Should you engage employees who are quitting?

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I’ll admit, I started to read this Fast Company article and was prejudiced to disagree with the premise: “The best opportunity to engage employees is how you treat them when they leave.”

Ridiculous, right? They’re leaving! How does working to engage them now do any good? It’s like using your exit interview as your best survey tool for employee engagement in your organization. (Yes, that’s really a thing.)

After reading the article, I admit my prejudicial instincts may have been wrong.

Never too late to let them know their work matters

Author Jessica Amortegui’s point is that employees are probably going to leave anyway. Statistically, there are very few “lifer” employees that stay at one (or even two or three) companies for their entire careers.

She cites a Deloitte survey showing that 85 percent of the workforce is actively looking for a new job or open to talking to recruiters. So, when they do succumb to the “grass is always greener” syndrome, do everything you can to leave a good impression so they’ll want to return.

Citing two of my favorite researchers on employee motivation, recognition, and engagement (Dan Ariely and Theresa Amabile), Amortegui recommends celebrating employees’ accomplishments, even as they walk out the door:

If you want an employee to walk out of the door engaged, what better way than to celebrate the progress they made in their tenure? It’s never too late—nor can you ever do too much—to make somebody feel that their work matters.

[RELATED: Learn to create an intranet that increases employee engagement, social collaboration and knowledge sharing at our SharePoint for Corporate Communicators conference.]

Engage them for as long as you have them

Point taken. My concern is people using this advice as an excuse to wait until an employee is ready to leave to recognize their contributions.

Far better to praise, celebrate, and appreciate employees for their efforts, contributions, and results throughout their tenure with your organization, because this is what engages them in their work in the first place. Failure to do so results in just as many employees actively looking for a job or open to talking to a recruiter, but far more of that 85 percent mentioned earlier will fall into the “I quit but forgot to tell you” category.

In today’s volatile job market, sometimes the best we can do is to engage the employees we have for as long as we have them. If we can do a better job of that, even incrementally, we can boost the bottom line dramatically. (See this recent Aon Hewitt global research showing that every 1 percentage point increase in engagement drives a 0.6 percent increase in sales growth.)

How much effort does your organization put into “alumni” employees? Would your past star performers want to return? What are you doing to make that more likely?

Derek Irvine is vice president for client strategy and consulting service at Globoforce, a global provider of strategic employee recognition and reward programs. Contact him at irvine@globoforce.com. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, Recognize This! 

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