Are you driving your best people away?

Towards the end of 2009, John Changamire (not his real name), an acquaintance of mine, received a job offer from a prestigious manufacturing company in Harare.

He was thrilled by the challenge. He had heard a lot about the company from the media and from people who formerly worked there. The package was great.

He quickly signed the contract of employment. The company had all the right systems and policies in place, a spanking new office and the latest technology.

Twice, Changamire was sent to Europe for training. Ten months after his appointment, Changamire quit the job. Why, I asked him. This is what he had to say:

“My immediate boss was a total psychopath and I left because of her lying, spiteful, b****y, treacherous ways! Top management knew she was a problem, but did nothing about it.

“In the short period that I was there, she fired numerous people by lying about their performance, productivity, everything. She was abrupt and rude to all the people under her supervision.

All manner of insults flew out of her lips, spoiling your day. I’m surprised she didn’t have horns. We had a staff of six turn over two times and leave the company because of her.

In spite of the fact that I have moved on, I still despise that woman with a passion and always hope to hear that the b***h is miserable, maimed or dead.

Life is too short for this kind behaviour in the workplace. I have never had someone cause me so much pain, turmoil and injustice in my life!”

The legendary Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric once said that much of a company’s value lies “between the ears of its employees”. How many times have you heard managers proclaiming that “employees are our most important asset?”

Unfortunately, they do not walk the talk. While it is true that people leave jobs for all kinds of reasons, many who do so would have stayed had it not been for the one person who keeps reminding them that they are dispensable.

What these managers forget is that workers are free agents. Rather than withstand daily humiliation and torture, they will quit and offer their services elsewhere, including your competitors.

Managers can stress out employees in diverse ways. Dr Robert Sutton of Stanford University describes these managers as “jerks”. A jerk in the workplace is someone who oppresses, humiliates, de-energises or belittles his or her subordinates.

They are self-centred, stubborn, overly demanding, impulsive, helpless, paranoid and erratic. Their dirty tactics include personal insults, unwelcome personal contact, threats, intimidation, sarcastic jokes and teasing.

If you work for a jerk, you are in trouble. Such bosses drive good people out of the organisation. That is the reason why organisations like Google have a “no jerk” policy.

The most insightful study into this subject is probably the one done by Gallup. The study surveyed over a million employees and 80 000 managers. Findings were published in a book called First Break All The Rules.

The authors, Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, concluded: “People leave managers, not companies. So much money has been thrown at the challenge of keeping good people — in the form of better pay, better perks and better training — when, in the end, turnover is mostly manager issue.”

Some years ago, a Fortune magazine survey found out that nearly 75% of employees have suffered at the hands of difficult superiors.

This is corroborated by research elsewhere which confirms that of all the workplace stressors, a bad boss is possibly the worst, directly impacting the emotional health and productivity of employees.

An article in the Boston Globe, citing a number of research studies on leadership style and the health of employees concluded that your boss can cause you stress, induce depression and anxiety or even trigger the onset of serious illnesses.

The cost is huge in terms of lost productivity, healthcare costs and employee turnover. This is corroborated by Swedish researchers, led by Anna Nyberg at the Stress Institute of Stockholm.

Writing in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine on the issue of leaders’ behaviour and employee health, Nyberg notes: “ . . . for all those who work under managers who they perceive behave strangely, or in any way they don’t understand, and they feel stressed, the study confirms this develops into a health risk”.

Frankly speaking, it is relatively rare for people to leave jobs in which they are happy, even when offered higher pay elsewhere.

Yes, you could be losing good people because of the proverbial greener pastures elsewhere, but the majority of contemporary research finds that people leave for one major reason — their supervisor or team leader!

Employee departures can cost you a fortune. Research suggests that direct replacement costs can reach as high as 50-60% of an employee’s annual salary. There are numerous other indirect costs. Moreso, every person who leaves your organisation becomes its ambassador, for better or for worse.

What should companies do to stop their managers bleeding talent? A deep introspection is required.

The best approach would be to make line managers accountable for staff turnover in their teams. Reward those managers whose record at keeping people is good by including the subject in their scorecard.

Line managers need to be trained in people management skills before appointing or promoting them. In many companies, managers are appointed into their positions with little or no understanding of how to manage people.

It is also important to study absenteeism statistics, grievance cases, sick leave rates and so on as these could be symptomatic of a deep-seated problem in a particular department. Organisations cannot afford poor management behaviour.

It chases their good people away. It is too risky in today’s ultra-competitive business environment.
While some staff turnover per se is not a bad thing for the organisation, it is more often than not talented people who leave and poor performers stay behind. With dead wood, an organisation is assured of stagnation.

Isaac Mazanhi is a labour analyst writing in a personal capacity.

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