Dealing With Brain Drain: Sometimes, People Just Have to Move On

Brain drain can have all kinds of interesting imagery associated with it but I don’t imagine the folks at Yahoo were too pleased about seeing their company in the headlines in The Wall Street Journal:

Within Yahoo, top executives including interim CEO Tim Morse, Chief Product Officer Blake Irving and Ross Levinsohn, Yahoo’s chief for the Americas, are going about business as usual, working late hours to launch new services and courting Madison Avenue to sell more ads on Yahoo’s websites.

But many others in Yahoo’s ranks, which number close to 14,000, are considering other opportunities as morale declines at the company, according to interviews with more than a dozen current and former company employees and talent recruiters.”

So, is brain drain inevitable if your company isn’t growing, or is there something more to this than meets the eye?

They have to actually leave

Much of the article speculates about future turnover at Yahoo as they continue to stay flat. I’ll be the last person to call the Journal’s reporting and sourcing into question, but there is an undercurrent of reality that should be acknowledged.

Sometimes, people actually have to move on.

And this is the easiest time of year to acknowledge it. It’s the end of the year and one of the top New Year resolutions always is about getting a new job. If you aren’t in an ideal situation, it’s even easier to say.

Of course, making the change is tougher than saying you’ll make or consider a change. No matter the uncertainty faced at work, starting a new job (or even looking for one) can be the real challenge. I’ve talked with many folks who were planning a change in December and January only to see them in the same position a year later.

If that makes you breathe a sigh of relief, you should probably think again though.

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Well, maybe they don’t have to leave

Not to get on the engagement topic here but certainly turnover isn’t the only bad thing that can happen. When people leave mentally but stay and take up a seat in your organization, that’s bad as well. But at least they are still there, right? You could possibly convert them to an engaged employee?

I was reminded about that from a post on Ben Eubanks’ UpstartHR blog:

Sometimes people can’t be coaxed into enjoying their work. Sometimes people won’t love your company like you do. Sometimes “getting the job done” is the best you can hope for with some employees. And you either have to be okay with that, or you have to be prepared to replace them with someone who will be on fire about working with your company.

Some companies settle for a larger percentage of these types of “casual” employees, while others demand a higher commitment. Your job is to know which side your company settles on and help to recruit and select people who will align with that staffing arrangement.”

It is not only important to understand where your company is in the morale and engagement department, but to also know what your tolerance is for deadweight employees.

What to do?

Yahoo’s plight isn’t that unique and not every one of those companies are losing employees left and right. What are they doing right?

  1. Identifying the right new employees. If you’re hiring, even if they are only replacements for turned over staff, don’t make the mistake of hiring the same person who was unhappy with a low growth/no growth company. Instead, identify candidates who are excited about the challenges that the lack of rapid growth present.
  2. Make the best of what you have. Adding new, significant projects to either keep existing product lines moving forward or new projects in general is great if you can do it. My personal request is to avoid the office gimmicks that come along with this territory. Nobody is getting excited by free soda or video games.
  3. Open the communication lines. One of the good things from the WSJ article was the fact that interim CEO Morse was opening up his door and communicating more to his staff. That’s a good thing, and even if the news isn’t always positive, being open to talk about what’s important gives people confidence that they’ll know, good or bad, what’s happening.
  4. Keep pushing forward. You have to continue to make your place a good place to work, whether you’re growing, plateauing or declining. Not only to keep your current employees there and engaged but to also continue to be competitive when hiring employees.

What would your advice to Yahoo be?

Lance Haun is the practice director of strategy and insights for The Starr Conspiracy, where he focuses on researching and writing about work technology. He is also a former editor for ERE Media, broadly covering the world of human resources, recruiting, and sourcing. 
He has been featured as a work expert in publications like the Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, MSNBC, Fast Company, and other HR and business websites.
He's based in his Vancouver, Wash., home office with his wife and adorable daughter. You can reach him by email or find him off-topic on Twitter.