now, if things change in the organization or in the person’s role, the model may say, “Right now, this person has a 60% chance of staying through the end of the year.”  This puts the onus on HR to work with managers to address the potential issues of valuable employees on a proactive basis.

From an employee’s perspective, I think there is opportunity here as well.  Imagine if they could pull up his/her “propensity to leave” score at any time.  Think of it as part of an employee engagement indicator.  This person could then see those things that may be causing them anxiety at work that might lead them to leave.  If it’s something minor that s/he feels could be easily addressed s/he could take it to a manager.  If it looks insurmountable, s/he would know that a new job search is a good idea.

The privacy issue here is real and, as with all concerns, depends how you feel about others using your data.  If I’m Amazon, Google, etc, there is a great temptation to link a person’s customer data with their employment application/employment status data to refine algorithms.  I have no idea if I’ve signed off on this when accepting their terms and conditions.  Do you?

Regardless of the “hotness” of the job market, this approach to dynamically tracking retention probabilities can be a very useful tool.  It can lead HR to being ahead of the game when trying to retain talent rather than offering the promises of a jilted lover as someone valuable walks out the door.

Who Should Identify and Develop the Non-College Workforce?

On some occasions I have mentioned that companies that need blue-collar workers are in a tough spot. Their jobs are not very sexy to the millennial or Gen Z workforces who prefer tech jobs.  Also, because lifetime wages are significantly higher for jobs that require a bachelor’s degree, parents and high school students tend to have a much more favorable attitude towards going to college than training in a vocation, which is reflected in college application statistics.  We are currently in the midst of low unemployment which makes recruitment for blue collar jobs even more difficult.

Companies should think about this as a long-term, rather than an immediate, issue.  This article talks about how some firms are dipping into high schools to begin identifying students who might not desire (or be qualified for) 4 additional years of school and providing them with what used to be called vocational training.

Of course, if a specific company or industry designs the career education programs (read: vocational), there is a danger of the training being too narrow.  However, no public school in its right mind would ever turn down private money that helps kids get jobs.  And we don’t seem to have a problem with it at the college level where business schools take money (and input) from big employers and provide the students with internships.

The economy goes in cycles and it is not a matter of if, but when, the economy slows and there won’t be the same worker shortage.  However, the trend towards more interest in college and tech jobs will continue for the foreseeable future.  This means that employers of skilled, but not college educated, workers will have to find more ways to create a larger labor pool to find the talent they need.  They can do this by:

  • Aligning with local high schools and community colleges to create curriculum that is broad enough that provides students with career options, but specific enough to allow for an easy transfer from school to the employer.
  • Gauge the interests of students as they enter the program. Interest inventories are an under-utilized selection tool.  This is especially true for entry level employees.  If I’m not interested in social activities, I probably should not be on the wait staff at a restaurant, even if I need the money.  But, if I’d rather work with things than people, then becoming a welder might be up my alley. Validating these types of tests can be a good way to predict potential success by placing students in areas where they are more likely to do well.
  • Provide lifetime learning programs. One thing we know about millennials and Gen Z is that rewarding them for learning is a powerful incentive. Companies should show new recruits all of the opportunities they could potentially have, not just the ones in their trade.

Companies that need skilled blue-collar workers can no longer passively expect a deep talent pool to be available.  Rather, they should take action to identify and develop potential employees.  This will require partnerships, better pre-employment screening, and having developmental programs.  It may not solve the immediate problem, but it will ensure that they have the necessary talent in the future.

Ways That We Punish, Rather Than Coach, Poor Performers

During the 4th of July holiday, I was binge watching an Australian cooking competition show with my family. It was pretty mindless and entertaining stuff. The gist of each episode was that contestants competed in a theme-based challenge. One was selected as the best for the day. Two others were deemed the poorest performers and then they competed to stay on the show. What I found most interesting was that they task they were given to avoid elimination (getting fired) was harder (by design) than the original one.

Of course, there is not necessarily a straight line to be drawn between entertainment shows and the work place. But this did get me thinking about how we develop poor performers. While it seems intuitive that resources spent on improving their performance would have a significant return-on-investment, data show that high performers generally benefit more from training than low ones do.

HR needs to consider how to develop all levels of talent. With the current low unemployment rates, companies are losing some of their control over their talent levels, especially now there is more job hopping. There are a few considerations in developing low performers:

• Are you rewarding progress until the person is capable of delivering results? The key here is that improving performance requires changes in behavior. If they are reinforced, the new behaviors are more likely to be learned. Telling people “try harder” or dangling a future carrot are not good strategies for improving performance.

• Are they sufficiently skilled in the tasks you expecting them to do? Before concluding that the person is not going to be a good employee, be sure that they have the basic skills/experience to perform the job. You should not expect someone to be a pastry chef if s/he does not know how to make a cake. This is where valid pre-employment testing programs are valuable.

• Are there other areas of the business that appeal more to their interests? I have a client that staffs its own call center. They have higher than average turnover in the call center, but somewhat lower in the company overall, because after people spend 6 months there they can bid for any other open position in the company for which they are qualified. Allowing easy lateral transfers helps you keep good employees who may just be in jobs they do not find engaging.

Low unemployment rates mean that new talent is going to be more expensive. It may indicate a good return-on-investment in developing under-performing talent than usual. However, getting people in the right place and having alternate reward strategies are essential to getting the most out of their development.

Can Robots Reduce Turnover By Making Work More Interesting for People?

