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Employee Retention From the Managers Perspective

By Steve Jones,

Being Retained

Part two of my series that looks at retention of employees. In this one I'm looking at how the employee views things and the reasons that they might want or not want to be retained. I'm also including a few hints on what can help you stay in a position that you enjoy. The other articles in the series:

  • Why Retain Employees?
  • Employee thoughts - The people that do most of the tangible work, not managers, and how you might retain them.
  • Manager Thoughts - What managers think and how they view employees? (this article)
  • Keeping Your Job - A look at how to keep your job if you want to
  • Finding Your Job - A look at what might matter in a job search, or in keeping your job and some advice.
Hopefully this will be a fairly timeless series that you can refer to throughout your career and pass along to your managers and others that are interested. Please be sure that you read the feedback as this is one place where lots of other opinions, not just mine, will be cast and there will be good information as well. You can see what others have posted in the "Your Opinion" tab at the bottom of the article.

The Manager

A corporate lifetime is a series of small periods of time in which an individual works for the company.

I hate to put it out there so simply, but a company has an infinite lifetime and its passage in time is marked by the management of it by different individuals. And by individuals who perform work for a short period of time (relatively). For most of the employees, time is marked by various projects that we complete and further our career. That's kind of how we measure our time at a job.

And it's how managers usually see their time. A series of short events or projects that further their career. Most managers aren't much more terribly loyal to the company than the employee. Some are, but most are just as concerned about their own careers as you are and their actions and decisions are designed to protect themselves.

I can speak about managing in a few situations. Three small companies, from 20-100 people, where I had various levels of management and one large company, over 10,000 people, where I was a first level manager, underneath a director, VP, CIO, CFO, and CEO in that order.

For The Company

As a manager, you have access to information that most employees do not. To some degree you always are informed about the direction the current management so you can be sure you are directing your employees to move in that direction. The directions you are being asked to move people in are not always the most efficient, nor are they always the best for the corporation to survive in the long term. They may just as likely be directions that put the success of the current CEO's career ahead of anything else.

Nevertheless, since managers are concerned about their careers, and most of them are professionals trying to do the best job they can, they act as agents of the company, doing things "for the company", to be sure they are perceived as an effective manager.

How does this translate? I can give you a few examples of what I've seen firsthand or had to deal with firsthand. One of the more controversial and contentious practices in many large corporations, especially technical ones, is performance management. This essentially means that people are "graded" on some curve that ensures all employees are ranked according to performance. The typical method I have seen moves people into 5 categories, that match up as roughly "Excellent", "Exceeding Expectations", "Meeting Expectations", "Below Expectations" and "Performing Poorly". If you end up in the bottom ranking, you can guess what your career at that company will look like.

Managers are called into this situation by being asked to rank people, but not just slotting people into what they think. They are called to slot people according to percentages that are predetermined as in 5% of the department or company will fall into the "Performing Poorly" group. There are similar numbers in other groups and this means that in many cases the manager has to "downgrade" someone to the slot below if they have a group of people that are all similarly skilled or performing. Despite telling your team that they have all been doing good, or great, all year, you might end up moving someone down a level at review time for no reason other than to meet a percentage. Similarly if you had a very average team that was large enough, you might slot someone a little higher, playing favorites, even though they hadn't done anything outstanding over others.

Most managers I know hated this process. They hate breaking bad news to people, they writing people up for putting them on a performance plan. They'd just as soon try to hint and push you to do a better job. That's kind of a human nature thing, but their concern is also that their job is easy, which it isn't when they are receiving complaints about one of their subordinates. However the manager is being graded on his or her ability to accurately, or at least apparently accurately, grade the employees and get the job done. So managers make the best of the situation and do their job. The employee may perceive a lot of spin, and there may be spin, in their review to break the news of their ranking, but the manager has to protect themselves from a poor ranking as well.

