Five manager mistakes that make valuable employees quit

Managers’ reality check: Your top workers can almost always get another job, even in a shaky economy.

“The best employees are being recruited at any given time. Managers need to make that assumption and create an environment that’s going to make them want to stay,” says Paul De Young, a talent management practice leader at Watson Wyatt Worldwide Inc., a global consulting firm.

Are you really doing that? Or do your management tactics have people scurrying for the exits?

Before you answer, consider these cautionary tales that can help you avoid pushing your own top talent out the door.

Mistake No. 1: Keep the creative juices bottled up.

“Programmers and developers have their own views – reasonably strong views – on how to do things, so it’s not uncommon to hear that there are clashes between them and managers,” says Pradeep K. Khosla, founding director of CyLab and dean of the College of Engineering, both at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Khosla points to an acquaintance who quit his programming job because he wasn’t allowed to pursue his ideas about the IT architecture he thought the company needed.

The better way: Even the most talented workers won’t get their way all the time, but managers need to balance employees’ creative ideas against corporate policies and programs.

“The organization has to create a culture from the top management down that gives people an opportunity to be creative,” De Young says.

And though most companies can’t adopt a model like Google Inc.’s, which lets engineers spend 20 per cent of their time pursuing their own projects, De Young says many can and should allow their top staffers some time away from their normal duties to delve into projects that stretch their imaginations.

Mistake No. 2: Micromanage your staff.

It’s hard to imagine the founding executives at a $1 billion company demanding that they approve all IT expenditures over $1,000, checking employees’ time sheets, and requiring retention agreements for workers seeking job-related training.

Good help is hard to find

64 per cent: Percentage of U.S.employers that have problems attracting critical employees

60 per cent: Percentage of employers that have trouble finding top performing workers

Source: Watson Wyatt Worldwide’s 2007/2008 Global Strategic Rewards Report

But Adrian M. Butler, vice president of IT-telecom and support services at Accor North America Inc. in Carrollton, Texas, knows an IT director who found himself working for those executives.

The tight management control was a clear and extreme case of micromanagement. “It led people to feel there was a lack of trust in their abilities,” Butler says, noting that the IT director left his job after just two months.

“He didn’t feel empowered in the role,” Butler says, adding that the manager who hired the IT director also left for similar reasons.

The better way: This problem is tough because the tendency to micromanage is more a personality trait than a policy decision, says Franz Fruehwald, CIO at Catholic Human Services – Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

He has also experienced that type of manager in the past.

But if you solicit honest feedback from close associates, you can recognize and curtail micromanaging behavior in yourself, he says. “I have a couple of direct reports who have the ability and permission to speak to me frankly,” Fruehwald says. “I tell them, ‘You need to give it to me straight.'”

Mistake No. 3: Deny new opportunities and challenges.

As a facilitator for the Regional Leadership Forum, a development program run by the Society for Information Management, Bart Bolton sees many promising IT workers. In fact, most who attend the nine-month program are sponsored by their organizations because they’re considered high-potential employees.

But not all companies know how to manage such workers. Bolton remembers one senior IT manager who found that his boss wasn’t willing to give him new opportunities after he completed the program.

“He wanted more challenges and more responsibility. They talked about it, and nothing happened,” says Bolton, who is also a leadership consultant at Lifetime Learning in Upton, Mass.

The manager didn’t stick around. Within a few months, he found a new position at another company where he felt he had more opportunities to grow.

The better way: Set realistic expectations, says Anne Marie Messier, founder of Straightline Management Solutions in Chelmsford, Mass.

Tell workers why they’re being sent for training and what they can expect once the training is completed. If you don’t have immediate opportunities for advancement, letting enthusiastic workers know that they are on the short list for new challenges can go far in retaining them. But be sure to follow through.

Mistake No. 4: Don’t listen to your employees.

As a senior systems analyst working on a team to develop clinical and business applications at a hospital, Ben Berry worked with a medical doctor to determine business requirements for the entire institution.

Although he and the doctor shared responsibility for the task, Berry remembers that the doctor didn’t want to hear anyone else’s ideas.

“He didn’t take input from the team. He was trying to drive all the decisions. It was undermining the team, and I personally felt underutilized,” says Berry, who is now CIO for the Oregon Department of Transportation.

Berry discussed the situation with his supervisor and the doctor directly. But nothing changed, so he left for a better position.

The better way: Use all the talent around you. “We hire people that we believe can do the job,” Berry says. “If we don’t allow them to use all the tools in their toolbox, or we try to pigeonhole people into doing it the way we’ve always done it, then we’re doing a disservice to the individual, the team and the organization.”

Open-door policies and consensus-building allow all staffers to contribute and voice their opinions, he says.

Mistake No. 5: Change the work environment without considering the impact on employees.

When a national retailing company outsourced its IT operations and most of its business analysts, it learned how the talented workers who are left behind typically react: They bolt.

Tried-and-true tactics

When CIOs reported on their most effective tools for IT staff retention, these were among those most often cited:

Increased compensation………………27 per cent

Professional development/ training……21 per cent

Flexible schedule options……………18 per cent

Telecommuting……………………… 7 per cent

Extra time off…………………….. 6 per cent

Base: April 2008 survey of more than 1,400 CIOs at U.S. companies with 100 or more employees. Source: Robert Half Technology

Bob Rouse, a professor of computer science and IT planning officer at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, knows the story. The outsourcing reduced the company drastically — from about 2,500 IT employees to 1,000, he says. The remaining employees handled more work and different work than they had been doing.

Moreover, many of the best employees had gone to the outsourcer, and because the surviving top-notch workers found themselves working with a weaker internal team, they had to pick up even more of the slack.

As a result, the company lost 10 per cent of its top people within a year. “These were very marketable people who would never have considered leaving the company if it hadn’t been [for the] outsourcing,” Rouse says.

The better way: Keep the people in the business equation. Companies often focus on business objectives and financial goals when making tactical moves and forget that “there are human beings left behind,” says Bob Eubank, executive director of the Northeast Human Resources Association in Wellesley, Mass.

To avoid an exodus of top performers after a change, executives and managers should tell workers about impending events as early as possible, Eubank says.

Managers should be particularly attentive to their best workers, letting them know about post-change opportunities. If employees see opportunities down the road, he adds, “people are often willing to sacrifice.”

Here’s the secret of recruiting young IT workers.

Find out how to draw the best from your smart workers by clicking here.

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