People don’t leave jobs, they leave bad bosses, finds Liz Simpson. So what can
HR do about it?
One of the last organisational taboos is being dragged out of the closet –
the bad boss – thanks to sites like workingwounded.com, mybosssucks.com and
business books with chapters entitled Jerk, Don’t be One. As important as the
issue is of human suffering, there are bottom-line implications for businesses
which allow managers to get away with behaviour that eventually drives good
people out the door.
Even in an economic downturn, when most employees think twice before giving
up their jobs, that rare resource, top talent, can and will walk anytime it’s
had enough. With unemployment still hovering at a 30-year low, many US
companies are embracing a new trend – making managers directly responsible for
the revolving door.
How bad is the problem? After 20 years research involving 60,000 exit
interviews, US-based research firm Saratoga Institute reported immediate
supervisors are directly or indirectly responsible for 80 per cent of staff
turnover. The institute has identified the top 10 items most closely related to
a person’s intention to leave (see box, right) – all of which are influenced
more by the employee’s immediate supervisor than anyone else in the
In a recent report summarising its findings, the institute points out,
"The best thing that can happen to any worker, in any organisation is to
be assigned to a competent supervisor. It is the competent supervisor who makes
organisational goals real, makes management pronouncements understandable,
makes a team out of newly hired staff, and makes the worker’s role clear and
relevant to the organisation’s fortunes."
The Saratoga Institute’s senior director of survey design and analysis,
Michael Kelly said, "One of the issues that came out of our research is
that loyalty to a supervisor is often more powerful than loyalty to the
company. Conversely, employees strongly question the company’s loyalty to them
when it neglects to correct or remove abusive, brutal or overbearing
Author Beverley Kaye highlights plenty of "jerk-like" behaviours –
from intimidation and arrogance to withholding praise and career blocking – in
her book Love ‘Em or Lose ‘Em: Getting Good People to Stay (published by
Berrett-Koehler). She and co-author, Sharon Jordan-Evans, assist HR and organisational
development professionals in highlighting this insidious problem.
"Too many organisations let jerks get away with it, with disastrous
results," says Kaye. "We’ve now developed an instrument called RDD
(Retention Deficit Disorder) which encourages managers to own up to
dysfunctional behaviours. Better still is if they can remember how it felt when
someone did this to them."
Kaye and Jordan-Evans’ recommendations include giving very specific feedback
to such managers, developing a performance improvement plan or taking them out
of the business altogether. One company that has taken heed is Silicon-Valley
based Synopsys, which places emphasis on retaining both "star
performers" and "solid citizens". The manufacturer of electronic
design automation software has almost 3,000 employees and at the end of 2000
was suffering a 35 per cent attrition rate. Now it is down to under 5 per cent,
according to senior performance consultant, Jerry Pike. He has three people
responsible for interviewing staff about their values, needs and incentives for
staying with the company – information that is collated and fed back to
"The common definition of a good boss, according to our employees, is
someone who understands what makes them tick – and acts on it," says Pike.
According to organisational psychologist, Larry Norton, managing director of
HR management consultancy, PeopleSolutions, it makes no sense to try to retain
absolutely everyone, as a certain amount of turnover can be a good thing.
"Successful companies like General Electric and IBM know that a certain
percentage of employees are not the right fit and it doesn’t do the company any
service to keep them. That’s why they cull the bottom 10 per cent on a regular
Norton has worked on two separate programmes for large companies where HR
helped him identify the high-fliers – those who would represent the most
significant loss to the company – who are then told they are going to be
groomed for success. He says demonstrating that sort of faith and investment in
a star employee is an extremely powerful retention tool.
"We then got their managers to write up a formalised development plan –
to include giving the employee cross-functional training, stretch assignments
and leadership opportunities – and held them personally accountable for
executing it. The next step would have been to tie managers’ bonuses to their
ability to develop these high-potential people. However, it was made very clear
to them that their star performers’ success would impact on that manager’s own
opportunities for promotion."
But implementing a formal policy isn’t always necessary, according to Kaye.
"At the very least you could hold a seminar that highlights the behaviour
that drives people out the door. The vice-president of HR for Pappas
Restaurants in Texas used our ‘jerk quiz’ in a fun, light-hearted way, even the
CEO took it, which made this issue less personal and confrontational," she
Cathy Rusinko, assistant professor of management at Philadelphia University agrees
that making managers directly responsible for staff retention should be
approached with sensitivity. "Training courses and coaching can help
someone see that their behaviour is a problem for others, but don’t overlook
the value of your informal networks," says Rusinko. "At General
Electric I saw how other managers would have a quiet word, over lunch, with a
problem boss. A good, influential network like this can move mountains in
Ruskinko also highlights the relevance of diversity training in this
important global issue. "What magnifies the problem is cultural
differences," she says. "A wonderful boss to some people can be
perceived as a ‘jerk’ boss to those with different customs, beliefs and
values," she says. "As an American I know that blunt, assertive
behaviour can have an adverse effect on people from Asian cultures, for
"There is even greater potential for unthinking managers to do harm in
a global environment. But if you do this right, showing managers how important
having a good boss is to their employees, you’ll achieve a triple benefit.
