The Hidden Toll of Employee Attrition

Previously I covered the monetary cost of replacing an employee. However, termination or resignation of a team member has additional costs. The toll of attrition on the departing employee's coworkers can be significant. Beyond that monetary cost, your team may experience decreased morale, lower confidence in leadership, a temporarily increased workload, and other negative effects. Ultimately, losing a team member will likely decrease the job satisfaction of the rest of the team. Let's explore some of the negative effects of attrition and how to minimize them.

Team morale can nosedive

Gallup research indicates that having a best friend at work can be one of the most impactful factors in employees believing their company is a great place to work. Imagine experiencing the departure of a close friend. Suddenly your routine drastically changes. Lunch plans, impromptu conversations, who you collaborate with, and who you commiserate with all change overnight. Even if the departing employee is not your closest friend, their empty workspace changes your team's dynamic. It takes time to adjust; in the short term, the team won't feel the same.

Confidence in leadership may decrease

Depending on the terms of the employee's departure, your other employees may believe company leadership did something improper. Their assertions might range from: not treating the departing employee fairly; providing inadequate support for them to do their job; failing to offer competitive compensation; or failing to provide meaningful work. Certainly, employees can leave on good terms. However, the methods the departing employee, you, and your leadership team use to convey the circumstances of their departure will impact how company leadership is perceived by the rest of the team. If you don't have a narrative—or the narrative conflicts with that of the departing employee—the team's confidence in your leadership will decrease.

Team members have more work to do

While the emotional toll of losing a coworker is significant, so is their workload. Remaining team members will likely have to cover for whatever work was being performed by the departing employee. Until a replacement can be found they may end up working longer hours and feeling more stressed in their work. Unfortunately, finding a replacement also takes additional time and effort from your team. Though it may be a temporary problem, the increased workload may result in poorer work quality or increased frustration in team members.

Impact on job satisfaction and engagement

For the above reasons, you may notice a decrease in job satisfaction and employee engagement. The decreased morale, lowered confidence in company leadership, and extra work will tend to frustrate or disappoint team members. Job satisfaction has a significant impact on employee engagement, which means you're not going to get the best from your team members. Left unchecked—unless you act to correct these issues—this can cause the attrition-dissatisfaction-disengagement cycle to repeat. Other team members may become so dissatisfied with their altered environment and working conditions that they also resign. Alternatively, you may become dissatisfied with their work—perhaps not recognizing the root cause of employees' decreased performance—and fire additional team members. A lack of awareness on the part of the employees and the employer can create a painful cycle of lowered company performance and retention problems.

How to help your team cope with attrition

Advice for Terminating Employees

However, you can take proactive actions to decrease the negative consequences of attrition. Before deciding to fire an employee, ask yourself if you've done everything you can to set them up for success. If you haven't—say, they need new equipment, support, or professional development—make a good faith effort to improve the employee before terminating them. Performance improvement plans, though often characterized as justification for firing someone, can be used to... actually improve someone's performance. Set attainable goals and objectives, and provide metrics and support to help a struggling employee succeed. Check in regularly, preferably daily, to monitor progress and adjust the performance improvement plan.

Alternatively, if it is definitely time to let someone go, have your narrative ready. You do not want to introduce HR or legal issues by exposing all of the dirty laundry behind a termination decision, but you should be able to succinctly explain why you fired someone. The reasoning should be sound, true, and simple. Ambiguous or subjective reasons can leave others' minds to run wild, resulting in the negative side effects mentioned above. A clear message that resonates with high performers will more likely foster support for your decision and respect for your leadership capabilities.

Advice for Responding to Resignations

Resignations are more likely to catch you by surprise. After all, if you knew a great employee was resigning soon, you'd work to keep them, right? Inevitably, someone on your team will resign without giving you an early warning. In those situations, it is best to understand the departing employee's story: why are they leaving and what—if anything—could have caused them to reach a different decision? Corroborate the truths in their message to the rest of the team, even if it doesn't paint you in the best light. Acknowledging the problems leading to a resignation and addressing what you intend to do in the future for other employees is the only authentic way to approach this leadership challenge.

Help the Team

Your response to the departure is only the first step in helping the team cope with their loss of a coworker. Once you've shared your message, describe the plan for handling the departing employee's workload. Who will cover for them? Can the work wait until a replacement is found? Who is helping find a replacement? What will be the short-term impact to the rest of the team? Proactively answering these questions will demonstrate to your team that you know what you're doing and you're prepared to lead them out of an undesirable—but absolutely temporary—situation.

Do you need help rebounding from an employee departure?

We're here to help! Reach out to us and we can discuss ways to prevent attrition. If you are preparing for the departure of an employee, we can also discuss plans to mitigate the negative consequences of their departure.

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