Quitters May Be Your Most Valued Resource

209365 - What Goes Around... by Adam Wyles (=)
209365 – What Goes Around… Photo courtesy of Adam Wyles.
Do you ever get that strange feeling when someone leaves your workplace that the work friendship is finished?  It’s an odd feeling, but you need to get past it.  That’s because the relationship continues to be  important even when your former colleague is working elsewhere.

“Boomerang employees” are people who have left a workplace and then come back.  Boomerangs are an emerging trend because people are changing jobs more frequently.  It’s posing new challenges in the way we think about work.  Several of the major insights about boomerangs are reviewed in a study from September 2015, from the Workforce Institute at Kronos Incorporated and WorkplaceTrends.com.

In brief, employers are developing more mature opinions.

“Based on survey results, nearly half of HR professionals claim their organization previously had a policy against rehiring former employees – even if the employee left in good standing – but 76 percent say they are more accepting of hiring boomerang employees today than in the past. Managers agree, as nearly two-thirds said they are more accepting of hiring back former colleagues.”

A majority of managers and HR professionals give high priority to job applicants who had left in good standing.  The warm feelings go both ways, with nearly 40 percent of employees seriously considering going back to a former employer.

Brendan Browne, VP of global talent acquisition at LinkedIn, notes in an article in Business Insider that “…jumping between jobs doesn’t mean that employees today are less loyal. Rather, the concept of loyalty has simply evolved. Employees might move around more, but they also remain much more connected to former employers.”

Getting The Best Out Of Boomerang Employees

What about the nitty gritty about how we would go about this?  First, there is the business case for favoring a returning employee.  According to Browne, Boomerangs are;

already familiar with… [the organization’s] culture. There is an established employee-employer relationship that adds another layer of employee loyalty to the company, which in turn leads to increased retention. Boomerangs that have been away for a few years also have direct business value, as they bring with them new experiences, connections, points-of-view, and even potential customers.” (Emphasis added)

Molly Moseley in a blog post adds that “…you know their skills firsthand — strengths and weaknesses — so there shouldn’t be any big surprises.”  That assumes that the employer has a fresh memory or has kept the good records about the employee’s history.

There can be pitfalls, for sure.  Moseley asserts that employers must answer one question “Why did they leave in the first place?  …You must have this conversation, get a clear answer and ensure all parties have agreed on the resolution. Did they leave for higher pay, a promotion, shorter commute, better benefits? Whatever it is, are you able to amend that problem?”

Kevin Mason in an article in TLNT echoes this sentiment about knowing their reasons for quitting.  Mason also identifies a double-edged sword of employee morale.  If people were sad to see this employee leave in the first place, there can be a boost in morale when they return.  However, it’s also possible that people were happy to see them go, and their return can be bad for morale.  Mason says “It’s critical to get the pulse of your key players before bringing an employee back.”

Fostering Employee Engagement With Former Employees

How do you go about actively recruiting boomerang employees?  Browne makes a comparison to alumni engagement efforts with college and university students:

“While the idea of keeping alumni invested used to be confined to academia, it’s now a growing trend in the workforce. LinkedIn’s alumni program started out as a LinkedIn group that a few alumni employees created on their own in 2014. Today, our in-house alumni network has more than 3,300 members, which includes both current employees and alumni. That way, alumni can build relationships and feel like they are still part of the company.”

It’s notable that of all the social media button-click things we can do to cultivate this talent pool, the key concern is the underlying shift in workplace culture and opinions about employee engagement.

Joyce Maroney from the Workforce Institute says that “it’s more important than ever for organizations to create a culture that engages employees – even long after they’re gone.”  It’s the ultimate de-silo-ing of the people under your span of control.  You’re not just responsible for engaging those outside your own reporting relationship; you also need to engage those who have left the organization entirely.

This idea that a career is a series of adventures maps easily to Millennials.  Millennials change jobs more quickly (because they are younger) and are therefore more likely to be boomerang hires, according to Dan Schawbel of WorkplaceTrends.com.  And let’s not forget that if you’re a socially responsible leader, you’ll take an interest in mentoring these people regardless of whether it’s right for the corporate bottom line.  There is an onus on good managers to also be good people.

In the employee’s eye, former employers take on the status of old friends, places they have visited, and books they have enjoyed that they still keep on the shelf.  Wouldn’t it be great if we could all just stay connected, live a varied life, and seek meaningful work in which we’re encouraged to grow?  Employers will need to find people who want to put in the extra effort to cultivate this dynamic environment?  How about you?  Do you want to help build this kind of workplace?

