On the Way Out? Dissatisfaction

This is the final post in this series on detecting and countering the departure of key employees.

As mentioned in my previous posts, productive, valuable employees leave their jobs primarily for one of three reasons – something personal happens in their lives outside the work environment that stimulates a need for change, a great opportunity presents itself that they just can’t pass up, or because of some element of dissatisfaction in their current job.

I like to think of this final category, the subject of today’s post, as the “the grass is always greener…” cause of quitting.

Everyone has something about their job that they don’t like.  It’s basic human nature to notice prickly little points of displeasure.  I suspect the normal human tendency to try to remove such “burrs under the saddle” is responsible for a fair portion of mankind’s progress – not to mention being critical to our ultimate development as individuals.  We seek improvements in our lives and balance those against the potential discomfort of disruption.  Where the balancing point is found, however, is very much an individual calculation.  Some may endure tremendous adversity (perhaps because they are fearful of change) and ultimately stay where they are and become cynical and disengaged.  Others will jump ship at the drop of a hat – when this happens with careers, you can usually see it in resumes as a new job every 6-12 months.

Wherever that balance may be found, I would hazard to guess that job dissatisfaction is the leading cause of quitting.  It isn’t opportunity.  I don’t think it is personal circumstances.  And it definitely isn’t motivated by some other, more exotic, cause.  No, I’m quite sure that unhappiness over one or more job elements or relationships motivates more departures that all other causes combined.

Popular management mythology tells us that people “join companies but leave supervisors.”  While I agree that this is certainly one of the most significant causes, it neglects things like:  (contentious) relationships with coworkers, under-compensation, restrictive work rules or policies, inadequate or non-competitive benefits, grating corporate culture, or any one of a variety of other factors that might make an employee unhappy.

I left one of my jobs because I found the corporate culture to be completely hostile to my way of working.  The culture was aggressive, confrontational, and often involved heated, shouted arguments as the vehicle required for managers to “prove” themselves.  While I survived in this environment for a time, it eventually became clear that I was needed to move on if I didn’t want to develop ulcers.

I happened to love working for my supervisor in that job, undoubtedly the reason I lasted as long as I did.

Inspirational picture used to develop the cover of EMPOWERED.

Inspirational picture used to develop the cover of EMPOWERED.

In another job, I despised my immediate supervisor, finding his style to be annoying and his indecisiveness to undermine my credibility with outside contacts.  When he eventually added “demeaning” to that list of characteristics, I was only too happy to quit.

The common element that strings these “dissatisfaction” characteristics together is that they are all under the company’s control.  If the employee hates their coworkers, they can be reassigned.  If there is a problem with compensation, it can be addressed.  Restrictive policies can be changed or temporarily waved.

Such problems aren’t always easy to fix.  Sometimes doing so can cause “fairness” issues with others.  By and large, however, when it comes to job dissatisfaction causes, the ball is in the company’s court.

Until your key employee hands you a letter of resignation, that is.

Prior to a formal resignation letter, any element of dissatisfaction can be removed or altered by the company.  If it is addressed effectively, the odds that the potentially departing employee will leave drop dramatically.

I saw this happen recently with a friend who was intensely unhappy about his direct pay.  For months he had been talking to me about quitting, and for weeks he had been actively interviewing.  Then the company added him to their “bonus pool,” a short list of employees that would receive bonuses when the company performed well, and suddenly he was again a happy guy.

If this man had found a job, submitted his resignation, and THEN the company had offered him the same thing (or even an additional ten percent raise), the odds would have been high that he would have still quit.  Nobody likes to put the figurative “gun to the head” of the company to have their value properly recognized.

Inspirational picture used to develop the cover of EMPOWERED.

Inspirational picture used to develop the cover of EMPOWERED.

Unfortunately, financial counter offers made after resignation rarely seem to work – particularly over the long term.  You might keep the employee from departing for a short time, but once they realize they’re going to have to use a crowbar to get what they need/want, they eventually find those “greener pastures.”  In most cases (but not all) I wouldn’t even bother to counter if the resignation had already been delivered.

With non-compensation issues, a post resignation counter-offer can be more effective.  Reassignments, flexibility in work rules, separation from problem coworkers, all are seen as more of a “one time event” than compensation.  And none of these issues negatively reflect on the company’s view of the value of the employee like pay rate does.

So how should you handle dissatisfaction-related potential quit situations?

As is true in almost every “quit” circumstance, sooner is better than later.  Pay attention to the signals and read the signs that your key employee may be on the way out.  If you figure it out weeks in advance, fantastic.  Even a few days before the announcement of a quit is far superior to reacting after the resignation letter is presented.

Question and probe to better understand the motivation behind the impending departure.  Is it an incredible opportunity that just appeared “out of the blue?”  Or perhaps a personal problem that is dictating a change?  Or, is there something within your control as the employer that is sticking in the employee’s craw?

When you verify the latter cause is driving the quit (which should probably be your default assumption in most cases) a plan can be devised to eliminate or minimize the particular issues that are bothering your key employee.

Inspirational picture used to develop the cover of EMPOWERED.

Inspirational picture used to develop the cover of EMPOWERED.

At that point, armed with a plan to turn the situation around, you should have a heart-to-heart with the employee, putting all your cards on the table and asking the employee if what you’re proposing will fix the situation.  Yes, there is some risk of “piling on” at this point.  Perhaps the employee will, seeing that she can command concessions, demand you provide her the moon.  You’ll simply have to read this possibility on the fly and respond to it as you think appropriate.

Your proposed solution might be enough.  It might not.  There are definitely lines that you shouldn’t cross, for example changing compensation to the degree that it causes dissatisfaction among other employees.  But if you are proactive and put your best counter offer on the table as early in the process as possible, you have a good chance to stop the departure of any key employee that is “On the Way Out.”

Other Posts in this Series:

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Here is the cover for my latest novel, EMPOWERED, which was released in ebook and paperback versions on October 12, 2014.  EMPOWERED is the story of newly hired division president Colin Jensen, and his investigation into unexplained performance problems in the shipping department of TruePhase Chemicals division.  The story is set in Indianapolis during a blizzard, and takes its inspiration from the television series Undercover Boss.  As always, there are a few plot twists that I hope will surprise and entertain the reader.

My novels are based on extensions of 27 years of personal experience as a senior manager in public corporations.