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Op/Ed

So, you lost a rockstar employee – don’t lose the band too

(OPINION / EDITORIAL) Bands lose lead singers all the time and sometimes they are the better for it. But what if your business loses a rockstar employee?

Smiling rockstar employee accepting paper from off screen.

Turnover is one of the largest expenses a business may have to prepare for; a study by Employee Benefits News estimates that the dollar amount is equivalent to a third of an employee’s annual salary. Indirect costs arrive alongside this, which can include the loss of employee knowledge and added expenses to invest in searching for a replacement. The recruitment process can be lengthy and has many steps and phases, and hiring may require paying bonuses, higher salaries, or providing additional benefits.

As many as 40% of employees quit in their first year, and when all is said and done, it might be 50-70% of that employee’s salary might suddenly be lost.

This can present a large problem if a top-performing and well-liked employee (what some recruiters might call a rockstar employee) leaves. Under the worst scenarios, it can cause a domino effect; remaining employees might begin to question why that person chose to make their exit, and this may manifest as a series of departures. From a management standpoint, this is catastrophic and can lead to missed deadlines, an increased burden on the remaining staff, and generally result in less quality output.

Contingency plans should be in place to help mitigate this situation, and all companies should – at some point – consider what their best options are to stop a destructive downward spiral. Jokingly – if a little morbid – this is sometimes referred to as the bus factor, which literally confronts this question by asking what happens if ____ were hit by a bus tomorrow? After all, if your critically vital employee suddenly could not show up again – literally never again – what can you do to prevent cascading effects?

Let’s consider the best things to do in this situation in order to prevent insert-your-favorite-natural-disaster-term-here when you suddenly learn your unicorn is on their way out.

Ask Questions and Listen

First and foremost, it’s best to ask the rockstar employee why they are leaving and make a sincere effort to understand their decision. The benefits of exit interviewing are known and can help immensely in this area. Even under the best circumstances and with an employee leaving without any negative reasons, there is likely still something they’d like to see improved, and this can be applied to those who remain.

Speaking of those remaining employees, it’s best to talk with them as well. Be transparent and genuine – ask about current moods and morale, get their perspective on the situation, and how they think it might affect their work moving forward. If the exiting employee did give any advice about improving the work environment, you can inject this into these follow-on conversations to see if others share that opinion, and then use those overlapping patterns to understand what to do immediately.

Surveys can be sent out as well, and this might provide a quick response and some metrics to go on. This should be used in conjunction with interviews and one-on-one conversations. During these engagements, listen intently, acknowledge any issues that may have been uncovered, and explain that you are committed to ensuring a smooth transition and will proactively address any problems that have been revealed.

Futureproofing

Reassure employees that their work is meaningful and recognized as vital and important, and commit to finding a replacement in order to prevent concerns that an increased workload will remain in place for an extended period of time. This will require taking introspective looks into the current workplace and its metrics, and then channeling these into efforts outwardly. In other words, the future is still bright, and all the brighter with their contributions.

It’s likely that employees may start to look at their work pessimistically – “Why should I stay if what we’re doing couldn’t keep ___ here?” This is why management must act quickly to assess the situation and provide direct answers. Explain that goals are still attainable and emphasize each employee’s importance.

Happiness

Perhaps the most abstract – yet arguably most significant – thing to worry about is the overall happiness of employees, and how to best continue this in an upward trajectory. There are plenty of ways to do this, with many revolving around frequent check-ins, seeking out ways to improve skillsets through education, and providing – if possible – promotions now that voids exist. After all, if there is an open opportunity within the organization, it will likely bolster the entire team to see someone move into a new position (and provide inspiration).

Engagement is key. There is no substitute for this – employees want to be heard, want to know they matter, and will respond to such efforts positively. In addition to the strategies above, it might be a good time to consider morale-boosting events while redoubling efforts to improve the workplace.

Conclusion

Focusing on what to do now with plans in place will help provide a solid head start. Engage and speak with (not just to) employees, understand their concerns, and actively respond to anything that repeatedly emerges from such conversations. Reassure by shifting focus toward the future of the company, and maintain employee happiness by being transparent and considering ways to reorganize hierarchy through promotions.

When a favorite employee leaves, there’s always going to be a rippling effect throughout the office. Turnover cannot be fully avoided, but there are several ways to cushion the blow and continue to move forward in an efficient, agile manner.

Robert Snodgrass has an English degree from Texas A&M University, and wants you to know that yes, that is actually a thing. And now he's doing something with it! Let us all join in on the experiment together. When he's not web developing at Docusign, he runs distances that routinely harm people and is the kind of giant nerd that says "you know, there's a King of the Hill episode that addresses this exact topic".

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