Another example of how managers work for the company is their nitpicking on administrative items. The manager isn't trying to make your life difficult, or prevent you from enjoying privileges. Whether it's nagging you to enter your time allocations or not letting you leave early one day, it's the manager concerned over how they look to their boss more than it is their decision to be difficult with you. At least for most managers.

A manager's performance is often measured on administrative metrics. Not just how much software they've gotten completed or bugs they've fixed or uptime, but also how their people have performed: time sheets not being completed, absences, meetings missed, and numerous other paper-pushing administrative things.

There's also a measure to the manager's manager of how his or her peers see them. If someone on your team rubs another manager the wrong way, your boss will get complaints about you managing your team. A "black mark" that tends to keep coming up as review and bonus time approaches. The corporate mentality seems to be dog-eat-dog at the top levels and that is what is subtilely, or maybe not so subtilely, endorsed at the manager level. It's also something pushed at the employee level to try and get employees to compete with each other, but it's less successful there, IMHO.


OK, so managers try to out do other managers and get on your case so they look good. What does that mean for retention? I haven't forgotten the topic of this article, but you have to get a feeling for what it's like as a manager.

Some managers care deeply about keeping their team of people around. Some could care less whether they lost a person every week and got a new one. But what they mostly care about is getting the items their team is assigned completed. In most cases in technology, there's a fair amount of knowledge that grows over time that isn't easily transferred to a new person.

That means that managers want to keep you around if you are helping them get work done. And when you are received as an employee that gets things accomplished without complaints from others in the company, you are valuable and managers will fight for you.

I hate to say it, but above friendships and likes and dislikes, effectiveness matters to managers. If you've been a manager for any length of time, you know people will leave, or get asked to leave, and you have to put that out of your mind and out of your decision making process.

Managers also like to keep you around for a long time for other reasons. A big one is it's easier. You know the routine, you know how to not make waves, and you're less paperwork. Again, longer term employees tend to make the manager's job easier. There are exceptions and people that slack off as they age in a job usually survive because managers get lazy too. It's a managerial change that usually weeds them out.

The last big reasons that managers like to keep employees around is interviewing is a pain. A large, royal, PIA! These days recruiters get tons of resumes and do little filtering and even less qualification of a candidate. After working to write a job description, something HR departments never seem to keep around, the manager must start sifting resumes. Even if you recruit some employees, you still need to dig through lots of them, make calls or emails, setup appointments, and sit in on interviews. And that's with a large HR department. If you're a small guy, it's worse. And your paperwork piles up!

Finding new employees is no fun. If you are growing and adding to your team, and thus your importance, and thus your career, it's easier to put up with. But if it's to replace people it's downright annoying. And once you find someone, the two week or longer babysitting period has just begun.

Why Don't Managers Try Harder

So why don't managers try harder to get you that raise, that title, that perk?

We do. Most managers I know, even the ones that I think do a crappy job of managing, do advocate things for their employees. They try to get things pushed through. But it's hard.

It's hard.

It needs to be said twice because HR departments, equal opportunity laws, and more hamstring most "exceptions" that a manager tries for. Raises are almost impossible to get outside of a set period each year. The manager may or may not have any say in bonus allocation and likely no say in the bonus amount. Perks, time off, prizes, etc. are often completely ignored by manager's managers.

The rules and regulations that the employee abides by are the same ones the manager has, but the manager has more. As a "representative" of the company, he or she is usually more tightly bound against exceptions than others. You skip a day of work, you're probably yelled at or something. A manager lets you skip a few days, or a few people skip days and gets caught? Probably launched pretty quickly.

A manager's job is enforcement. And that's why I was probably a good manager, a well-like one, but not a successful one :)

The managers that can really help you prosper in the company and want to stick around are those that find a good balance between the company's requirements and the employees'. They slip through exceptions by working the system, turn the other way without getting caught, and motivate you without breaking too many rules. And retain you because you're happy.

Managers can't often compete with money in terms of retaining employees since they have no power in that area. But they can make the rest of your job more fun and enjoyable, which can be worth a lot more.

Steve Jones ©2005 dkranch.net

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