Tuesday, 23 November 2010

A War on Attrition

The word "Attrition" as used by HR departments throughout industry seems like a semantic comfort blanket. In the same way as the terms "ethnic cleansing" and "collateral damage" are linguistic devices to distance ourselves from the reality of what is happening, so "Attrition" is a sanitised nomenclature for an unhappy reality that we'd rather not face. As a recruiter I like to add value by providing information to my hiring managers on what else is going on in the current labour markets, are our competitors hiring? at what levels? are salaries increasing? etc. Often when supplying this information I am asked about "attrition" within our own organisation. Traditionally these discussions take a familiar form - Why are people leaving? Do we care? How many can we expect to leave and What can be done?

One of the broadly prevalent anti-patterns of HR seems to be the absolute faith placed in process, policy and procedure without reasoning that we are dealing with real people. There is no allowance in a policy for the foibles of humanity and thus no flexibility. The faith in numbers approach has basis in sense - there will always be movement in the staff employed - people will move on, change careers, retire or even want to come back. Those with their numerical approach acknowledge that movement is normal - predicting staff turnover and reporting on it as a metric - without the consideration of the bigger picture, the process has blinded them to the real and ultimately more important questions of "Why is this person leaving?" and "Are we OK with that?".

I have spoken to organisations who have an "Attrition Policy" where a "Retention Strategy" might be more appropriate, in the majority of cases there is no forum to address concerns over status, hierarchical level or salary satisfaction beyond an exit interview by which time it's already too late. If you maintain a lovingly crafted file of the reasons individuals have left your organisation but do nothing about it, you're essentially just describing the lock of the stable door from which the horse has long since bolted.

If employees are leaving your organisation they are voting with their feet. There might be a myriad reasons as to why but obfuscation through process isn't a defence. Whilst it is rare to loose an entire workforce, however, it is increasingly possible to loose teams or key members from those teams that may have a dramatic effect on the organisation as a whole. This can be a tranche of people with a particular skill set or often more detrimentally a layer of experience leaving your organisation e.g. employees who stay for 4 years have a 90% chance of leaving in their 5th year.

There is no simple answer in solving "attrition", offering a safe forum for discussion of issues may lead to a better understanding of employee issues but this is still reliant on the information being acted on and being seen to be acted on. There is little more risible than employee charters or staff "councils" giving voice to concerns that are then ignored.

When people are leaving your organisation they are going to another employer that they see as "better". Everyone involved in the "exit process" or who has discussions with the employee should be seeking to discover what those "better" options are. Is it something as simple as a higher salary? A more achievable bonus? Better training? It is these things we should be monitoring not simply listing dissatisfaction with the current organisation - have no doubt your employee has been "sold" a new role - finding out the selling points will better aid you to avert losing more members of staff (if you are able to solve the issues) or at least enable you to compose a more compelling job description for the new hire you're going to have to make.

At the very least an organisation should have an awareness of reasoning behind leaving, enough awareness of the current market to spot a trend if it's occurring (this should come from the organisation's recruiters) and a sense or urgency when it's required to ensure than an expected turnover doesn't turn into a flood of leavers.