Signs to Help Keep Key Staffers

FRAMINGHAM (04/03/2000) - When Mark Winstead was about ready to quit his old job, he actually grew less annoying to his manager. No longer an information technology rabble-rouser rallying for better working conditions, "I didn't give too much care anymore about job training issues, growth opportunities," he says. "I guess some thought that [the shift in behavior] was maturity, while others recognized it for what it was: looking for the next passing ship."

Winstead is now a very content systems programmer/analyst at Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed Martin Corp.'s Technical Services division. His torpor in the final months at his prior job is textbook behavior for IT pros who are ready to vamoose, according to experts. By waving the white flag on working conditions, Winstead was waving a red flag that an astute manager could have noticed, perhaps preventing his departure.

You know turnover is Problem No. 1 in IT departments. You know that you're paying more attention than ever to retaining IT workers. Bringing new people up to speed is a pain in the neck - and they're unknown quantities who may not be worth bringing up to speed.

But do you know how to read the signals employees send when they're thinking about bailing out? Those signals can be counterintuitive, as can responding to them correctly. And how do you sort out the might-be-salvageables from the snowball's-chances?

Profile of a Ship-Jumper

Here's the good news: There's a pretty reliable profile to identify workers most likely to be looking around. The bad news: It's a profile that probably fits an awful lot of your employees. People who've been out of college five to 10 years and hold electrical engineering or computer science degrees are the ones to watch, according to Fran Quittel, a high-tech career expert who authors Computerworld's "Career Adviser" column and has created the career Web sites www.careerbabe.com and www.yourcareer.com. Other experts place the danger range at five to seven years. But all agree with Quittel when she says, "If you're not getting people up to speed in different technologies, you're going to lose them."

"If the work's boring, people don't stick it out," says Ken Surdan, CIO at Send.com, an online gift company in Waltham, Massachusetts. Send.com has a negligible turnover rate - partly because it's a hot pre-initial public offering start-up, but also partly because Surdan tries to spread the tasty projects around to keep the entire staff excited.

New challenges go hand-in-hand with hot technology. According to Patricia Christensen, vice president of human resources at Chicago-based software vendor Cyborg Systems Inc. and co-chairwoman of the Arlington, Virginia-based Information Technology Association of America's Human Resources Forum: "If there's a lack of challenge in the work they've been given or they've been in the same position for a very long time," IT workers are bound to be "looking for challenging opportunities."

Even more than other professionals, IT workers believe, "I have to watch out for myself, keep my skills relevant and marketable," Surdan says. If you aren't helping them stay up-to-date, you're pushing them out the door.

Steve Thornburg started to think seriously about leaving a job in March one year. "By September, I decided Thanksgiving would be my cut-off date," says the engineer, who has more than 20 years' experience in IT. "I felt disappointed and I felt sad" about a turn of events at his company.

Early Warnings

Some signs that an employee is testing the waters are pretty obvious. Some aren't. Here's a list:

-- They come in late and leave early. "Here, people stay until the job's done," Christensen says. "If they're not spending the time, you can pretty much tell" something is wrong.

-- "They start taking sick time, taking vacation," Quittel says. "They start speaking in whispers." (Winstead "asked on short order for a day off for ‘family business.'" He says that's when his manager knew he was gone.)-- If the office slob suddenly discovers pressed slacks and sport coats. (If you're lucky, it's an affair. But it's probably a headhunter.)-- Lack of participation. "If someone who's always been participative withdraws, doesn't volunteer to work on a project," that's a danger signal, Christensen says. This passivity may take the form of agreeing with statements that previously would have launched a flame war.

-- Experts also say employees who express new interest in projects' time frames bear watching. They may be leery of long commitments because they suspect they won't be around to see them through.

Remember Winstead, who says he grew less grating once he'd decided to leave?

Previously, he was an office agitator. His boss didn't pick up on his shift in demeanor until it was too late.

