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How to Influence High Employee Turnover

Dear David,

I work as a director for a center that serves children with special needs. We are part of the Department of Pediatrics of a public university/hospital system. I have been the director for two years now and have an issue I am not sure how to solve. We work for a public institution, so the salaries for the caregivers who work in the classrooms are barely above minimum wage and not competitive locally. Because of this, our center is a revolving door for caregivers who are a critical part of our team. I am unable to raise the salary, so how do I keep employees, find new employees on a regular basis, and keep up the morale of the center and myself? I feel so discouraged most of the time because it’s an issue I can’t control, nor will it change in all likelihood. I am seriously considering leaving.

Best Regards,
Turnover Troubles

Dear Turnover Troubles,

Many leaders find themselves in your position. They struggle with turnover within their essential, but low-paying positions. I’ve worked with many of these leaders, so—while my advice won’t be especially welcome, it is truly battle-tested.

I think you need to re-set your expectations of what’s possible. You may not be able to ever “solve” your retention problem. The turnover numbers within your group may always be higher than ideal. However, there is a worse problem than actual turnover: It’s what we call “spiritual turnover.” Spiritual turnover happens when people stop being engaged, involved, motivated, or psychologically present at work. Their bodies may keep walking the halls, but their souls have left the building.

These organizational zombies are far more costly than actual physical turnover. They prevent your team from achieving its mission, and create safety and customer-experience problems as well. I think your goal should be to keep your employees as engaged and positive as possible—even when you know that many of them will only be with you until they find a better-paying job.

Gather Information: Begin by gathering information from two groups: a.) Long-term employees who you value and respect, and b.) Past employees who have been gone for at least three months.

Ask the long-term employees about their motivations for staying. Find out what is working for them. Is it pride in their work? Friendships with other team members? The impact they have on the people they serve? Work to build on these strengths.

Ask the past employees about why they left, what they liked/disliked about the job, and what they are doing now. One of your goals will be to reduce unappealing elements of the job. But, just as important, look for patterns in their career steps. For example, are your employees “graduating” to a better-paying job within healthcare? Within your same hospital? Are they going back to school? Are they really getting better-paying jobs, or are they stuck?

Connect to Values: Employee engagement requires a strong connection to at least one of the following four values:

  • Development: Some find meaning in the growth the job offers—in the way it prepares them for the next step in their career.
  • Job: Some find meaning in the tasks or the craft of the job. They identify with the profession.
  • Customers: Some find meaning in helping the people they serve—in your case the children and their families.
  • Team: Some find meaning in being a valued member of a winning team—in close friendships and being counted on by others.

I’ll suggest a few actions you can take in each of these areas.

Development: I hope your past employees have moved on to better jobs—and that they see their time with you as having helped their careers. One approach you might take is to turn your team into a world-class farm team for your hospital (or for professional schools). Make sure your employees get the training, experience, and coaching that will help them be most valuable to other departments. Create opportunities for employees to showcase their skills and to learn more about opportunities they can strive for. Your employees will value their time with you, because they see what you are doing for their careers. Employees will want to join your team, because they know it’s a great way to enter into a career in healthcare.

Job: My experience is that teachers take a lot of pride in their profession—and are also quick to point out obstacles that prevent them from practicing their profession. Often the best way to tap in to this source of motivation is by removing distractions and disruptions so that your employees can focus on what they do best. In addition, set high professional standards, and involve the whole team in holding each other accountable for achieving them. It’s hard to take pride in your work, if the standard isn’t high.

Customers: My guess is that most, if not all, of your employees take pride in the impact they have on the children and families they serve. Build on this pride by making these connections more visible, more personal, and more frequent. Find ways to track the impact your employees are having, and share and celebrate this impact. Create face time between your employees and children’s families.

Team: Make sure your employees feel like a valuable part of your team. Find ways to have them work with partners or in small groups. Create opportunities for them to get to know each other—and discover similar interests beyond work. Make sure each person knows that others on the team are counting on them, and value their contributions.

I hope these suggestions will help. Again, I think employee engagement is a better measure than turnover for leaders in your position.

Best of Luck,
David

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David Maxfield

David Maxfield is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for organizational change. For thirty years, David has delivered engaging keynotes at prestigious venues including Stanford and Georgetown Universities. David’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500.
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8 thoughts on “How to Influence High Employee Turnover”

  1. Great response. Turnover is inevitable at low-paying jobs, but they are often fantastic learning experiences, and employees can form bonds that last decades. Having an inspiring and influential boss can make a big difference in how the crew views this chapter in their lives…and their future.

    Nice job, Mr. Maxfield!

  2. While I agree with all of the suggestions, the real issue in childcare, in particular those who have special needs, is pay. I know this first hand, being a mother of a brilliant, kind, engaging child full of laughter, fun and life, who is sadly confined to a 350 pound motorized chair. No matter how much someone loves working with our precious children, they still have to pay bills and make a living and in this jobs simply cannot afford to do so. This is a much greater societal issue. We live in a society that spends 100 x more for pornography than what they are willing to spend on childcare providers. One that devalues those in need and those who care for them. One that has lost its humanity.

    1. I agree 100 percent! Childcare is both too expensive for many to afford and pays too little to those who provide it. It is a societal issue that many societies have addressed quite successfully. I guess the political/social challenge is how to best combine government, business, community, religious, and other solutions. I don’t think there is a single best solution. But there are many examples of countries, businesses, and communities that have made great progress. We should be learning from them.

  3. I think it’s also important to focus on training as well. Are there gaps in training such as a dedicated trainer or mentor, a training manual, and ongoing feedback? Does the work environment help them feel open to address issues or question why age old processes are done the same way today? Training can be a solid foundation for helping an employee feel welcome and prepared for the job ahead.

  4. In addition to these very thoughtful and helpful suggestions, I would like to add some additional battle-tested ideas:
    1. Let applicants know upfront what the wages are and what the outlook is for increases. this will filter out some folks who simply won’t stay for that.
    2. Look at the characteristics and motivations of your longstanding good to high performers, and start screening your applicants to look for those same characteristics and motivations. You are trying to find clones of your best folks.
    3. Involve your best folks in both the interview/evaluation process, and in the mentoring/training/orienting process. Getting your new folks next to your best folks can help ignite that passion for the job you desperately need.
    4. Start an student rotation program with a local technical school. You might get some great hires from people who have been exposed to the good work you do as part of their schooling.
    5. Look at your turnover time – is there a critical moment when people make the decision before their love of the job kicks in? Talk to your budget/HR folks about ‘Stay pay’ – a few hundred dollars bonus that keeps people in their seats past that time; it may extend your time between resignations, and it may give people time to learn to love you!
    6. Create a volunteer program. Volunteers can’t replace paid workers, but they can support the work your paid folks do, add more passion, and give some diversity to the interactions your patients receive.

  5. Whether you recognize it or not, your organization is a training ground for current and future employees as they progress along their career path.
    Accept it and embrace it.
    Use it to attract new employees.Tell new (and old employees) that you understand that they may seek other jobs that provide more of what motivates them (higher wage, better fringes, health care ?); and find ways to assist them in this endeavor. Find ways to show them that the training and experience that you give them the opportunity to experience will help them in their quest for better jobs in the future.
    For example, give them references based upon their performance while in your employ; and let them know that is what you will do when the time comes that they want a reference.

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