The Employee Exodus (and How to Stop It)

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AS WE WITNESS one waitress working 10 busy tables in a crowded cafe while wearing the distant stare of a disillusioned war vet, it becomes clear that working, for many, is officially off the menu. The same goes for the 11 people in the 200 seat call center; or the home-based call taker who remembers fondly the days before he ate snack bars in the bathroom.

Before we sling any generational blame or point to parenting or company leadership failures (rest assured, some of that’s coming), let’s look at what has dramatically changed about people and business in the past five years. This exploration is not just about COVID or the fickle desires of the next generation; it’s about the future of work itself.

For starters, when talking to HR professionals and others back in 2016, I began to notice three circumstances on the rise when it came to hiring young adults.

1. The most common questions young job applicants asked were about vacation days and time off.

2. Increasingly, candidates either insisted on a quick leap into management or expressed no interest whatsoever in being on a leadership track.

3. Young adults voiced a strong desire for unfettered usage of cell phones at work.

This, combined with an observable pattern of parents actually making the call to set up the interviews, led me to suspect that working a job might not be the favorite choice of many Millennials.

Now, before you over-45ers start up your judgment machines (or go all Liam Neeson on young people), let’s take a close look at the circumstances in which we live pre- and (hopefully) post-COVID.

1. People in their 20s are buying fewer houses, cars, and clothes than past generations did.

2. Living at home at age 29 no longer carries a social stigma. (Many parents seem to want to keep a spare kid or two at home…just to make sure they know where one is?)

3. Boomers have complained to their kids about how tough it is to work all the time, whereas previous generations preached the virtues of hard work.

So let’s think this through. lf you’re not branded a loser because you live at home at 29, and you’ve learned not to be a mass consumer of goods and services, and you grew up with parents who complained about work and who also like having you around, what kind of decisions might you make about entering the workforce? Circumstances might not create our destiny, but they do affect how we weigh our options.

Parenting and education have also played a part in what we’re seeing among young adults in the workforce. Collectively, we wanted our kids to have things we did not. As a result, we indulged them, told them life was fair, didn’t teach them history, and implied that if they didn’t do well on the test, the school could lose its funding. We also told them they could be themselves when in fact we might not have been very sure of who we were.

So, people over 45, it might be largely our fault. We’ve done our young friends a huge disservice. In stark contrast to our unfortunate everyone’s-a-winner philosophy, the truth is that every generation has some losers. The biggest lie in parenting is “I have four successful kids.” No one has four good kids (unless maybe you have 10 kids, in which case one’s typically in prison).

So some of the younger set’s flagging sentiment toward work may rest on our shoulders. But the best thing about something being your fault is that you’re always the most qualified to fix it. So let’s talk about solutions.

We have to deal with people for who they are and not who we wish they were. Rather than just hoping we can find young workers who nostalgically want the jobs their parents had, we’ll need to connect to evolving employee values. For example, it’s common in 2021 to hear people under 30 saying in anonymous employee surveys that two days off each week is not enough. To stay fully staffed, the willingness to attract top performers through job sharing and alternative scheduling may be required.

Leadership qualities count—if you have no followers, chances are you’re not a leader. We can’t promote Jimmy and Caitlin simply because we think they’re smart or good at their job. We need to start looking at leadership traits and abilities and promote those who have them, regardless of tenure and other skills. Wanting to be the boss and actually being good at it seem to have nothing in common.

Take measures to stop onboarders from jumping overboard. With many industries reporting 50 percent attrition rates during the onboarding process, it’s time to examine the process for problems easily fixed and tone-deaf messages that can be rewritten. How about a training video that you can actually pause? (No, Dylan will not watch all 14 minutes in one viewing.) Can you shift your messaging to focus on how your company actually helps the world and not just stockholders? A few easily implemented solutions like these can simultaneously reduce your bail factor and improve your employer brand.

It’s very easy for Barb the Boomer and, with slightly more disgust, Justin the Gen Xer to say that Morgan the Millennial (yes, I am labeling and stereotyping on purpose—sorry, Morgan!) just does not want to work and will prevent civilization from reaching its goals. However, the truth is that these young adults want more personal time and more freedom. And I’m pretty sure that’s been a major goal of humanity for a very long time. Historically, an exodus is about running from those who refuse to even begin to meet our basic needs. Accountability and willingness are the foundations of change.

What can we do immediately to stop or at least slow the exodus? We need to create a new future of work. We can start with a few foundational things that any organization can do right now.

• Create employee engagement by making jobs better. Example: Stop adding work to people who have not finished what they’re working on now. It is a top complaint on anonymous employee surveys across the country.

• Select leaders by leadership ability, not by how well they do a non-leadership job. The bank teller who couldn’t count the money correctly may very well be the best natural leader you have for the group. Or the call center rep who couldn’t talk and type at the same time might be your best motivator and decision maker.

• Make sure your technology fits the job and the people who use it. Ancient software drives young people away. Similarly, new software that requires trial-and-error learning and comes with no tutorials will drive your top senior people into retirement.

Typically, if these three foundational things are not in place, working for your company sucks. And if that’s offensive, it means you completely understand my point!

We know that COVID may have caused people to rethink their lives and decide that being at home is more important than having their “at the office” dream job. (What’s not to like about working from your bedroom in your underwear as you explain global marketing campaigns to your 5-year-old?) So, sure, there’s a pandemic factor to consider in this work attitude shift. Yet, surveys and casual conversations with workers in multiple industries seem to point toward a primary reason why young people and older people alike aren’t thrilled with work these days. It appears that they want to work from home, or part time, or not at all, because working doesn’t work for them anymore.

Even with this shift in work attitude, many of the complex problems that create employee shortages will shrink or even vanish if we implement a few relatively simple solutions. Sometimes we forget the basics and then wonder why the specifics do not work. 

Garrison Wynn (garrisonwynn.com) is an Amazon bestselling author, a nationally known keynote speaker, and a former Fortune 500 leader who helps organizations create a culture of influence. Reach him at garrisonwynn2@gmail.com.

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