Forget About Strategy. Reality is a Mosh Pit

CROWD S U R F E R. By Keami Hepburn
CROWD S U R F E R. Photo courtesy of Keami Hepburn.

Strategy is not superior to tactics.  At best, strategy and tactics can be integrated as equals.  In this day and age it is looking increasingly unlikely that a senior leader will come up with one brilliant idea from the top of the organization and cascade it downward through the chain of command.  Rather, we live in a world where ground-level employees determine business success; information is diffused through friends and cube-mates; and the best ideas move diagonally through the organization’s subject-matter experts with minimal regard for the org chart.

A classic example of the disputed importance of strategy is the difference between Workforce Analytics and Strategic Workforce Planning.  I routinely use Workforce Analytics to help a variety of managers and professionals adapt to an unpredictable array of questions.  Workforce Analytics has a kind of “older sister” business practice called Strategic Workforce Planning which has been around for a little longer.  Strategic Workforce Planning is the practice of using analytics in the formal process or organizational re-design.  The re-design is intended to align human resources to internal and external context, a forecast about the future, and organizational strategy.  It makes perfect sense on paper.

In my opinion, there are three major frustrations with strategic alignment.  First, it makes a presumption that organizational strategy in your organization is in its prime.  If your org strategy is in its final approval stage or a complete re-write of that strategy is about to begin, then alignment to that strategy is a dubious effort.  Second, if any of the organization’s major leaders are in transition (both incoming and outgoing) their personal enthusiasm for the formal strategy could be in play.  To some extent, strategy is a debate amongst executives, and that debate can shift as the players are in flux.

Third, forecasting is a moving target.  In the middle of the Strategic Workforce Planning process there is an attempt to identify a future state and assess scenarios where a different staff composition would prepare the organization for that future.  However, society is changing so quickly and in so many ways that speculation about any likely future state has the shelf life of about a month.  Try writing down your predictions about the future on a piece of paper and then come back to it in 30 days.  With the passage of time you will either be humbled, or you will assert that it’s been doctored and you couldn’t have written something so clueless.  As such, alignment to strategy is brief, making the overall process less tangible and less relevant.

A good example of the struggles of strategic alignment is Uber.  Uber appears to have been built around a culture of rules-breaking on taxi licensing, grey-ethics exploitation of private information about a customer’s physical location, and a backroom culture of dot-com, locker-talk bravado.  With just a little bit of blowback from the public, Uber has been obliged to change senior leaders and reverse elements of the very organizational culture that made it great.  Good luck identifying what their sector will look like in two months, what this week’s executive team is going to do about it, and calibrating staff accordingly.  They might be fine in the near future, but we won’t really know until after the fact.

Consider by contrast an impactful tactical change which adapts to emerging evidence.  There is evidence that an equitable and inclusive work environment fosters better commitment and idea sharing.  There is evidence that workplace incivility has a dramatic impact on general productivity.  There is evidence that customer engagement is hyper-sensitive to employee engagement.  It is possible to develop a supposition that millennials are quitting at a higher rate, only to discover evidence that this is more nuanced and is really about career advancement at all ages.  These insights can have a dramatic impact on an organization’s opinion about what their core function should be, how managers should treat employees, and what kinds of employees and managers you should be hiring or promoting.

Then you would need to double-down and anticipate that even more disruptive evidence will continue to arrive at an even faster rate.  And if you did not adapt in this manner, you can bank on the fact that this adaptation is happening at rival organizations.  This brings us back to the possibility of even more leadership change and yet another re-vamp of organizational strategy.

If you are a manager, a human resource leader, or an analyst you might need to abandon all delusions that you can chart a clear path.  Rather, you are in the mosh pit of life, and your prime directive is to keep moving and not get hurt.  Keep your tempo, have fun, and follow the mood.  You cannot simply obey the directives of those with money or rank.  You must arrive at work fresh and rested, and play hard.  Every day.

Service With a Smile

GS Cashier. By Derek A.
GS Cashier. Photo courtesy of Derek A.

What’s with all this bold talk from millennials?  Don’t they know to keep hush about their outlandish opinions?  In a recent article from Lisa Earle McLeod the author submits an open letter (closer to a manifesto) that explains why millennials have the opinions they have.

She has two key points.  First, employers are tolerating poor performers, and those poor performers drag everyone else down, including highly-motivated millennials.  It’s not so much that millennials are unreasonably ambitious and over-eager, it is that their enthusiasm is the correct attitude and lower-functioning colleagues should not be setting the pace.  Fair ball.

