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Fight the Great Resignation by changing how you treat the workers who stay

January 19, 2022, 9:28 PM UTC

Among the many 2021 pandemic-era trends, the Great Resignation received a lot of media attention for good reason. The number of workers quitting hit an all-time high in November 2021, with 4.5 million Americans leaving their jobs, Fortune reported earlier this month.

Less attention is being paid to the majority of workers who have remained in the same roles since before the pandemic began. Managers might overlook this cohort, or neglect to show them the requisite respect for their loyalty, particularly if they’ve kept working amid prolonged labor shortages. But the stakes of maintaining a good relationship with loyal workers is especially high; employees who don’t feel appreciated are much likelier to head for the door.

“People are making choices to go to companies that are recognizing them as humans,” Fredrick Lee, chief security officer of Gusto, a cloud-based payroll, benefits, and human resource management software company, said at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference in November.

Reducing churn starts with showing your appreciation for the employees you have, explained Debbie Cohen and Kate Roeske-Zummer, co-founders of professional coaching program HumanityWorks, in a recent Harvard Business Review article. This simple concept can “stem the tsunami of attrition and increase your retention,” they argued.

As managers rush to hire new employees, they may unintentionally overlook the workers who stuck around and kept business open, often with far fewer teammates to shoulder the workload. Ensuring that this group gets ample recognition is critical for making them feel sufficiently valued.

Cohen and Roeske-Zummer outlined four steps leaders can take to ensure they’re showing respect and giving recognition to their most loyal employees — and help turn down your turnover rate.

1. Be aware of your impact.

Leaders set the tone for an organization, the authors argued; their teammates and direct reports are always observing them. As such, they should take time aside to consider how they’re showing up — both in their words and actions. 

When a company is facing high turnover and struggling to fill open roles, workers are no doubt stressed. Managers should consider how they “message the realities of those pain points,” and make sure they understand how others are experiencing their concerns and frustrations. “Are you unintentionally adding to their fear and uncertainty? When you become aware of your impact, you can control it and steer it in the right direction,” the authors wrote.

In practice, this could look like celebrating small victories even when sharing disappointing news, being vocal about exciting plans and positive improvements coming down the pipeline, and regularly commending the hard work teams are doing. When a leader balances underwhelming results with energy and optimism about the future, it trickles down to the team.

2. Keep an eye toward potential

Maybe your company is one of the luckier ones; you finished off the year with a healthy retention rate and an influx of new hires and several applicants on your job postings. Adding new employees is exciting but also challenging.

“This is a time to be grounded in pragmatism blended with possibility, gratitude, and recognition of what your people, old and new, are going through,” Cohen and Roeske-Zummer wrote.

It’s a good time to really listen to your employees. The authors suggest questions like “What do you envision as the best possible outcome for this situation?” and “What excites you about that?” This framing provides more space for potential and possibility than trepidation and uncertainty, which in turn creates a much healthier work experience.

3. Approach departing workers with grace

How do you — and others with sway in your organization — treat people who leave?

In many companies, particularly those that are understaffed to begin with, an employee giving their notice can sometimes lead to resentment, which other workers likely will pick up on. This sets a bad precedent for remaining employees who, of course, are always watching what the boss does and how they react, Cohen and Roeske-Zummer wrote. 

Instead of wallowing in feelings of betrayal, Cohen and Roeske-Zummer encourage managers to approach the situation with gratitude. Lifelong employment at one company is no longer typical, so managers need to find meaning in stints of any length. 

Rather than viewing a resignation as the dissolution of a business relationship, the consultants encourage viewing it as an “inflection point” and a chance to recognize the value that relationship brought to both parties. 

At many companies, an amicable and respectful exit can even result in a stroke of good karma. If, say, a former employee isn’t thrilled with their new job, they could be open to returning to their original company because they felt so respected during the transition.

4. Don’t skimp on respect and attention

In the ever-evolving talent marketplace, Cohen and Roeske-Zummer encourage managers to think of their employees like customers. Put thoughtful attention into retaining them, because people who feel like they’re being taken for granted are not likely to stay the course. 

The authors outline a three-step approach to the employee-as-customer advice: re-recruit, reward, and engage. Make sure you’re communicating with existing employees so they feel valued. Ask for their help to show you don’t know all the answers. And trust that they know how to do their jobs. 

When you were recruiting your team members originally, you likely took time to understand their motivations and ambitions, both as a person and as an employee. Just because you’re hiring a new slate of employees doesn’t mean this process should stop for the veterans on your team. Take the time to check in with your existing staff and identify potential opportunities within the company that meet their ambitions.

“Daring to be vulnerable paves the path to creating deeper engagement and loyalty from your teammates, peers, colleagues, and direct reports,” the authors wrote. “You lead the way by opening the door.”

The value of expressing appreciation for employees, like any soft skill, can be difficult to measure. But the impact of executing it correctly can make an undeniable difference over the long-term, which can help managers retain their best employees.

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