Turnover: Insights from the Real World

We I/O psychologists spend a lot of time talking to people about what they do, and we try to identify the human traits and experiences it takes to perform their jobs. We then use this information to develop components of the hiring process that will allow organizations to make predictions about which applicants will make successful hires. A big part of a successful hire often centers around hiring someone who will not leave the job in a manner that will cause a negative economic impact on his or her employer.

Of course, the good news is that in many situations, even a slight increase in the accuracy of predictions made during the hiring process can lead to huge levels of ROI. In my world, one of the most common reasons for using assessment and best practices is to reduce turnover primarily for this very reason. It takes effort to find, evaluate, hire, and train someone. All this takes two precious commodities: time and money. So, helping predict who will stay in a job long enough to offset these costs (at a minimum) and provide even more value through delivering good performance of job tasks, etc., is totally worth the investment.

Separation from a job (aka turnover) is one of the most frustrating but fascinating parts of the work I do. At the end of the day, even when we take great care to follow best practices and use good science, there is absolutely no way we can predict things like performance and tenure with high levels of accuracy. This is because we are dealing with humans, and each of us is as unique as a snowflake. Not only that, but each of us also brings to the table links to other people (such as family and friends) and a context that is broader and often more important than that of the workplace. This makes predicting anything about what humans will do a difficult endeavor.

The stuff I work with ultimately takes place in, and impacts, the real world. Because of this, I try really hard to pay attention to my daily experiences as a way to gain insight into the reality of what people face in their jobs. For me, these experiences help me put the things I work on for my clients into perspective and provide some really interesting nuggets that help me feel more in tune with the reality of people and their jobs, especially when it comes to a subject as interesting as turnover.

To illustrate this, I want to share an exchange I overheard between two cashiers while shopping at a major retail chain the other day, and to use this story to make a few points about the many variables that can make predicting things like turnover so hard. (Please keep in mind that the context here is retail associate-level jobs and, as such, this article applies mostly directly to this stratum of the workforce. However, the general ideas apply to almost any situation.)

The exchange went something like this:

Cashier 1 (African-American woman who appeared to be in her mid-20s): “How long have you been working here?”

Cashier 2 (Caucasian male who looked to be in his early 40s): “Just about five days. I was selling real estate before this, but the market is so soft right now that I needed to take another job to help save some money. I want to go back to school to become an appraiser, so I took this job while I save up. What about you? How long have you been working here?”

Cashier 1: “Only a few weeks. I was a barista for five years before this. I got sick of it though, so I decided to try something else. I really want to use my degree in African-American studies, but I can’t really find any work that will allow me to use it how I want. I am just going to work here until I can find the right opportunity to use it.”

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Cashier 2: “Oh, that’s really interesting. I have been doing some work with the local cultural museum, and I know they are always looking for people to help out over there. You should check it out and see.”

Cashier 1: “Cool, that’s a good idea. I’ll be sure to check it out. Maybe I can quit this job and actually put my degree to work for me.”

I made my exit at this point, but I couldn’t help but stop to reflect on the meaning of that brief exchange in the context of what I do. My reflections included:

  • Even though job duties are standardized and some work environments rely on workers having a core set of traits to carry out these duties well, everyone is still very different and comes to the table with a totally different history and context. This context often has more of an impact on tenure than anything else because it represents a reality that is highly personal and often transcends things like money and time.
  • There are a lot of folks out there who may be seen as overqualified for some jobs but whose life-reality places them in situations where they end up needing the job to make ends meet. This can have both positive and negative impacts depending on the person, the environment, or even things such as the person’s relationship with management.
  • The staggering number of options for doing something with oneself and the reality of the opportunities provided to those of us living in the United States often compels people of all ages and races (not just Gen Y or whatever other “Gen”) to look at jobs as temporary.

The above represent both good and bad things for employers. Individuality and personal context can have a huge impact on organizational performance that can be either positive or negative depending on how they are understood and managed.

The exchange between the two cashiers led me to the following thoughts, specifically regarding the realities of our current workforce, predictive hiring, and turnover:

  • In many cases, hiring people for their raw abilities rather than for their experience or technical skills can be a good strategy, especially if one is having trouble getting butts in seats. Someone who is passionate about customer service and can relate to people can probably do well at jobs that require these things, even if they have no experience. This is one of the biggest value propositions for personality and work-values assessments.
  • It is important to be honest about opportunities and what they offer to a job applicant. The reverse also applies; applicants should be encouraged to be honest about their goals for the job. Anything less is going to accelerate things like turnover.
  • Organizations need to understand the demographic from which they hire. It is important to understand trends in how job seekers view employers and to do one’s best to adapt hiring practices to account for these things. This also applies to sourcing and even employment branding.
  • Understanding of context should drive creativity. If the cold, hard reality is that a worker isn’t expected to stay at the same job long enough to make the hire pay off, seek creative ways to change this equation. This may include offering flex time, telecommuting, or benefits that are of value to the employee.
  • Hire and/or train management to be understanding of the context that each worker brings to the table so that they can relate to that person and understand the value that his or her unique circumstances bring to the table.
  • And, most importantly, tracking the relationship between data collected in the hiring process and objective, measurable outcomes is absolutely critical for understanding the economic impact of the reality that is our workforce. From this information springs the power to justify processes or to understand the need to adapt and change them.

So, the next time you are bored in the checkout line, do a little eavesdropping and stop to contemplate the bigger picture.

Dr. Charles Handler is a thought leader, analyst, and practitioner in the talent assessment and human capital space. Throughout his career Dr. Handler has specialized in developing effective, legally defensible employee selection systems. 

