Skip to main content

The pandemic was a collective hold-your-breath moment for staffing. The Canadian government pitched in billions of dollars in subsidies to preserve existing jobs. Supermarket chains offered extra money to front-line workers as both a reward and retention device in a time of stress. While of course each workplace was different, the aim overall was to preserve staffing as it was in March, 2020.

It’s therefore predictable that we would see upheaval now, as expansion brings opportunities and as people reassess their futures after being in suspension for 16 months. Some suggest a Great Resignation is occurring, although it’s too early to tell. But it’s certainly a good time to consider your company’s retention efforts and what might be wrong with them, which recruiting specialist John Sullivan says could be “pretty much everything.”

You may not even have a retention program. If one exists, it’s likely ad hoc and inadequate. To be successful, Mr. Sullivan insists on his blog, a retention program must be permanent and formally supported with an annual budget. It also needs someone who is accountable for results. Without knowing those results, the programs tend to dissolve during periods when retention isn’t a big issue – only to leave you flat-footed when the job market opens up again.

That speaks to another major flaw: The business impact of retention is usually not converted into dollars. Imagine Mary, a salesperson, leaves. That normally will be reported in terms of the size of the work force – if the organization has 100 people, it now has a one per cent turnover rate. Doesn’t sound all that bad. Instead, he argues, the cost to the company might be $3-million, if you calculate the impact on sales, lost team output and recruiting costs. Digging into those costs helps you to keep tabs on the actual impact of individual employees and also highlights the strategic value of retention.

It might not matter much if you lose certain people. It may be critical if you lose others. He says you need to keep a scorecard indicating whose leaving is regrettable, the cost of losing them, and the likely causes behind their turnover. It’s also important to know who else is at risk of leaving, and the most effective tools for countering each individual turnover cause. Your retention program should be data and metrics driven. In particular, he recommends stats on new hire turnover, regrettable employee turnover and diversity turnover.

Often retention efforts are hindered by a deeply entrenched belief that good employees will be loyal. “Perhaps managers and executives are drawn to this ‘Pollyanna assumption’ because they both have big egos,” he suggests, adding that you should survey managers to find out whether they subscribe to an “everybody loves me” belief. Periodically remind individual managers what percentage of their team departed during the previous year. Maybe they aren’t as lovable as they think.

Be careful you don’t waste retention efforts on low-value employees who are not likely to depart. You need to focus on top-flight people – those who you would regret losing and whose primary turnover causes can be easily resolved. For example, someone who is a flight risk because of their work schedule might be easily dealt with. On the other hand, someone likely to leave because their family is currently actively moving to another province is unlikely to be retained at a reasonable cost.

The company IBM has developed a predictive attrition program using artificial intelligence that it claims is 95 per cent effective in assessing who will leave. Content strategist Samantha McLaren reports that the length of time between promotions and overall job tenure can be vital – an employee in the same job for a longer-than-average time is at risk of leaving. Promotions also tend to be compared to peers and someone falling behind might decide another organization would be better. You can counter that by offering training to help boost the person into a new role.

Remote employees should be a concern now, as the workplace reshuffles. Mr. Sullivan says you can be sure someone is interested in leaving if they have recently posted a resume on a job board or updated their LinkedIn profile, has physically moved, or has recently received an advanced degree.

“It’s true in literally every case that someone else already knows when a key employee is looking. So pro-actively ask a company super-knower (who is often the company gossip person) if they know about any remote employees that are talking about, or actually, job searching,” he writes. “Also, believe what you have heard, and immediately start to act.”

Being forced to return to the office may lead pandemic remote workers to leave. Another factor can be dissatisfaction with pay or rewards, although he says in most cases pay is not the prime cause of turnover and you are wiser to focus on improving the individual’s job. Related to this, people are at risk of leaving if they have been recently turned down for a major project, a new idea, a promotion, a bonus or a raise.

“Especially for top performers, this ‘turn down’ and embarrassment within the team can push employees to want to go where they, their ideas, and their work may be more appreciated,” he advises.

So, make a list of who might feel spurned, and if their loss would be regrettable, start figuring out a counter move. Some movement is always welcome – new faces come with new ideas. But overall, losing people is costly and many people, after what may feel for them like two lost years during the pandemic, may be getting itchy feet.


  • When mentoring, don’t take anything your mentee says lightly. If they brought it up, it’s important to them, points out consultant Shaun Belding.
  • To make positive feedback more effective, consultant David Burkus advises tying it to purpose: “People want to know how their work makes a contribution to something larger than themselves, or at least how their work helps other people.”
  • Productivity consultant Charles Gilkey divides delegation into three levels: Task, project and responsibility. You need to know a subordinate well enough to calculate which level they can handle. Start with tasks for a newly hired person, then move up to projects if they are adept, before considering delegating responsibility.

Stay ahead in your career. We have a weekly Careers newsletter to give you guidance and tips on career management, leadership, business education and more. Sign up today.