Secondly, we must give our work purpose.  Organizations that have “a purpose bigger than money” have better business results.  This purpose-driven organization is reminiscent of Simon Sinek’s Power of Why although McLeod’s critique is closer to a sense of Noble Purpose amongst the sales team, a major concern of hers.

This focus on enthusiastic front-line staff is consistent with other critiques.  Josh Bersin notes that many organizations are flipping their hierarchy to place priority on engaged employees first, who then attract and retain customers who, in turn, keep the profits alive.  If it works, go for it.

Millennials Saying Aloud What Others Are Thinking

laughs. Courtesy of Marc Kjerland
laughs.  Courtesy of Marc Kjerland.

The real reasons millennials are described as different is that people are jealous of their courage and freedom.  I can prove it.

There is an interesting report available online at the University of British Columbia (UBC).  In their 2014-15 Benchmark Report to the Board of Governors, UBC Human Resources developed insights about staff turnover that were new at the time.  In particular, they identified that staff turnover was mostly about career advancement.

One of the things this report straightens-out is turnover amongst new people and young people.  The challenge is that there is a large overlap.  A lot of the new employee are young, and vice versa.  To untangle these two populations the report shows a simple 2×2 diagram with subtotals and labels on the outside edge of the grid.  The results on pages 8-9 of the report look like this:

1-3 Years in Job 4+ Years in Job Total (All Lengths of Service)

Age 34 & Under




Age 35 & Over




Total (All Ages)

9.7% 4.1%


It takes a minute to get used to it, so look at it carefully.  Look at the (vertical) columns for years of service, and compare the percentages side-by-side between the 1-3 Years and 4+ Years length of service categories.  For younger staff (the top row) there’s only a 2% spread by years of service, and for older staff (one row down) the spread is 3%.  The total at the bottom shows that new staff quit at a rate that is 5.6% higher for all ages combined.  But that difference is skewed by a large number of younger-and-newer people in the upper-left corner.  When we look at it carefully, there is a very small difference in turnover according to length of service.

Then look horizontally at the rows.  Those age 34 and under have a quit rate of 13.5% in total, and in this case the number is relatively similar by years of service (13.8% for new people and 11.8% for those with longer service).  One row down, you see that those age 35 and over have a quit rate of 4.4% in total, and once again it’s relatively similar by age category.

This means the important information is the totals by age category.  Those aged 35 and over have a turnover rate of 4.4%, while those who are younger have a turnover rate of 13.5%, nine percentage points higher.  Simply put, younger people have a high quit rate.  This phenomenon is not unique to UBC, as the external benchmark provider had similar findings.

Why are young people quitting?  The report looks to three additional data sources and finds that young people largely resign from their jobs for reasons of career advancement.

However, it’s not entirely accurate to say that young people resign because of career advancement.  The problem is that everyone is concerned about career advancement, and it is a major workplace frustration.  What makes those under 35 different is that they are getting frustrated about career advancement and then quitting.  Think about the different home lives of those over the age of 35.  There are things that keep older people in place.  There is home ownership, mortgage payments, the obligation to support kids, spouses who have a job in the same city, and the commitment to their current profession.

It turns out that millennials did not have career expectations that were different from that of others.  They were just more likely to express their opinions in a display of freedom.  Millennials are the gregarious friend at the pub who says out loud what everyone else is thinking.  You can’t really scold them when you’re jealous they have the guts to tell it like it is.

To top it all off, Generation X and Baby Boomers behaved in a similar manner similar when they were that age.  A project by a small team of statistics students identified that it’s a person’s age and not their generation that drives turnover behavior.  As Neil Young puts it, “old man take a look at my life, I’m a lot like you.”

Millennials: a Shiny Face on All Behaviour

Untitled Photo Courtesy of Bina. (=)
Untitled photo courtesy of Bina.

How much can we talk about people without talking about people data?  Not very much, it appears.  Those dealing with employees of all types must know more about their hearts and souls than ever before.  And if you make one false move with a data point, your most brilliant philosophical insights can be taken sideways.

In December 2016, author Simon Sinek was interviewed on Inside Quest on the topic of Millennials.  I am a big fan of Sinek, having changed my approach to work based on his influential TED talk on how to Start With Why. The Inside Quest interview (20 minutes long) is also great because it covers many key topics.

Sinek posted a follow-up video days later to clarify much of what he had to say.  There was a dramatic change in body language.  In the first video he seemed calm and knowledgeable.  However, in the follow-up video (from what appears to be his dining-room) he is a little sheepish, making clarifications, imploring people to keep the conversation alive with constructive criticism.  The first interview had gone a tad viral and he got a lot of feedback.

