Does Your Staff Turnover Mean You Have A Toxic Culture?

Text by William Vanderbloemen

Have you noticed that turnover rates are rising? Have you seen people staying on your team with shorter and shorter tenures?  You’re not alone.

I’m seeing it too. But I’m slowly beginning to believe that turnover doesn’t always mean something is toxic in my company.

Why? Millennials.

I’m really bullish on this generation and what they mean for our workforce both now and in the years to come for a lot of reasons. But they are different. Or maybe I am different, since there are more of them than there are of me. Over 70% of the Vanderbloemen office is under 35, which makes me the minority. And the truth is, if you’re not a millennial, you’re outnumbered. They now dominate the US workforce.

 So it’s time to get used to their differences. One of those differences is their penchant for changing careers.

Not just jobs, but careers. I teach seminars on team culture quite a bit, and this is a topic that often comes up. Gone are the days of the 40-year run at a company ending with the gold watch. The brave new world we’re all facing is a world where you are almost certainly going to have someone walk into your office less than ten years into their successful sales role, and tell you they feel they need to leave for a new opportunity. Like being an independent artist. Or running a non-profit. Or to make their side hustle a full-time gig.

The first time someone came to me needing to leave, I’ll admit I felt a little bit of betrayal. Then I felt old and uncool. But those were probably my issues, not theirs. Then when it happened a couple more times, I began to wonder: “Do we have a turnover problem?” We’re fortunate to have a line out the door of people who want to join our cause, but does our turnover mean that we are a bad place to work? I studied turnover rates, read countless articles that consistently told me the message: “churn always means there is a culture problem.”

Meanwhile, we continued to win top company culture awards (which is a credit to the millennials on staff), as well as “best places to work” awards (also not due to me).

So what’s the difference between the data and my reality? Best I can figure, it’s a new generation. One that grew up with countless options for tv stations (and now, shows that are not even on tv stations but streamed on-demand from phones) and a whole lot of other factors that were built into them, which produced a new kind of workforce that tends to move around.

That left me wondering: How can I tell if turnover means toxicity? To be sure, I watch turnover like a hawk. If there is a steady stream of folks headed out the back door, it’s time to ask hard questions about me as a leader. But in thinking this through, I’ve come across one question to ask myself that’s even better than watching turnover rates. I stumbled across it, but it’s been leadership gold for me, and could be for you, too. Ask yourself, “How many of my former employees would be a positive reference for my company?”

When interviewing people who want to work here, I consistently find myself saying to the candidate:

“If you want to know whether or not we are a good place to work, let me give you a list of our former employees and their mobile numbers. Call them. They’ll tell you what’s what.”

With only a couple of exceptions, I would gladly share all of the names and numbers of those who have “left me.” Realizing that they would give a good review meant the world to me, and I think it’s a question every leader should be able to ask. It’s starting to happen informally through Glassdoor and other employer review sites. But what if companies made this a normalized part of their own processes?

The ultimate customer satisfaction test is the old line: “Would you recommend this product to a friend?”

What if we turned that question, and asked former (not just current) employees, “Would you recommend this workplace to a friend?” I think that in the coming years of millennial dominance, it could be a game changer.

I love my team. I want them to stay a long, long time. For starters, they’re really good. As a CEO, I want them to stay because longevity and retention is so much healthier (and affordable) than having to hire and onboard new team members. Selfishly, because I like working with them. And altruistically, I want to build a company where people like coming to work to do a job that leaves the world a better place.

I’m no longer paralyzed by turnover rates. I’m less haunted by fears of betrayal and getting old. I’m paying attention to what my former team members would say about our company. It’s got me sleeping better, and I believe I’m better poised to build a workplace that prevails in a brave new world.

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