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Retention Strategy for Top Talent: What to Know During the Great Resignation

Retention Strategy for Top Talent: What to Know During the Great Resignation

Research Shows Career Advancement and Life Challenges are Top Reasons Top Performers Leave

Retention strategy is top of mind for most leaders, with 25% of people quitting their job in “The Great Resignation” of 2021.  Further, the impact of “pandemic epiphanies” and experience effects will be with us for many years to come.   For those who were asked to work remotely, the fundamental work contract changed.

Leading the departures are experienced workers with five to 15 years of tenure, women and workers ages 40-45. This experience drain can hollow out a workplace.  

Some of the top reasons for leaving are for better pay and job security. 

As a Vistage chair who works with organizational leaders, I’ve also seen that those who invest to develop their team and leaders are better able to retain talent in the “talent wars.” In fact, a lack of career development has been ranked as the #1 reason employees leave for 10 years in a row.

Career development is a lever within the control of the employer and the employee, but it can be overlooked by both parties, as Karen Henry, President and Senior HR at OCHR, describes:

“I have seen people leave before asking for what they wanted. And, so, they go to another company because they think it will be better, bigger, greener, brighter.  So many people are afraid to ask for what they want. 

“If there is one person in the company that you trust, speak with them about what you want, and they may be able to help you make it happen.  When I was director of HR at Snap-on, I took this approach and it really worked.  We would talk and see what kind of job are you suited towards; it did not have to be in the same area they were working. 

“Or, perhaps, there is a leader in your company that you know from others is good at developing people.  I encourage them to go and talk to that leader, and say, ‘When you have an opening, I’d like to be considered.’  Of course, these approaches are most productive within an organization with a positive culture.”

Top Talent Retention Strategy: Voluntary Departure Case Study of 800+ Talented Employees

One of the large financial services organizations we worked with decided to focus on understanding the reasons that their top talent (employees who were rated in the top two categories) chose to leave the organization in the past 18-month period.  

The decision was made to invest in an in-depth phone exit interview rather than an online survey to ensure that the depth of the insight about why this top talent group left went well beyond the more basic answers.    

Because the financial services organization has over 50,000 employees, the starting sample was over 3,000 names for 18 months, or an approximately 4% turnover rate of top performers.   

This 4% top performer voluntary departure is in line with BLS statistics of 3% high performer voluntary departure.

From this group, we spoke with over 800+ recently departed employees who were top performers.   Of these, all were employees that the organization wished to retain, including 25% who were rated “high” performers and 75% who were rated “solid” performers.   71% were female and 29% were male.  

There was a good mix of tenure to allow subgroup analysis, including about one-third who were with the organization for 10 years or more, one-third who were with the organization between five and nine years, and one-third who were with the organization for five years.   Job functions included a large sample of professional/technical, para professional and management.

Retention Strategy for Top Talent: What to Know During the Great Resignation

Top Talent Retention Strategy: Reasons for Leaving Include Career and Life Groups

Exit interview conversations deliberately allow open-ended responses and probing. The exit interview conversations were more discriminating and candid that previous online exit survey responses.   Insight to Action was engaged to do this work because the client felt that the online survey responses lacked depth of insight.

After completing the interviews, we analyzed the responses and classified them into two broad categories:

  • talent who departed mainly for “career” reasons
  • talent who departed mainly for “life” reasons

“Career” departures were driven by work dissatisfaction and perceived lack of opportunity at the organization.  These employees (nearly two-thirds of voluntary, top-performing departures) were looking for more opportunities to advance than were open to them. 

Career-driven departing employees felt stifled, and many were not willing to relocate “anywhere” in order to advance.  Others were told they needed a degree, despite excellent on-the-job performance. Quotes include:

“There weren’t ample advancement opportunities for people with experience. They wanted college degrees.”

 “There was no advancement unless you were willing to move.”

 “I felt very stifled.”

“There were limitations on advancement. It seemed like it was top-heavy, full of people who had been there a long time, so if you were recently hired, you couldn’t move up.”

More than 60% of top performers indicated that they are not willing to relocate “anywhere” in the US or Canada for career advancement.

When asked about their “ideal” job, these career-oriented top performers were looking for environments that offered empowerment, flex time and customer interaction.

Life” departures are the second broad category driving departures.  At the time of this work, employees leaving for these reasons accounted for about a third of departures. 

Life-driven departing employees mainly left because of competing domestic duties, such as child care or caring for a sick family member.  This accounted for 60% of life-related departures and 21% of all departures.  Other life factors included employees who decided:

  • to move (20% of life reasons)
  • not to return after a leave of absence (6% of life reasons)
  • to return to school (9% of life reasons)

Today, life considerations are top-of-mind for many, with the impact of forced home schooling for families with children in 2020 and forced remote work.   Life and household routines were disrupted, forcing many to reevaluate the situation, and now, for some, to transition again back to commuting. 

Employees who voluntarily departed because of “life” reasons were overall significantly more satisfied with the organization on a number of measures, including overall satisfaction, benefits and compensation, work environment, work satisfaction and corporate culture.  Employees who left for career reasons were significantly less satisfied on these factors.

Retention Strategy for Top Talent: What to Know During the Great Resignation

Top Talent Retention Strategy: Work Satisfaction Impact on Overall Satisfaction

Negative feelings about work satisfaction were the top factor that drove down overall satisfaction. 

The single most important aspect of work satisfaction was career advancement opportunities.   These included perceptions of opportunities to further their career and climb within the company. 

The converse of lack of advancement opportunity was the desire for challenge.    These top-performing employees want to feel challenged, but not overwhelmed by their job duties.  

Another important factor was recognition, specifically whether employees felt that their efforts were appreciated, acknowledged and recognized.

Appropriate levels of workload and responsibility were important.  Stress from workload, volume or productivity expectations tended to drive down work satisfaction.

Top Talent Retention Strategy: Corporate Culture Impact on Overall Satisfaction

Corporate culture was another of the top two most important factors driving overall satisfaction. 

Employee satisfaction for this corporate culture lagged other organizations among both career and life employee groups.   In fact, corporate culture had the lowest overall ratings. 

Other companies’ culture was a factor that emerged during in-depth exit interviews among top performers who left.   Leaving for a perceived better culture came across more strongly in the in-depth exit interviews than the online survey.

Specific aspects of corporate culture that came through in the exit interviews included:

  • communication (e.g., quality, clarity and perceived genuineness)
  • opinion of management
  • opinion of supervisor
  • attitudes of other employees (e.g., morale, motivation, pride in work)
  • opportunities for training, development and education

“Upper management wasn’t visible enough.  I felt management was open and honest, but sometimes difficult to reach because of travel.”

“Base level employees were not consulted about anything. Their input was not given any value.”

“They supposedly have this ‘open-door’ policy.  We were all laughing during orientation because we knew you couldn’t talk to management.   It was like they were saying, ‘Tell us your problem, but we’ll go back and tell your supervisor what you said.’”

“Many people had…warm feelings for their supervisors, but not for the organization as a whole.  I felt there was a disconnect between management and employees.”

While this study was conducted pre-COVID, a number of the findings still resonate today, including the importance of development and career advancement opportunities and corporate culture.  These are factors that are within the control of many organizations and should contribute towards an overall retention strategy. 

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