How to Get Employees to Talk Before They Decide to Walk

It’s human behavior to want to move away from things that are not working or are starting to feel tough, or just too hard, because sometimes walking away seems like the easiest choice.

It’s true in life in general, and particularly true in the job market.

Positive shifts in the economy in most countries have naturally led to more role choices for talented people. They have options, and if a role or organization that is not delivering to expectations, it’s natural to explore other options.

Knowing an employee is looking BEFORE they quit

Starting fresh often feels like an attractive proposition if you can’t see a way forward in your current organization, if it feels like your career has stalled, or promises made have not been met.

Quite often, the last person to hear about someone’s intention to explore other options is their manager.

We all know the way it normally plays out — dissatisfaction leads to the outpouring of frustration to friends and family, then the decision to visit a recruitment agent, tidying up your LinkedIn profile, then the secret interviews.

As a manager it’s often near to impossible at this point to negotiate a positive way forward at work. If someone has gone to such lengths to explore other options, they probably have already emotionally and mentally “checked out” and readied themselves to move on.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article on this subject — Encourage Your Employees to Talk About Other Job Offers — the authors put forward a refreshing perspective on the topic. In particular, they get into concept of “Right of First Conversation,” coined from the more popular clause found in many employment agreements — the “Right of First Refusal.”

Taking the Right of First Conversation approach

Essentially the Right of First Conversation is a mutual agreement that if an employee is thinking about seriously exploring other career options, they commit to talking with their current manager first so that the organization has the chance to define a more appealing role.

It’s not about playing companies and roles off against each other, or creating tension, but an upfront and honest conversation and opportunity to see if and how the current role and career path can be moulded and shaped to better suit. Both parties are committing to seeing if there is a chance to find a fit, but they equally understand that if there isn’t, the relationship can end amicably.

The HBR article reminds us that this new way of working requires a high level of trust. Managers need to be able to say “We don’t fire people here for talking honestly about their career goals,” and truly mean it.

It’s then about looking for a solution to suit all parties, not about egos, power games, counter offers and sudden resignations. It’s about honest and frank conversations about career satisfaction and role shaping. Constructive solutions or amicable partings, both lead to a better way forward for both parties.

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I’ll be honest: This is a pretty large shift from how the traditional employment uncoupling takes place, and it requires a high level of skill and maturity on both parts. However it also requires something else: A very clear understanding of what the employee does want from their role and career path.

Getting clarity on what is important

Often people are unhappy or frustrated and choose to leave, but they can’t necessarily articulate clearly and with conviction what they really do want. They just feel a need to move away from something that is not working.

Being able to get clarity on the things that are important to the employee, and how their current role needs to shift to meet these needs, gives managers something to work with. Then, managers have the ability to “job shape” to better fit the worker, and lows them to talk about projects or temporary assignments that might work.

In other words, a feeling of employee dissatisfaction needs to be translated into a tangible list of what needs to change, and what actions need to be taken. What talents are not being used? What values are not being met? What career goals are feeling stifled?

The manager-as-career-coach relationship sets managers up to be able to have these critical conversations, tweak the role, and find a way forward that works.

Managing critical conversations

This all has to start with a high level of trust between managers and their people, and relies on managers having the skill to manage these critical career conversations.

How does your organization stack up?

Note: Best in class organizations train and support managers to have practical career conversations. See this Fuel50 whitepaper for more on this topic.

Debbie Schultz is Head of Client Partnership for the Fuel50 Career Engagement Group, where she partners with corporate clients to ensure the successful implementation and management of Fuel50 Career Pathing Software. She enjoys building powerful OD Strategies to support strategic objectives and create exciting ROI stories for her clients which have included CitiGroup, CocaCola Amatil and Westpac Group among many others.

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