Lack of opportunity for personal growth or career development is the number-one reason that employees leave a company. So what’s it like in your organization? Have you implemented growth into your employee retention strategies? Do your employees grow or go? According to a survey by Glassdoor and Harris Interactive, more applicants—52 percent—wanted to hear about growth opportunities when interviewing for a job than about any other perk. The same survey also found that one-third of employees left a job because of—wait for it—lack of career growth—than for any other reason. Only 8 percent left because of their managers.105
When professional growth opportunities are absent in an retention strategy, you get stagnation, boredom, and finally attrition. People work on autopilot. They aren’t present; their minds are not on their work. Errors happen. Quality drops. Indifference sets in. Work becomes routine. It may still get done—how many times have you driven a familiar route mindlessly, only to end up safely at your destination with no memory of getting there?—but nothing new happens. Innovation grinds to a halt.
We analyzed survey results from over twenty thousand employees who had left a large biomedical company and its subsidiaries during a period of five years. We compared attrition numbers with engagement scores, and the results were intriguing. Typically, employees enjoyed a high level of growth during the first six months of employment. However, at the nine-month mark, these companies experienced much higher than average levels of attrition, and engagement levels plummeted. What was happening?
Upon further investigation, we learned that during the first six months, these employees were constantly learning. This made sense; the job was new to them. However, at about the nine-month point, employees had learned the basics of the job and were no longer as challenged as they were during the first six months. At that point, their levels of engagement dropped sharply.
What was even more interesting was that once employees hit the fourteen-to eighteen-month mark, engagement and retention increased again until the two-year mark. What was happening at each of these points in time that impacted both engagement and retention? Simple—it was about growth. Employees were learning and growing the first six months, but at about the nine-month mark they stopped. They also had little concept of where to go from there. They couldn’t see any growth opportunities awaiting them. They felt stagnant. Those who stuck around for fourteen to eighteen months suddenly began to be presented with further growth opportunities, such as new assignments, promotions, and different team roles. They were, once again, growing. Engagement increased.
This pattern remained constant until the two-year mark, at which time employees began looking outside the organization for new opportunities and challenges. Some of those who remained fell into the same patterns of stagnation and disengagement.
For these companies, the solution was clear: Step up efforts to create growth opportunities at the nine-and twenty-four-month marks. Employees, in turn, had to choose to take advantage of these opportunities. Those who did showed clear levels of engagement. Those who did not generally left the organization. That, reasoned these companies, was “good turnover.”
Among some organizational leaders—executives and managers alike—there’s a great deal of fear that by helping employees develop professionally, they’ll only be preparing them to leave for greener pastures. It’s the “help them grow and watch them go” syndrome, and it’s simply not valid. As Beverly Kaye and Julie Winkle Giulioni write in Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go,106 career development has become the “killer app” of employee engagement, which in turn leads to higher revenues, greater profitability, increased innovation, and a host of other happy outcomes.
Giving employees an environment where they can elect to develop professionally is very much the lesser of two evils. Is there a risk that by doing so you’ll merely train your best people to leave for better jobs? Of course. But consider the alternative. Would you rather have unmotivated, unskilled people, numbed by routine, at the heart of your company, interacting with your customers?
Doesn’t it make more sense to help your people develop skills that make them worth keeping—and then hold on to them by creating a culture in which they have the autonomy, respect, and freedom to see how far they can stretch without fear of failing? Based on our research, it’s not even a choice: While some growth-minded employees leave, most engage and stick around, and the organization benefits.
A growth-positive workplace is especially important to Millennials, who will form the next-generation workforce. A 2012 survey of nearly eight thousand college students conducted by Achievers and Experience, Inc., showed that the most important factor to them in choosing a place to work was career advancement opportunities, beating salary 54 percent to 51 percent. Also, “interesting and challenging work” tied with salary, 51–51, as the most important factor.107
Clearly, while pay and other hygiene factors need to be there, employees want growth and development not only to advance their future career prospects but also because it makes work more enjoyable and rewarding. Human beings are curious individuals who want to learn, adapt, and evolve; the circumstances don’t matter as much.
Even hourly employees want to be challenged and grow through their jobs. In a 2012 study of 2,743 employees in an international manufacturing company, our team found significant differences between the attitudes, beliefs, and values of hourly versus exempt employees. For example, only 51 percent of hourly employees felt that they had a voice in the organization and could speak up without fear of retribution or negative consequences, compared to nearly 70 percent of exempt employees. Only 39 percent of hourly employees reported receiving counseling in their careers, compared to 54 percent of exempt employees. Yet consider how important the role of the typical hourly employee is to a company’s well-being:
- Hourly employees often represent the majority of customer-facing roles.
- They are directly involved in production.
- They directly impact quality.
- They are advocates of safety.
- They know where the problems are, and how to resolve them.
When was the last time a manager in your organization worried about training an hourly employee so well that he became too employable to stay? Yet by denying growth opportunities to all workers because of this irrational fear, some managers are preventing some of their most valuable people from getting better at their jobs. It doesn’t make sense.
These days, we’ve noticed a trend we call the “tour of duty.” A person comes to an organization, finds tremendous opportunities for professional and personal development, becomes more valuable, and leaves. However, because management encouraged his growth and gave him what he needed to get better, the relationship remains strong. A few years later, he comes back for a second tour, occupying a higher rung on the corporate ladder and often bringing with him an even better skill set.
That’s why the “grow and go” mentality is self-defeating. In the end, growth leads to engagement, and employees who find deep, satisfying engagement in an organization are more likely to form mutually beneficial long-term relationships with that organization . . . even if they’re working somewhere else.
105 Glassdoor, Harris Interactive, “The Age of Social Recruiting.”
106 Beverly Kaye and Julie Winkle Giulioni, Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go:Career Conversations Employees Want (New York: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2012).
107 Jacquelyn Smith, “What Employers Need to Know About the Class of 2012,” Forbes, April 3, 2012.