Exit Signs

Have any of your key IT employees suddenly started whispering behind closed doors or spending more time out of the office without explanation? Are they quarrelling more with corporate objectives? Spending longer on the Internet? Coming in late and leaving early? Associating less with colleagues? Using up accrued sick leave and holidays? Smartening up their image? Watch out. They could be getting ready to walk out the door. Permanently.

You know staff turnover has become a substantial headache for every IT department. You know you're devoting more time and energy than ever dreaming up ways to keep your most valued IT staff happy. After all, bringing new people up to speed is a painful and expensive time-waster, especially since every new employee you take on represents a significant risk.

Here's the good news: experts say there's some pretty sure pointers to workers who may be actively considering jumping ship - if you just know how to recognise them. The bad news is the signs could point to an awful lot of your current employees.

In 1992 IDC estimated staff turnover in Australian IT departments averaged just 9.93 per cent. In last year's survey that figure was just under 27 per cent. On those odds, you have to figure that some employees will be getting ready to desert you even as we speak.

"The idea of life-long service in a company is no longer," says Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA) corporate relations manager Michel Hedly, "although there is bifurcation to the extent that some people just don't seem to move and others move a lot".

If those who stay forever are the ones who know your systems inside out and back to front, understand your business intimately and can manipulate the politics of the organisation to good effect, well and good. But if it's your key personnel who get itchy feet, you know there'll be hell to pay.

But how can you tell when key personnel are seriously considering deserting you for pastures green, and what can you do to make them want to stay?

Warning signs

Some signs that an employee is testing the waters are pretty obvious. Some are rather less apparent.

"If your organisation has Key Performance Indicators for IT workers which incorporate some measures of activity as well as outcomes, then one of the first indicators of people looking around is a fall-off in the activity levels," says Andersen Contracting partner Sheryle Moon.

"Motivation levels change when people start looking around for other jobs and they stop putting a fully focused effort into their current activities and tasks."

Job performance degradation over a period of time is a definite sign of employee discontent, says Peter Scope, marketing manager of education programs with Cisco Systems. But so is a laissez-faire attitude that can encompass tardiness, poor grooming and the taking of a lot more sick leave.

"Those are the general things that happen when you don't really care all that much; you haven't got that enthusiasm. You can see it if they no longer have the glinting eyes, the hunger to achieve."

Pore over the performance records of staff whose enthusiasm has markedly dropped, says Scope, and you'll likely see that in the early stages they tended to overachieve. Once dissatisfaction sets in they might not even achieve all the objectives that have been set.

"Their attitude seems to be ‘I'm here to do a day's work for a day's pay. That's all I'm here to do'. You'll probably see a general change in that attitude or that demeanour over a period of time."

Another warning sign is a sudden increase in secretiveness, not to mention a tendency to withdraw from contact with both other staff and management. If less information is suddenly being passed around the team, ask yourself why.

Experts also suggest employees that take a sudden keen interest in projects' time frames bear watching. There's a chance their concern has less to do with the viability of the project than it has with their suspicion that they might not be around to see the project through.

And the office slob who suddenly discovers pressed slacks and sports coats should also get your antenna ringing. They could be dressing up for illicit lunchtime intrigues with an extra-marital partner, of course, but their secret liaisons could equ-ally well be with a headhunter.

And finally, the plethora of job sites on the Internet means a sudden increase in online time may also be suspect.

Ian Woollett, managing director of recruitment company DMA IT Solutions thinks it's perfectly fair and reasonable for employers to monitor employees' Web traffic to check which recruitment sites they visit.

"Clearly a lot of these people have better access to the Internet at work than they do at home, and more time at work to look for a job, frankly. So if all of your staff suddenly need universal access to the Internet, beware," Woollett says.

Profile of a ship-jumper

In a fine incarnation of Murphy's Law, of course, it's very often the people you most want to stay that are most likely to go.

People who've been out of college five to 10 years and hold electrical engineering or computer science degrees are the ones to watch, says Fran Quittel, a high-tech career expert who authors US Computerworld's "Career Adviser" column and created the career Web sites www.careerbabe.-com and www.yourcareer.com.

"If you're not getting people up to speed in different technologies, you're going to lose them."

Microsoft knows full well that it's often the most valuable employees who are most likely to jump ship. The company has recently decided to reward selected executives and software engineers with a broad new range of incentives, including additional stock-option grants, unlimited vacation for top executives and promotions for 30 managers to vice president. Some employees will receive as many as 200,000 shares of stock.

And in Australia IBM GSA too accepts that the best employees are usually the most tempting targets for poachers.

"In our business, the services business, our prime competition comes from other companies that do IT outsourcing and systems integration," says David Patton, manager human resources for IBM Global Services.