Since 2001 Dr. Handler has served as the president and founder of Rocket-Hire, a vendor neutral consultancy dedicated to creating and driving innovation in talent assessment.  Dr. Handler has helped companies such as Intuit, Wells Fargo, KPMG, Scotia Bank, Hilton Worldwide, and Humana to design, implement, and measure impactful employee selection processes.

Through his prolific writing for media outlets such as ERE.net, his work as a pre-hire assessment analyst for Bersin by Deloitte, and worldwide public speaking, Dr. Handler is a highly visible futurist and evangelist for the talent assessment space. Throughout his career, Dr. Handler has been on the forefront of innovation in the talent assessment space, applying his sound foundation in psychometrics to helping drive innovation in assessments through the use of gaming, social media, big data, and other advanced technologies.

Dr. Handler holds a M.S. and Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from Louisiana State University.

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/drcharleshandler






4 Comments on “Turnover: Insights from the Real World

  1. Charles’ article offers outstanding insight in that it acknowledges turnover as a decision that is (usually) as varied as the people who make them(at least when they aren’t driven away by institutionally embedded employer behaviors like lousy supervisors).

    Adding one bullet to Charles’ list.
    – Instead of driving people who consider leaving underground- thereby forcing them into taking days off as sick days, (or some other subterfuge) and learning about their leaving last minute, why not have an ‘Is the Grass Greener Policy?’- A no fault full-acceptance approach to leaving.

    Allow interview days. Make an arrangement through a local career coach to have employees learn more about personal responsibility to their lives and careers as well as a specialist to discuss pros and cons. Protect anyone who declares they are looking for something more and not getting it.

    A hiring manager (employer) who personally commits to helping a subordinate achieve their career goals and align them with their life goals is more likely to get higher performance and know earlier when an employee is likely to leave.

    Walking the talk however isn’t easy and goes counter to traditional norms.

  2. I agree with Dr. Handler, completely, on his six summary bullets and I want to offer some additional perspective.

    Bullet 1: Talent and fit can certainly trump education and experience. Valid, job-related assessments help employers find natural talent (e.g. customer service) that aligns well with job requirements.

    Bullet 2: Honesty is still the best policy.

    Bullets 3, 4 and 5 speak to the employer’s understanding of employees; and, when it comes to employee understanding, one size does not fit all.

    Indeed, authoritative research has found six distinct employee segments. This segmentation recognizes the different roles that work plays in peoples lives (That’s what got this article started). Employees in each of the six segments want different things from their work experience and are engaged by a different set of ’employment deal’ elements.

    Now, a comprehensive enterprise-level employee engagement survey (based on this research) can determine an employer’s current realty in terms of both segmentation and employee engagement. Reports provide the information, insight and direction that management needs to adjust employment deals in ways that raise employee engagement (and thereby improve organizational performance, talent retention and much more).

    And, as bullet 6 underscores, ‘you can’t manage what you don’t measure’. Best-in-class assessments – from individual to enterprise – help managers measure well. And, today, the best online assessments are better than affordable, they’re downright profitable! Dr. Handler is right on when he says that even small hiring process improvements can lead to huge ROIs.

    Please email for specific information on the research or assessments.

  3. Thank you for a very interesting article Charles. Having been on the ‘hiring side’ myself, I agree that we often develop job reqs based on our own idealized view of a candidate, rather than on reality.

    In our HR consulting work, we have found that that HR and Hiring Managers recruit based on an idealized picture of candidate skills and experience but that these do not always result in obtaining the best candidates for the job. This is especially true in the case of the retail environment you discuss.

    By conducting employee focus groups and surveys it is possible to identify what works and why people stay or leave. This allows adjustments to hiring requirements and sourcing strategies to reflect attributes that are more predictive of performance and retention.

    In one engagement we were asked to identify sources of turnover, create retention strategies and more effective sourcing and recruiting strategies. Through focus groups and survey tools deployed to employees, line management, HR and company management we were able to uncover the unique characteristics of employees who performed well and stayed on the job longer. We then used this knowledge to create pre-screening questions, interview guides and sourcing strategies that more accurately reflected the demands of the job, the work environment, the job market and obtained candidates who found the job enjoyable, motivating and meeting personal criteria for reward over the long-term.

    Specifically, we uncovered some interesting findings that support your comments in this article:

    1. Employees whose commute to work lasted longer than 30 minutes had the highest turnover. Most of these employees left within 30 days. Employees that stayed the longest were able to get to work easily and did not have to invest significant time or cost in commuting. Working close to home was extremely important for these candidates.

    2. Motivation and Passion are more important to retention than experience. Previous hiring practices had tended to select candidates with industry skills and work history. However, these employees became bored more quickly and had more options for other employment. We determined that candidates who felt they were gaining valuable work experience related to their long-term goals stayed the longest and found the most reward in the job. Additionally, candidates that had a passion for the industry category but perhaps less experience or hard skills had better performance and longer tenure.

    Geoff Hultin
    Talent Technology
    T: 866.747.3375

  4. Dr. Handler is right on target. It takes a deeper understanding of people to ensure you have a good fit for long term employment. As a Predictive Index Assessment consultant in Florida, we see turnover cut by as much as 50% simply by the insight gained by using a good behavioral assessment tool. It gives hiring managers the ability to see beyond the surface and understand the real person inside. PI clients can use the PRO utility to profile the position before starting the hiring process. This give them a model to compare against.

    Steve Waterhouse

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