Valuing Transparency: When Employees Disclose Their Job Search

One’s job often feels like a core part of their being. After all, full-time workers spend roughly half of their waking hours working and tend to stay at the same job for years on end. That’s why it can be such a momentous decision for an employee and such a big shock for an employer when the employee announces their intention to leave.

Retirements and major lifestyle changes aside, when an employee announces their departure from a job, it’s typically because they’re unhappy with their current role, have found a more attractive opportunity, or both.

Of course, by the time an employee hands in their notice, it’s typically too late to retain them. The departing employee has already invested too much time and energy into finding a new role, and—now that they know a better job isn’t just out there somewhere but already locked in—why would they stay where they’re at?

This creates a bit of a paradox for both employers and employees.

Retention Paradox

Presumably, an unhappy employee might be interested in staying on with an employer if things improved—better work-life balance, greater recognition, more compensation, etc. And, often employers—when faced with the choice between giving the employee what they want and losing the employee to another organization—would be willing to make some concessions.

But even when an employer is aware an employee is unhappy, they often fail to take action because they don’t appreciate just how unhappy that employee is. That is, until the employee quits.

This raises an interesting question: what if an employee wants to let their employer know they aren’t happy and are ready to leave, but doesn’t want to fully commit to the nuclear option of actually quitting just yet? What if they just let their employer know that they are actively looking for a new job?

For many employees, this simply seems out of the question. Threatening to quit without having an actual new job lined up exposes them to the risk of being seen as uncommitted and being let go without any job at all. At the same time, some employers might value both the opportunity to change the employee’s mind and the extra time to find their replacement if they can’t end up coming to terms.

Retention Requires Strategic Approach

Navigating employee retention requires keen insight and a strategic approach. Paul Falcone, with over two decades of HR leadership experience at major companies like Nickelodeon, Paramount Pictures, and Time Warner, offers a seasoned perspective on what to do when an employee is contemplating a departure but hasn’t yet resigned.

When faced with the delicate situation of an employee openly searching for new opportunities, Falcone emphasizes the value of transparency. “I would appreciate their transparency and candor,” he states, acknowledging that such honesty provides an opportunity to either retain a valuable team member or prepare for their departure. This open dialogue is crucial as it sets the stage for possible retention strategies or a smooth transition if retention isn’t feasible.

Falcone suggests a tailored approach depending on the employee’s value: “My next step would depend a lot on whether I wanted to fight to retain them or simply allow them to leave once they found another position.” For those deemed essential or “keeper” employees, he recommends proactive engagement through “stay interviews.” These interviews are strategic discussions aimed at ensuring employees feel valued and engaged, ideally preventing them from becoming susceptible to recruitment by others.

To Counteroffer, or Not to Counteroffer?

Counteroffers, a common knee-jerk reaction to resignation threats, are generally discouraged by Falcone unless they are part of a broader strategy to meet the employee’s needs without undermining team morale.

“Avoid engaging in counteroffer exercises once an employee has already tendered notice,” Falcone advises, citing that employees who accept counteroffers often leave within six months anyway.

However, if an employee worth retaining expresses a desire to leave, it’s crucial to explore their reasons and determine if adjustments can be made to persuade them to stay. “If someone worth retaining shares that they’re looking elsewhere, it’s time for a one-on-one, heart-to-heart conversation,” he explains. This conversation should aim to uncover the root causes of their dissatisfaction and address them effectively, offering a window of opportunity to change the employee’s mind before they make a final decision.

Not every employee who considers leaving is necessarily worth retaining, Falcone notes. Others simply may need to leave your organization for health, career, or professional reasons, he says. If an employee finds a promotional opportunity elsewhere that isn’t available within the current organization, Falcone sees this as a positive outcome worth celebrating, acknowledging the growth and opportunities provided under his leadership.

Regrettable Turnover

However, Falcone is concerned about what he terms “regrettable turnover,” which occurs when an employee makes a lateral move to another organization for reasons that could have been addressed internally. “To lose someone really good who ‘makes a change for change’s sake’… is regrettable turnover,” he says. This kind of turnover should prompt introspection and adjustments in how leaders connect with their team members on an emotional and professional level.

Moreover, Falcone introduces a unique method to evaluate the impact of potential employee departures, the “Fall-Off-the-Planet Test.” He categorizes employees into three groups based on how critical they are to the team’s functioning, ranging from indispensable to expendable. This categorization helps determine the level of effort managers should invest in retention initiatives.

Navigating the delicate scenario where an employee discloses their intent to leave requires a nuanced approach, as emphasized by HR veteran Paul Falcone. His advice sheds light on the importance of engaging deeply with employees, understanding their career aspirations and emotional states, and preemptively addressing potential discontent.

Understanding the significance of each employee’s role within the organization is critical. Falcone’s “Fall-Off-the-Planet Test” provides a clear framework for evaluating the impact of an employee’s departure. By categorizing employees based on how their absence would affect the team—from severely impactful to negligible—managers can prioritize their retention efforts more effectively. Those who are indispensable should feel consistently valued and understood, which fosters loyalty and reduces the allure of external opportunities.

Falcone stresses that not all turnover is detrimental. Celebrating an employee’s departure when they advance to a role that couldn’t be offered internally can boost team morale and reinforce a culture of professional growth and opportunity. This perspective helps maintain a positive environment and underscores the organization’s role in each employee’s career development.

Ultimately, the goal isn’t just to reduce turnover but to foster an environment where employees choose to stay because they are genuinely satisfied and engaged. This approach not only enhances the organization’s stability but also builds its reputation as a desirable place to work, attracting top talent in a competitive market.

The key to successful employee retention lies in proactive engagement and genuine care for employees’ career and personal needs. By adopting Falcone’s strategies, employers can not only navigate the complexities of potential resignations but can also cultivate a workforce that feels valued, understood, and motivated to excel.

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

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