Lower unemployment rates mean that many industries, including hospitality, need ways to attract and retain more talent. Higher minimum wage laws in many states and cities have likely encouraged people to stay in jobs they may have previously left. But, what about using automation to get them to stay?

The typical assumption is that automation leads to fewer workers, which makes sense in many cases. The cotton gin took people out of the fields and it does not take as many people to put together a car now as it did 30 years ago. What automation also does is offload boring tasks so that people can do more interesting work. We see that in offices (no longer lots of people mindlessly typing memos all day) and now we are seeing a bit of it in the hospitality sector. Granted, most of the turnover in restaurants is due to still crappy pay and low benefits. But an employer quoted in the article thinks that it is partly due to the work itself (note, I was unable to find another dataset that confirmed this, but it makes for an interesting argument). From this perspective, a restaurant can provide more value to the employee (and, presumably the customer) by having that person deliver food instead of taking orders (which customers are doing themselves from kiosks or smart phones). Perhaps these are both minimum wage tasks and the former is more interesting for the worker than the latter.

The idea of reducing turnover by making the work more interesting goes back to the 1970’s. It is pretty simple: Most people do not want to do boring and repetitive tasks and they will be more satisfied and engaged with their work (e.g., more likely to stay) if it is not mundane. This is not rocket science. However, giving people more tasks and more autonomy may also require a different skill set. Where employers who choose this approach (either through job redesign or automation) miss the boat is when they implement these changes without considering whether employees have the skills sets necessary.

Most organizational change efforts I have observed save the planning for new selection systems or training until the end (if they are thought of at all). For instance, if I have always asked workers to follow one single process but now I am giving them the autonomy to override it, I need to understand that these are two different sets of performance expectations. If you asking for new behaviors from those in a job title, you need to be sure you are hiring people with those abilities using validated tests and/or provide them with proper training.

Can Tech, Workers, and Burgers Co-Exist?

One purpose of technology is to make labor more efficient. This was not news to the inventor of the first wheel or the latest and fastest micro-chip. Western society has been pretty comfortable with this because it really makes things go faster and has eliminated some very physically demanding jobs. Of course, tech also creates higher paying jobs (though not as many) than the ones that get replaced. But, where do customers draw the line?

This article describes the effect that tech is having on McDonalds. Note that this is the only description of the issue I’ve seen online, so I’m a bit skeptical of the premise that this is the reason people are quitting work at McDonalds at higher rates than before, especially considering the low unemployment rate. There are those who think that this kind of automation is being driven (or at least accelerated) by local minimum wage increases. However, automation has always been designed to reduce labor, so that’s not a big surprise.

Yet, Walmart is appearing to be having the opposite experience with tech in its stores. I think the big difference is that the impact of the technology there is to allow employees to focus on what they already do well rather than leading to a change in necessary skill sets.

New tech always has growing pains and I am sure that fast-food chains will get this figured out pretty quickly. The bigger questions to me are:

1) Whether they will understand that they have changed the cognitive complexity of the jobs, and therefore need to change their hiring practices.

2) If service is really part of the equation for fast food customers.

When you change tech in any job, you need to change organizational behavior to adapt. Part of this equation is training, but the other half is ensuring that your selection systems are still valid. This change has led to an increase in behaviors such as quickly shifting between ways people can order while maintaining attention to detail. This requires a somewhat different skill set than handling one order at a time using one process. The tech won’t work as well if you do not have the people who can run it correctly.

As for the second question, the U.S. economy is filled with examples of service employees going away. Whether it was the transition away from pumping your own gas to checking out your own groceries, we are pretty good at serving ourselves. This leads me to believe that the increasingly automated fast food restaurant will be here more quickly than you think.

How Committed Are You to Developing a Skilled Workforce?

The economy is in a unique position right now. Unemployment is at the lowest rate this century as is the net migration rate. This leaves employers of a skilled workforce in the position of a smaller pool of candidates in general and likely one that contains fewer people with the talents they are looking for.

When more the jobs in the country were in the industrial sector (and there was a higher participation in private sector unions), management and labor worked out apprentice programs. This allowed lower skill workers to obtain the knowledge and skills for jobs over time. It also required the companies to really think about how they wanted the work done and train people accordingly.

The knowledge and service economy (along with companies’ willingness to expand/contact their head counts and greater employee mobility) has ground the apprentice approach to a near halt. People are more willing to skip from job to job to gain skills and employers are less leery of candidates who have multiple firms on their resumes. This gives hiring companies less control of the skills of the people they are hiring. I was considering these ideas when I read this article about Kaiser Permanente breaking ground its own medical school.

Kaiser’s jump into medical education can be taken in several ways, but the one that interests me the most is that a very large player in a big industry (health care) has gone to another big industry (medical schools) and said, “You all are behind the times in providing us workers and we think we can do it better.” It would be like a software company offering degrees in computer science (I think I just gave Amazon an idea!). This is potentially a disruption of a 300 year old model of providing workers.

The investment Kaiser is making is large, but they obviously see the benefit is even bigger in the quality of their doctor labor pool. I would think that if this foray is successful that they would open schools for other professions where they hire a lot of people (e.g., nursing).

The question for other business sectors is this: If your pool of available skilled talent is getting smaller, what are you doing to do to ensure you have access to it in the future? Are you going to poach from competitors or are you planning on creating your own talent pipeline?

I get that the investment in training is high and has its risks (I don’t want to spend a lot of money investing in people just to see them leave). However, it provides you the opportunity to develop the right skills and create the culture you want. It seems like money well spent.

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