Employees will demonstrate the sort of loyalty you never really get just by
throwing money at people, managers will appreciate the investment in their
personal development – and your attrition rate will drop dramatically."
Employee’s intentions to leave
Of the 54 core items used in its study, Saratoga Institute found these 10
were most closely linked with an employee’s intention to leave:
1 Opportunity for career growth/
2 Earnings potential with this company
3 Fairness of increases
4 Timeliness of increases
5 Company loyalty to employees
6 Opportunity for promotion
7 With positive attitudes
8 Teamwork environment
9 Employee recognition
10 Resources for career development
Source: Saratoga Institute
Managers’ bonuses are cut if they cannot effectively lead staff
"Retention is a major issue for
us," says Paige Cochran
vice-president of HR for American Science and Engineering. "Because
we are a small organisation, losing one or two key technical people leaves a
big hole. Last year, when our turnover was something like 40 per cent we
approached an organisational development firm, Farr Associates, to run a
leadership programme highlighting the impact managers have on staff retention."
The 300-strong firm which has its headquarters in
Massachusetts, produces x-ray technology that can detect drugs, explosives and
other illegal substances for the US and international governments.
With the support of her CEO, Cochran finds the hands-on,
proactive approach works best in a small company. She interacts daily with
managers, teaching them to look for signs of employee unhappiness.
"There’s no need to engage in expensive and time-consuming
research. Just walking around the corridors tells me a lot," says Cochran.
"We encourage employees to come directly to us. The biggest cause of
employee concern tends to be poor communication by managers who may be
technically brilliant but haven’t had the training or experience to be an
"My role is to coach them on the importance of
interpersonal skills. Often managers don’t realise how their behaviour impacts
on their employees, or how poorly they are perceived by others.
"I’ve seen people effect amazing change through being coached,
which they see as an investment in their managerial skills."
Cochran’s approach involves both carrot and stick. "Our
incentives package and development reviews are heavily weighted towards
leadership capabilities and developing staff," she adds.
"If managers don’t
secure a high score in these areas their annual bonus is cut back.
Additionally, career progression is a huge motivator. Managers here know that
if they want promotion they have to develop the soft skills that earmark
today’s effective leaders. Part of that competency is retaining top talent."
Cochran says it’s difficult to accurately measure the direct
effectiveness of this initiative since turnover has dropped in response to a
changed employment market. "But people who are leaving are doing so for
different reasons than supervisory bad behaviour, so it must be making an
– More information on Bev Kaye and
Sharon Jordan-Evans’ work, plus a quiz "Are you a Love ‘Em or Leave ‘Em
Manager" can be found on www.keepem.com
– Recommended reading: The
Leadership Machine by Michael M. Lombardo and Robert W. Eichinger – see
– Lean and Meaningful: A new culture for corporate America by Roger
E. Herman and Joyce L. Gioia (Oakhill Press) – see www.leanandmeaningful.com
Are you a Love ‘Em or Lose ‘Em Manager?
Want to keep your star performers,
but not sure where to start? Read each of the 26 statements below and give
yourself one point for each statement that is true for you. Be completely
honest. Your score will tell you where you stand and what to do next.
– I inquire about how to make work
more satisfying for my employees.
I realise that I am mainly responsible for retaining the talent on my
I know my employees’ career ambitions.
I demonstrate respect for the different backgrounds, values, and needs
of my employees.
I take steps to ensure that my employees are continually challenged by
I respect the work-life balance issues that my employees face.
I make my employees aware of the different ways in which they can
develop and grow their careers.
When hiring, I look for more than a match of skills.
I share most, if not all, of the information to which I’m privy with my
I apologise when I think I have hurt one of my employee’s feelings.
I encourage humour at work.
I introduce my employees to others within my internal and external
I encourage my employees to stretch in their own development.
I am committed to my employees and value their contributions.
I watch for internal opportunities for my employees.
I support the work-related interests of my employees.
I question and bend the rules to support my employees.
– I recognise and
reward the accomplishments of my employees in a variety of ways.
I provide my employees as much choice as possible on how their work gets
I tell my employees where they stand and what they need to do to improve.
I take time to really listen to and understand my employees.
I take initiative to learn what my employees value.
I recognise signs of stress or overwork in my employees.
I am tuned into the special wants and needs of the GenX-ers on my team.
I give power and decision-making authority to my employees.
I continually try to improve upon my own managerial and retention
Alert. You are at risk of losing your best people. Start by
asking what it is they want. Then immediately move to three to five of the
ideas from this quiz and put them into action.
Caution. You’ve got work to do to keep your best people. Begin
now to ask them, as well as your trusted colleagues, what’s working and what’s
Kudos. You’re on the right track to keeping your best people,
but don’t stop now. Choose other ideas to work on and give yourself the praise