Career Advice

Employers, Get Ready For The Mass Talent Evacuation

Human beings like to be in control of their surroundings, and who can blame them? We’re naturally inclined to take the high ground, grab a vantage point and consider our options. These past two years or so have been tough on working people, many of whom have stayed in jobs they didn’t love for fear of leaving a sure thing. Now that the job market is beginning to pick up, smart managers won’t wait to see what happens. They’ll anticipate, plan for and with luck head off the mass talent exodus that is sure to follow an uptick in new job opportunities.

Why would people bolt as the talent marketplace improves? For one thing, surveys show that a majority of working people don’t like the jobs they presently hold. And, the recent Glassdoor Employment Confidence survey showed that should the economy return to pre-recession levels, one in five (21 percent) expect to look for a new job.

We don’t know whether they don’t like the job because of its attributes, or because they’ve essentially been held hostage for two years by the economy, but the distinction may be too fine to matter. If people are waiting for a signal to bounce, managers won’t have time to react once the starter gun is fired. They need to put a plan in place today, to keep their top value creators glued to their seats.

As one frustrated would-be job seeker wrote to me, “I don’t hate my job, but the past 18 months have been so grueling and the rewards have been so slim that I owe it to myself to look for greener pastures at the first opportunity.” That candidate is not alone. By some estimates as many as seventy percent of knowledge workers are currently on the hunt for their next jobs. Can you afford to lose your most talented (which is to say, most marketable) employees and continue to run your business?

I didn’t think so.

So what can managers and HR people do to stem the tide? The first to-do item is to make a plan. Get your managers to identify the high-potential people they can least afford to do without. Look at your sales and margins and decide what is possible in the way of stay bonuses and other perks. Now is the time for creative compensation-related thinking. Extra vacation time is a great investment, and so are training opportunities and other resume-fodder-producing projects. One-on-one time with your top leaders is another great (free) perk. Don’t assume that your employees will understand that your hands have been tied by the tough economy. They helped you out by giving a huge effort to keep you in business during this rough patch (right?) and they’re expecting that contribution to be recognized.

Communication is key during your firm’s recovery phase. Sit down with every employee (yep, every single one. Too much trouble? More trouble than running job ads, interviewing scads of candidates and poring over resumes late at night? No, I didn’t think so. In a focused one-on-one with each employee, a manager needs to hit these points:

  • Thank the employee sitting in front of you for the tremendous effort he or she has made during the past, difficult months.
  • Ask him or her what s/he needs from you (the manager) now. Ask, “How can I help you the most now?”
  • Ask the employee “What should we be focusing on as a department (or, as a company) now?” Say, “I value your input.”
  • Ask “Where do you see yourself going, career-wise, over the next few years? How can I help you get there?”
  • Give the employee time and a safe space to vent. People need to be heard when they’ve been through what our teams have just been through on the job. Say “thanks for sharing your thoughts with me.” (That may be the most important part of the discussion!)

Give the employee time to vent. If the communication isn’t open, authentic and two-way, don’t expect to to hear when a valued team member is hot on the job-search trail.

Recognize the reality: you probably won’t be able to save every employee you’d like to. The more communication and the more ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ rewards you can offer, and the more transparent you are in conveying what’s happening in your business now, the more likely you are to come through the upcoming Talent Drain in good shape.