Addressing Disgruntled Employees Before They Exit

Extensive media attention has been given to how difficult it’s been for businesses around the country to find and hire workers. Additionally, you’ve likely had a personal experience reading the “help wanted” signs at various retail or hospitality services while standing in a long line or waiting for food.

Various economic and social conditions have combined to create the employee-friendly job market conditions often referred to as the Great Resignation, including the COVID-19 pandemic and associated government benefit packages, shifting consumer habits and worker burnout, among others.

But with so much focus on how important and difficult it’s been to hire new workers, it’s critical that employers not lose sight of the importance of retaining existing workers, as well.

Although employers would love to retain all their current workforce, that’s easier said than done. Often, employers and managers who are so focused on the day-to-day operations of the business are caught off guard when employees announce their departure, citing a list of grievances as they exit.

Fortunately, there are steps employers can take to help identify and address dissatisfaction before it reaches the point of resignation.

Cheaper to Retain Than to Hire

First, it’s important to drive home the importance of employee retention efforts. While recruitment often gets more attention, the fact is it’s considerably more expensive in most cases to hire new workers than it is to retain existing staff. Recruitment involves placing job ads; sifting through applications, résumés, and cover letters; conducting interviews and background checks; onboarding, etc. It’s a time-consuming process that doesn’t even guarantee a new hire. (Just ask the countless restaurants and retail establishments desperately trying to hire staff.)

With existing staff, target employees are already identified and have already been interviewed, hired, and onboarded. The company just needs to keep them on the team.

An hour spent on retaining a current employee, therefore, is likely to have a higher return on investment (ROI) than an hour spent on recruiting a new employee.

What’s Driving Disengagement?

One of the first steps in crafting a successful employee retention strategy is understanding why employees are leaving in the first place. In other words, what are the sources of employee disengagement and dissatisfaction?

“According to the Gallup 2022 State of the Workplace Survey, 32% of employees are considered engaged, while 18% are considered actively disengaged,” notes Mark Mears, Chief Growth Officer for LEAF Growth Ventures, LLC. “That leaves the remaining 50% in the ‘mushy middle’ where they could go either way,” he says. Since the pandemic, Mears indicates, a number of engagement elements have been negatively impacted, including: 

  • Connection to the mission or purpose of the company,
  • Clarity of expectations,
  • Having someone who encourages their development,
  • Opportunities to learn and grow,
  • Having progress discussions,
  • Opportunities to do what employees do best,
  • Feeling cared about at work, and
  • Their opinions counting.

These issues have led to a measurable decline in employee engagement and satisfaction.

While these may be the main reasons cited for disengagement, there may not always be telltale signs that issues exist, Mears says. This is especially true in an increasingly hybrid or remote work environment. To identify signs more proactively, Mears suggests watching for: 

  • Changes in attitude—employees who shift from positive, optimistic “go-getters” to negative, pessimistic “slackers”;
  • Changes in communication—employees going from highly open and communicative to more reclusive; and
  • Changes in relationships—employees moving away from close work partnerships to more tenuous project team acquaintances.

Jonathan Westover of Human Capital Innovations adds, “Some signs that managers should be alert to include a decrease in productivity, missed deadlines, absenteeism, lack of enthusiasm, and negative attitude. When managers observe these signs, they should take action to address the root cause of the problem. This may include engaging in a conversation with the employee to understand their concerns.”

Once Employees Become Disgruntled, It May Already Be Too Late

While it’s important to spot the signs of dissatisfaction and take steps to address them, dissatisfaction can be like rabies—by the time the symptoms show up, it’s already too late.

“Once managers become aware of an employee being disgruntled, it may be too late,” says Karl Hebenstreit of Perform & Function, LLC. “The manager can attempt to re-engage the employee via a meaningful 1:1, and try to rectify the situation that way, but it may be too late.”

Often, Hebenstreit says, money is used to keep employees, but, if the employees are truly disgruntled, the damage may already be done. It may, in fact, be best for that negative energy to leave the team or organization. In addition, he says, “if it’s just about money, it’s only a matter of time before someone else offers them more and they leave anyway.”

Keep Staff Engaged Early on and Consistently

The key to preventing disgruntled employees from leaving is to make sure they don’t become disgruntled in the first place. This can be a highly effective strategy, but it does require putting in the work early and consistently, not just when problems arise.

“Best practices for employee engagement include people managers holding meaningful, regular 1:1s with their direct reports, during which the direct report drives the agenda,” says Hebenstreit. “The outcomes of these 1:1s are for the managers to better understand each of their team members’ individual needs, aspirations, challenges, expectations, strengths, likes and dislikes, and motivators and demotivators. Knowing this crucial information about each of their team members can help managers prevent employee disengagement and disgruntlement.”

Managers are a key part of the retention equation, but they represent only a fraction of the staff employees regularly interact with. Ensuring a collegial and friendly work environment is also an important retention strategy.

“Team-building exercises using frameworks like the Enneagram, where team members get to learn about their own and each other’s primary motivations, hot buttons to avoid, strengths/interests to leverage, and come up with norms/agreements on how to address potential blind spots, are key to helping create a more diverse and inclusive work environment, where employees and their managers get to know how to best understand, engage, and work with each other,” says Hebenstreit. “A manager’s ability to then use these insights with each of their team members will go a long way to ensure that they don’t get to the disgruntled phase.”

While there has understandably been a lot of focus on the challenges businesses have had hiring new staff, employee retention has proven to be a more cost-effective long-term staffing investment. The challenge is that so few managers and employers are focused on employee satisfaction and engagement that they often fail to see the signs of employee dissatisfaction until it’s too late.

Being alert to the early signs and focusing on creating and maintaining a positive and supportive culture and climate can help organizations keep key talent on board.

Lin Grensing-Pophal is a Contributing Editor at HR Daily Advisor.

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