How to retain your top talent amid the Great Resignation

How do you avoid losing your people to the Great Resignation? Create an environment where employees intrinsically feel they are contributing to a greater mission that aligns with their own values.

In November, 4.5 million Americans quit their jobs. Another 4.2 million quit their jobs in October. For perspective, this represents nearly 6 percent of the total workforce… in just those two months. In 2021, roughly 38 million people quit their jobs, and there is no sign of slowing in this record number of resignations.

Welcome to the “Great Resignation.” You are likely familiar with this term by now, as it’s a phenomenon that has been widely covered in the media. What has been less explored, at least conclusively, is the question of why.

Getting at that “why” is of utmost importance for people leaders in organizations big and small, across industries. In a tight labor market, where finding qualified employees can seem nearly impossible, leaders simply can’t afford to lose their top talent.

Of course, there are a multitude of factors that play into why people quit their jobs: family obligations, health issues, burnout or simply a better opportunity. While many people might assume that money, or the desire for more of it, is at the root of why people quit their jobs, I argue the real reason is a desire for a greater sense of purpose and community. In other words, simply throwing money at the issue isn’t likely to work — not anymore.

So just how do you keep your employees from joining the Great Resignation? It starts with creating an environment where employees intrinsically feel that they are contributing to the greater mission of the organization… a mission that aligns with their own values. It’s not a simple fix, and it takes time, but organizations that do it well can find incredible loyalty among their teams. Below are six ways to get started.

Talk about purpose.

Too often, manager-employee conversations focus myopically on business goals: What are you working on? What have you achieved or what will you achieve this year? What are your specific development goals? These are important questions, of course, but so, too, are conversations about purpose. In other words, does the employee understand and believe in the purpose (or mission) of the organization? Do they feel that sense of purpose for themselves, and does it align with their values? Take the time to talk about purpose, both organizationally and individually, and what you can do to foster that feeling. Use this conversation to help people make the connection to the work they do and the mission of the organization.

Ask meaningful questions.

It may be tempting to use a template to design your employee retainment strategy. After all, that would be the “efficient” solution. The reality is what drives employee loyalty is as unique as the employees themselves. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to understanding and acting upon employees’ motivations. Instead, it is critical to ask your people individually what drives them, inspires them, what makes them want to stay (or not) with the organization. It is an inherently personal discussion that should be treated as such. These conversations are easy to put off, but it’s important to carve out the time to understand each individual on your team. Providing empathy and understanding is an important piece of retaining your talent, but you can’t provide accurate empathy if you don’t ask meaningful questions.

Realize it’s not about money.

If, when you have the conversation about purpose, it becomes clear that the employee is just in it for the paycheck or next promotion, you may have a problem. Money, or more of it, is not likely to be effective in retaining your best people long-term (or at least not the ones you really want to keep). Most people want to feel ownership in something bigger than themselves. Something that matters. Having regular discussions about development needs and aspirations is a low-cost, high-impact way to support an employee’s development. Let that be the foundation of your employee retention efforts.

Create a feeling of community.

Beyond feeling a sense of genuine purpose, employees today are loyal to organizations with a strong sense of community (both remote and in person). It may sound cliché, but employees who have friends at work are more engaged and are much less likely to leave. So ask yourself, do your team members genuinely care for one another? Do they go out of their way to help one another (both professionally and personally)? Take steps to create and role model that environment. Be diligent about setting up in-person and virtual happy hours and fun team outings. It requires intentionality to create a sense of community, but the efforts don’t need to be expensive or overly time-consuming. For example, start team meetings with a light-hearted check-in (what shows are you binge watching right now?). Take every opportunity to inject fun and intimacy into your meetings and work environment. Over time, it will pay off.

Celebrate successes.

This is so important, yet so easy to do. Most people thrive on being recognized for their good work. Take every opportunity, big and small, to recognize and celebrate team members’ successes. Mail a handwritten note of appreciation or give out gift cards when you see employees going above and beyond in the moment. Call out individual achievements at each team meeting. Encourage the rest of the team to share “kudos.” Be as specific as possible with your recognition. Simply saying “great job” isn’t enough. Call out what specifically was great. For example: “I love how you answered that question from Mark.” Be genuine and heartfelt. Finally, share successes and recognition with the powers that be for even greater visibility for your team.

Be flexible.

The desire for more flexibility and a true work-life balance is often cited as one of the main reasons for the Great Resignation. After nearly two years of dealing with the pandemic and the upheaval and stress of juggling remote/hybrid work and school, people are burned out … big time. They’ve had enough and want a better way. They want true work-life balance going forward. People managers need to “walk the talk” when it comes to delivering on that desire for more flexibility. Learn from your collective experience during the pandemic in terms of how, when and where your team can get their work done. Leverage those learnings and encourage team members to be an integral part of whatever hybrid strategy you’re pursuing. In other words, instead of mandating something from the top, identify objectives and success metrics, and then share the responsibility with the team of how to achieve them. Resist the urge to simply regress to the way things used to be, such as a knee-jerk “return-to-the-office” order, no matter how comfortable that may feel. Embrace the new normal of how your team has shown it can be effective. They will reward you for it.

Finally, if you do lose an employee to the Great Resignation, take the time to conduct a thoughtful series of exit interviews. Too often, exit interviews focus on compensation. Follow your curiosity in the exit interview and listen to understand. A well-conducted exit interview can provide valuable insights and innovative ideas toward reducing future departures.

This article was originally published by Chief Learning Officer, Talent Management’s sister publication.