During the Inside Quest interview he made piercing social criticism and attributed a lot of what was happening in society to the experience and context of millennials.  In what should be described as “a good problem to have,” he understated the importance of his critique.  You see, the things he said were true for many of us regardless of generation.

His critique?  We must learn to wait.  We must put time and years into our greatest accomplishments.  We are lonely because we are embarrassed to talk about our disappointments and frustrations.  We need to talk through our difficulties.  We must aspire to engage in sincere conversations.  We must help others.  Look up from your phone and be human.

In my opinion these are all massive issues for workplace culture.  Managers are struggling to learn how to compel their staff to work hard without being coercive or demeaning.  Everyone who takes benefits costs seriously is now hyper-sensitive to whether employees can talk openly about mental health and wellbeing.  Executives worried about people quitting are stumbling onto growing evidence that people want to thrive and grow.  And still, the dream persists that we can all succeed.

I think that these topics entered the mainstream concurrent with the rise of the millennial workforce, not necessarily because of them.  The analytics that identify turnover trends happened largely because of emerging technology; the de-stigmatization of mental illness was popularized by baby-boomer medical professionals; smart phones have been improving for decades; and teachers have been pushing anti-bullying efforts for some time.  These things came sharply into focus when millennials first started to speak their minds in the workplace.

Based on his dining-room talk, it appears that Sinek’s feedback came from many non-millennials who want in on the broader discussion.  This is important from a social perspective.  But the social perspective is the flip-side of a data issue.  That is because he got tripped up by a data-labelling error.  You see, he casually referred to millennials has having been born approximately 1984 and after.  He didn’t specify a 20-year generational cohort.  He left it open-ended, like there was an unlimited supply of this generation being born every day.  This is problematic because we need good definitions to determine if there are clear differences between clear categories.  If the definition is muddy, then the identification of differences will be muddy as well.

I have had the pleasure of working with clearly defined data where I described millennials as those born from 1976 to 1995.  By getting specific about date of birth, you will find that each year you look at the data the findings can shift.  Age and generation are not the same things, and if you look at the two separately you might find, for example, that millennials as a generation do not have different quit rates.  Or you might find that concerns about career advancement are widespread (more on that in a future post).

For me this is an excellent example of how workplace analytics and workplace culture are never that far from one another.  To love humans is to wish the very best for them and their data.

Barbie Provokes Equality (By Accident)

Teen Talk Barbie 1991, Attributed to Freddycat1
Teen Talk Barbie 1991.  Courtesy of Freddycat1.

It’s important in the modern workplace to know that there used to be a pervasive stereotype that women were bad at math.  It’s relevant to all of us trying to advance math in human resources.  We have the dual obstacle of getting good math across to clients, while also getting past unfair judgments directed at women who have perfectly good numbers in their hands.

This is a brief inter-generational memo which will be perceived differently depending on when you were born.  In 1992, Mattel produced the toy Teen Talk Barbie.  Amongst the 270 possible phrases the dolls would utter, 1.5% of dolls would say the phrase “Math class is tough.”

The doll was decried by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics for discouraging women from studying math and science.  It was also referenced when the American Association of University Women criticized the relatively poor education that women were getting in math.  Mattel apologized for the mistake and announced that new dolls would not utter the phrase, and anyone who owned such a doll would be offered an exchange.

I don’t know the full history of women in math, but I do know enough to assert that Teen Talk Barbie was a critical incident.  Mattel did us all a favor by screwing up in exactly the right way, obliging many people to snap out of it, encouraging more women to become great at math, and doubling our talent pool of qualified applicants for math-intensive positions.

What fascinates me the most about this incident, is that people born after 1980 show no outward assumptions that women are bad at math.  For those of us who grew up with this assumption, we were repeatedly corrected that the stereotype was wrong, often by living-out an experience where women excelled.  The younger half of the workforce appears to be advancing their careers in blissful ignorance of this archaic stereotype.

The historic stereotype is important within human resources.  Human resources has historically been bad at math and is also a field with a large representation of women.  Quantitative work is becoming increasingly important within human resources, and human resources is obliged to influence business peers who take math very seriously.  As human resources becomes more sophisticated and makes its way to the big-kids table of decision makers, women who are good at math will speak their minds… as did Teen Talk Barbie.  Shortly after the debacle, the Barbie Liberation Organization swapped voice boxes between the Barbies and talking G.I. Joe action figures.  The liberated Barbies had access to the phrases “Eat lead, Cobra!” and “Vengeance is mine!”