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Employee Retention Trouble? Get a Handle on Why People are Leaving the Organization

Updated: Jan 29, 2023

To get a handle on employee attrition, keep an eye on data to spot trends and then use that data to take a deeper dive to determine why.

It's a small office, and they can't afford to lose one more Customer Care Specialist. The client calls about late deliverables started this week, Home Office has been ringing more frequently and the Office Manager has been ducking out for quite a few more breaks. His eyes are getting that edgy, harried look. You've watched the attrition numbers for the office tick up in the last few months. Your task list is full to overflowing, but you realize you can't put off addressing the retention issues for this particular office any further. Lost business is a growing risk and you don’t see the manager reaching out to see what he can do to arrest the situation.

Man looking troubled
Image by Nicola Barts c/o Pexels

Familiar scenario? We're reading about it a lot these days - The Great Resignation. We're also experiencing it in our own organizations and teams. As we see employees engage the workplace differently and employment demand changing, we each have opportunities to address retention and employee engagement.

This article aims to help you get a handle on why employees are leaving the organization. We'll discuss two aspects: 1) the data you should be keeping an eye on and 2) options to take a deeper dive as you note data trends and need to get a better understanding of what is underlying the trends.

Employee Retention Metrics

Let's begin with data.

What data do you typically assess when you're identifying retention trends? I typically keep my eye on voluntary attrition first - those are the folks who are making a choice to leave the organization. Involuntary attrition can be important, too. Those are employees who were separated for a specific reason. You may see trends here, too. Maybe employees were let go for attitude. Maybe you've got leadership issues.

I like to see all attrition data and take a look at where we are losing employees both voluntarily and involuntarily. But my first questions will be around voluntary attrition.

Side note, I am not an analytical being. Numbers do not speak magic to me like they do to some of you. I envy you. My analysis recommendations will be simple, because, well… I like to keep things simple. And while I'm not an analytical thinker, quantitative data is important and those of us who'd rather not deal in numbers need to be able to use people data effectively when assessing employee issues like attrition. My data recommendations here will be simple. Should you be a people data pro - props to ya. Don't forget to dig in to see why the numbers are telling you what they are.

Measure Voluntary Attrition First

If you don't have sophisticated analytics available, keep it simple. The number of voluntary departures to the employee count is a good first pass. It's easy to get overwhelmed with the data or struggle with the quality of data you may have. Go with what you have. Take a look at the departures to employee count over a period of time - three years is a good span for comparison purposes. Or again, keep it simple and compare a point in time this year to a point in time last year.

If you can slice up the data by team or function within a department or organization, excellent. Do that. See if you can pinpoint attrition spikes. This is where you will begin to see trends that will help you with the second step in assessing why employees are leaving.

Access to more sophisticated people analytics will allow you additional options as you look for trends. Consider assessing attrition by these metrics:

  • Start date

  • Tenure

  • Age

  • Gender

  • Ethnicity

  • Leader

  • Business group

  • Talent profile


Don't assess all data points the first time. It's a lot to digest. Try this:

  1. Look at the data for the team or function who is losing the most employees, year to year.

  2. Sort the data by start date to see if there's significant loss of employees in their first year.

  3. Then sort the data by tenure, or years of employment, to see if there's a segment of the population who is leading the attrition charge.

  4. Finally, sort by ethnicity. Look for trends within ethnic populations.

You should be detecting trends with these four data sorts.

Spend some time in the data. You're not going to answer why questions with data sorts, but it will give you a direction to pursue once you are ready to take a deeper dive.

Digging into Employee Attrition Trends

You've got data on your clipboard and you're ready to dig in. Let's get a handle on what's happening so that you can do something about it.

The first place I recommend stopping on your attrition journey are other people data metrics you may have access to, such as engagement scores and exit surveys. This type of data is easiest to collect and compare to the trends you've noted. What we'll be building as we dig is a layered view that should help us pinpoint where we need to focus retention efforts.

You've got several options to build those layers, all of which can be done remotely, but there's nothing like making a visit to see what you can learn first-hand.

Make an In-Person Visit

The next step I recommend is getting out to the office, site, team environment. Spend time with the leader and leadership team. Have lunch in the break room. Observe, listen and make small talk with employees. Post "HR" or "Talent" office hours - whatever works for your culture and site.

Additional Data Collection Ideas

Once you have some first-hand data, build in a few additional layers. What about:

  • Brief spot surveys or targeted engagement surveys for the audience in particular?

  • Interviewing new employees to get their feedback? Everyone appreciates coffee or lunch with the Talent or HR SME.

  • Conducting focus groups? I've hosted Stop, Start, Continue sessions that provided a constructive way for employees to share feedback without pointing fingers or getting emotional.

  • Interviews with specific managers and employees? At some point you're going to need to talk with and coach the manager of the group directly - if what you're finding is from a specific team. If the trends are broader, ask for brief interviews with a variety of managers and employees across the department.

I'm sure you can come up with other data collection techniques that you've used and would work well in your environment. Great. Do what works to get to the heart of the trend.

Build the Employee Retention Story

At this point, you should be forming a picture of what's causing the departures. Oftentimes, it's not one thing. Common causes that I've found throughout the years is a combination of leadership needs, lack of career development or opportunity and work environment.

Your task now is to articulate why employees are leaving the organization in a format that is appropriate for your organization. Showcase the attrition data you've gathered and supplement with your engagement input or the other people data you've collected. Synthesize what you found from interviews, focus groups and in-person visits as qualitative, directional support. Utilizing a combination of quantitative data and qualitative input create a balanced picture of the situation.

Now that you've pinpointed why employees are leaving the organization, you'll want to build a strategy to close the gap. That's a topic for the next article. Sign-up below and I'll ping you when it's ready.


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