“Help Wanted” signs – virtual or storefront – are everywhere. In 2021, millions of American workers quit their jobs, including a record 4.5 million in November alone, a 30% increase over the same month last year. Perhaps more startling, another 65% of Americans are looking for a new job. Predicted back in May 2021, the Great Resignation is underway.
But that’s only half the story. Business hiring is also at record levels. Most Americans aren’t simply quitting their jobs and leaving the workforce. They’re pursuing new roles and companies, or opportunities in new industries altogether.
There are many theories for what’s causing Americans to do this. One of the most prevalent I’ve seen is the “epiphany” theory. The COVID pandemic, like other disruptive events, caused people to reexamine their needs and priorities, and make life changes accordingly. Perhaps it’s spending more time with family, aligning their work with their personal values and interests, staying home to take care of children, having more flexible hours, or moving somewhere new.
Employers are scrambling to keep up. In the face of unprecedented employee turnover, supply chain challenges, new federal and state regulations, and pandemic protocols, their patience is wearing thin. It’s tempting for businesses to bemoan their employees’ reordering of priorities – and willingness to leave their jobs because of it – as entitled, short-sighted and ill-timed. The Great Resignation, the prevailing wisdom says, is a thorn in employers’ sides.
But what if the Great Resignation wasn’t just an opportunity for employees to build a more purpose-driven and engaging career and life? What if it was also an opportunity for employers to build a more purpose-driven and engaged company?
Over a decade ago, online retailer Zappos gained fame when it pioneered the “pay-to-quit” concept: paying employees a bonus if they left their jobs. Zappos believed it would be better off if employees who weren’t dedicated to the mission, values, and work simply opted-out. As then-CEO, Tony Hsieh, wrote in his book Delivering Happiness, “Our goal at Zappos is for our employees to think of their work not as a job or career, but as a calling.”
Now the pandemic is doing organically what Zappos and other businesses have been doing artificially: prompting workers to ask themselves whether their jobs and companies are the right fit, and causing them to make changes if not. If managed effectively, employers can turn The Great Resignation into a renaissance for their teams and companies, creating a more engaged, productive, cohesive, and loyal team in the process.
Here are 6 steps business leaders can take to turn the Great Resignation into a Great Re-engagement for their companies:
- Embrace the Change. The labor market will not always be as tight as it is today, but the world of work is fundamentally and permanently changing. For companies to emerge stronger from this period than they were when they entered it, leaders need to embrace the idea that employees are key stakeholders in their organizations. And just like shareholders or customers, employees’ needs and goals need to be understood and addressed as a strategic and cultural commitment. Only then will businesses be able to leverage the current environment and maximize organizational success.
- Conduct Stay Interviews. Many companies conduct “exit interviews” to learn why employees leave the organization. It’s important to invest the same time, attention, and curiosity in employees who have not chosen to leave. “Stay interviews” are 1:1 meetings between managers and their employees to discuss what’s going well, what’s not going well, and what changes the employee, the manager, or the organization could make to strengthen the relationship. These meetings require a foundation of trust between the employee and their manager, and are most effective if they are recurring, not one-off, conversations.These conversations should also not be constrained simply to job responsibilities. To achieve a Great Reinvigoration, managers and employees need to open lines of communication about employees’ life goals and values, and how both can be furthered at the organization, or even at a different organization. For example, a manager might learn that one of their employees has a dream of writing a novel or has a family member they need to care for. By opening the dialogue, the manager can help the employee connect or adapt their current role to their goals and needs, or discuss whether there are other roles or even other opportunities that might be a better fit. Sometimes the most powerful conversations occur in discussing opportunities outside the company, as that’s when an employee understands their manager is truly invested in their success.
- Don’t Chase. If an employee has decided that they don’t want to stay with the company, it’s generally better to support them in departing gracefully than in pulling out the stops to keep them. The pay-to-quit programs at Zappos, for example, not only don’t chase employees, they nudge them out the door. The key, of course, is to make sure the employee has full information about the direction the company, their team, and their role is heading. If they do, and they choose to leave anyway, trying to “save” an employee risks retaining employees who are not fully bought in, putting a band aid over underlying issues, and undermining the company’s ability to achieve a Great Re-engagement.
- Be as Intentional in Hiring as Your Candidates are in their Job Search. American workers are reevaluating their priorities, values, and goals, and are looking for opportunities that better support and align with them. This is a perfect environment to hire employees who will engage in their work at a deeper level and for a longer period of time, assuming you find a match. The key is to adapt your recruiting and hiring processes to find these people. For instance, make sure the interviewing process invites a dialogue with the candidate about not just having the right competencies and capabilities, but also about what’s important to them from a culture, values, team, expectations, and responsibility perspective, so both you and the candidate have confidence that the company and role fit their reexamined priorities.
- Shift Dollars from Recruiting to Training. After factoring in recruiting, hiring, onboarding, and lost productivity, the cost of replacing an individual employee is at least 50% of that employee’s annual salary. For employees who are performing well, consider reallocating a portion of what you would spend to replace them from your recruitment budget to expand your training budget. The training could focus on upskilling an employee who is looking to advance their current focus, or reskilling an employee who would have better opportunities in a different career track. Most workers want to grow their skills and will value an opportunity that allows them to do so. Set aside an annual training budget and engage your employees in discussing the best ways to use those resources to further both their and the organization’s goals.
- Invite Your Employees to be Co-Creators. Ten years ago, researchers discovered that consumers more highly value products they invest their own time, energy, and creativity in than “off-the-shelf” products. Called the IKEA effect, this same principle also applies to employee engagement and retention. People value organizations more highly if they are part of building them, whether it be their culture, processes, innovation, team, or strategy. To turn The Great Resignation into a Great Reengagement for your company, engage your team more fully in the process of building an organization that serves both their and your customers’ and shareholders’ needs. Turn organizational decisions or initiatives over to employee task forces or informal leaders, or simply empower employees to do things such as define the company’s values or develop programs. Given that people are investing so much though in their lives and work, now is an ideal time to hear their ideas and engage them in bringing them to fruition.
Make no mistake: with millions of American workers leaving their jobs each month, it’s a challenging time for employers. But it’s also an opportunity, one that leading employers like Zappos have previously invested in.
By embracing the moment, rather than ignoring or trying to resist it, employers can turn the Great Resignation into a Great Re-engagement for their businesses, and emerge with a new strategic advantage: a more engaged, productive and loyal workforce.
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