That's an important point, according to John Putzier, president of FirStep Inc., a Prospect, Pennsylvania, human resources consultancy. "Voiced dissatisfaction typically comes first," Putzier says. "This is the early warning sign managers should seize on, because the worker's unhappiness can be channeled into constructive change."

Here's the problem, though: Most IT managers ignore this voiced dissatisfaction, hoping it will go away. Why? Because it's easier to ignore it and avoid a confrontation. Managers convince themselves that the employee will get over whatever his problem is.

But you ought to face the music and talk to the employee about his unhappiness, Putzier says. If you don't, the dissatisfaction turns into apathy. Note the way this apathy completes the vicious circle: The worker no longer seems unhappy.

The manager convinces himself he was right - the problem did go away.

Uh-uh. It's the employee who's getting ready to go away. That apathy is the manager's worst nightmare - an advanced sign that the employee has mentally checked out. "It's only a matter of time," Putzier says.

Too many managers ignore early signals that workers are itchy. If you let such a situation fester, you can expect another behavior change. But it's probably too late to do anything about it.

Note that both Winstead and Thornburg describe passive feelings and behavior once the die was cast. They were "sad," they "didn't give too much care," they were "disappointed." That's the apathy Putzier describes.

Before they jump ship, IT workers may try to "rally people around their perception" that the company or their boss is no good, Putzier says. Misery loves company: Such workers are "trying to find other malcontents or potential malcontents," he says.

If they succeed, watch out. One engineer who requested anonymity helped build a computer retailer's training center. He was rewarded with a move to the retailer's fledgling corporate division. But "the company applied a retail mind-set to engineers," the source says. Bad feelings snowballed. Upshot: As a group, a team of 11 folks walked out on the same day.

What to Do

So what do you do when you suspect, but don't know for sure, that an employee has The Grass Is Greener Over There Disease? Your best bet is to nip turnover in the bud in all the usual ways. Communicate. Spread the glamour projects around. Help workers upgrade their technical skills. Make sure your compensation package is competitive in your industry. And keep this chilling quote from Putzier in mind: "If you look at the reasons for turnover, they're almost all a variation on ‘My boss is a jerk.' The jerk bosses want to assume it's about money - because that gets them off the hook."

Ulfelder (ulfelder@earthlink.net) is a freelance writer in Southboro, Mass.

Parting Lessons

Even if you do everything right, people will think about leaving. What you do about these mullers depends on whether they're in the early or late planning stages. Here's some advice from analysts, managers and programmers:

The catchables. If an unhappy worker has been slogging away at unexciting projects, reassign him to something sexy with a high profile - even if he requested the projects he's on now. "I should have been given much more responsibility, but I was being passed over . . . again and again," says programmer/analyst Mark Winstead of a job he left.

Also, "ask [dissatisfied workers] for a six-month commitment," says Fran Quittel, a high-tech career expert.

To what? "To anything. Try to get them to invest themselves in something," she says.

If your business is doing badly and there's widespread unrest, set up "truth vehicles" such as open-book management, suggestion boxes and open meetings, says John Putzier, president of FirStep. "The more open the organization is," he explains, "the less potential for the grapevine."

Putzier also says it's important to "grab voiced dissatisfaction and act on it." The key question to ask the departing worker: "What would you do differently?"

Department of barn-door locking. If someone's just punching the clock waiting for a new job to come along, you may be tempted to confront him. But Quittel says that isn't necessarily a good idea. "You have to assume that if you confront someone directly, they won't tell you the truth," she says.

Experts stress the importance of exit interviewing as a way to find out why people are leaving. If you find a pattern - lousy pay, a few bad managers - you must address the issue.

Finally, no matter how betrayed a departure makes you feel, project a different image. "Even if we're really angry someone's left, we try to make them feel good," says Jack Morgan, assistant vice president of human resources at CSX Technology Inc. in Jacksonville, Florida. CSX has several innovative retention programs, including "alumni" parties where the company tries to lure back former IT workers. "You want [former employees] to feel good and say good things about you," Morgan says, if only for pragmatic reasons: "Referrals are vital."

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