20 Sep

Why Your Most Talented Employees Keep Leaving

Are you a great boss? Most managers and COOs would probably answer in the affirmative, at least to some degree. If you don’t know–or even if you think you DO know–here’s a suggestion: Ask your employees.

Much has been written over the last few years about the “employee experience,” but relatively few of those on the C-level seem to understand what that is: the typical response to rewarding employees is a company picnic, a team-building weekend, or some other corporate excursion. When attendance at these events is dismally low, execs should get the message that employees aren’t interested; instead, they’re more likely to make attendance mandatory at the next such event.

It’s an old-school way of thinking, but today’s modern workers simply aren’t inherently loyal to the company they work for. Why not? Well, one big reason may be that they feel upper management is more loyal to shareholders than to workers; there is a feeling in many corporations that employees are disposable … which makes it hard to justify expecting those employees to put the business ahead of their personal lives.

The same holds true for customers: any company that focuses on loyalty to its customers is to be commended. But this “the customer is always right” mentality is also limited: for one thing, they’re not always right. For another, there’s a lot to be said for Sir Richard Branson’s mantra: take care of employees, and everything else will take care of itself.

To be fair, many business leaders really are trying to help. Their hearts are in the right place; unfortunately, it’s not any place employees want to be. Forcing once-a-year get-togethers on your workers can’t make up for being under-appreciated the rest of the time. So-called “perks” like chair massages and gym memberships are nice … but they lose a lot of appeal when management uses it as an excuse to demand people work weekends.

So what do employees want? Obviously, there is no across-the-board answer, but there are some generalities we can make:

  1. They want flexibility.

Workers–especially parents–have lives outside of work that sometimes need to be attended to during business hours. There shouldn’t be a penalty for that, and in fact, there should be a system in place to accommodate it. Most adults understand that the ideal is to be at their desks 9-5/M-F, but the flexibility to occasionally telecommute, come in early, or stay late in exchange for time to run an errand during the day? That should be given.

  1. They want ownership.

A recent article from the Harvard Business Review drove home the point that employees were most clear when they had individual objectives and a strong sense of ownership of their work. When those things were in place–and led to being affirmed for their results–workers were more satisfied.

Of course, it’s seldom feasible to have only one person on a project, but even in those situations, ownership of the project was still key: a “Marketing needs to work together on this” approach isn’t nearly as effective as one that says “Casey, Frank, Yolanda? This one is all yours.”

  1. They want to build their own teams.

While we’re on the subject, team-building projects suffer from most of the same issues as company picnics. The idea seems fine in concept: get people to trust one another. But mandated actions do not create trust.

Team-building events are actually more likely to make people feel awkward and uncomfortable with each other. A more positive approach is to get employees’ input when creating teams. That way, instead of a team based on forced collaboration, you get ownership and an incentive to succeed: “Josie and I can do that–last time we worked together, we kicked a$$!”


  1. They want it to mean something.

According to Fast Company, more than 50% of millennials say they would take a lower salary to find a job that matches their needs and values; a staggering 90% want to use their skills to accomplish something for good. That means your company’s vision and mission statement has to go beyond vague generic tropes and focus on ways you’re sincerely trying to leverage your technology, talent, and resources for the betterment of mankind.


  1. They want benefits that actually matter

Ping-pong tables? Great. Gourmet coffee? Sure. Great health insurance? NOW you’re talking. While items 1-4 cover primarily psychological and emotional needs, employees aren’t above wanting rewards. They want salaries that reflect their abilities (and that grow along with their career paths). They’re also hoping for paid parking, a comfortable office space, retirement options and yeah, health insurance. Creature comforts aren’t enough to inspire employee loyalty these days … but it can certainly help foster it.

Above all else, employees want a situation where they can thrive … which is good, because that’s primarily what you want from them. Creating that environment, providing flexibility, feedback, and legitimate benefits–as well as a feeling that you’ve got their backs–can help ensure your most talented employees will also be your most loyal.