"It doesn't seem to come from any particular area - if someone is thinking about leaving the business or they're being head-hunted, they could be in the senior ranks or it could be across the spectrum. But it's usually likely to be the very experienced or perhaps senior professional or business person that is most likely to be head-hunted - those with a really high level of skills for our particular industry. And usually the head-hunting occurs from the competition or perhaps a new start-up competitor in our particular industry."

What to do about it

If you've got a system in place that encourages managers to take a personal interest in employee development - "the care and feeding of employees" as Patton likes to put it - they should be able to recognise at least some danger signals and act to address them.

Keep your ear to the ground and you'll often be able to pick up signals that the employee is looking to move, Patton says. Sometimes that comes in the form of rumours from other staff, or feedback from the industry.

"And if someone gets an offer usually they don't just drop it on the table straight away - they usually want to talk about that and discuss that, with their manager," Patton says. That's your cue to get an understanding of why they want to go, before deciding whether you can pull out any stops to encourage them to stay.

"[The people who work with us] are looking to further their career, and so we try and benchmark our compensation and benefits programs with the marketplace," Patton says. "The real IT professionals are looking for career development, they're looking for opportunities, looking for working with technology, those are the sort of buzz things a lot of people are after, providing you first satisfy all the hygiene factors."

Even more than other professionals, IT workers believe in watching out for their own careers by keeping their skills relevant and marketable. Unless you're helping them stay up to date, you're pushing them out the door.

"In an industry like ours, just as the companies have to keep moving to keep up with the technologies, so too do the people have to keep moving to keep up with the technologies and with the business developments," Hedley says.

But in this industry lifelong learning shouldn't be viewed solely through the prism of formal periods of study. To some extent people worry about committing themselves to long periods of study in case they lead them up a dead end.

"Varied work experience and just-in-time training are the ways to cut across that," Hedley says.

But training doesn't mean over-training. And it doesn't mean offering training as a reward for good behaviour.

Scope points out that it makes little sense to reward people who've met their objectives with a package of training courses and deny training to those who have failed in their objectives.

Instead you should sit down with those that aren't achieving and look for reasons why. It could be a lack of training is to blame.

"Give them formalised training programs that they can manage themselves, to meet those goals. And once they know they have the internal tools to be able to handle those tasks, a great weight can be lifted off their shoulders and they can be effective."

But equally giving staff too much training can make them dissatisfied with their current position and prompt them to look around for positions in other companies that will let them fully use their newly acquired skills.

It's a delicate balance that involves making sure staff have all the tools that they need to be able to achieve their current tasks, plus just enough more to let them over-extend and assure them there's a career path in their current occupation.

"They need to be able to see, from the position they're in now, where they can go in the future and what skills they're going to need and that you'll be able to manage that transition," Scope says.

You also need a very open business environment, says Scope. For too many companies, talk about having an open door is just that - talk.

Staff are much more likely to stick with an employer who supports them in their problems both personal and business, says Scope.

That means letting them bring personal and family problems up with management, without fear of retribution and with confidence of getting management support.

"Problems at home can in practice affect the way we do business and affect business profitability.

So whether we like it or not we have to be able to bring that up with our management, and management needs to have steps in place to be able to address those issues, whether they be business-related or personal."

And Scope says companies that want to retain key staff must also have a policy of dealing honestly with business and with employees.

"If you're working for a company that's seen to be doing things dishonestly, that affects your attitude to life in general," Scope says.

Prevention as cure

Conventional wisdom says that if you look after your staff, take time to understand their aspirations and wholistically manage their careers, they're more likely to stay, says Ian Woollett, managing director of recruitment company DMA IT Solutions.

But most major companies do all that to the best of their ability and staff members still walk out the door. Sure, companies with extremely low attrition rates tend to pay more and have excellent human resources policies, but they also do something else, Woollett says: they spend much more time making sure they're hiring the right people in the first place.

"If you do a half-assed job at the front end of the recruitment, you tend to pay for it downstream."Some of the client organisations Woollett deals with have remarkably low attrition rates. They also fall into two separate categories of organisation. First there are the companies which hire at the top end and have a quality recruitment process, including all manner of behavioural techniques.

"There's a group of companies that fit into that category," Woollett says. "They have exciting technology, they have exciting people, they know the aspirations of their people and the two are absolutely in step with one another.

They always get a downstream benefit from recruiting the right people in the first place.

"And then there's the very small company that does quality recruitment because it understands the people that like the small company environment, like the autonomy and everything that goes with it."

Woollett says bringing the right people on board in the first place can be much more effective than trying to secure those people with golden handcuffs.

"It's all about having less focus on the skill that you're trying to hire, and more focus on the individual's aspirations, attitude and capabilities. Behavioural interviewing that really tries to get under the skin of someone pays real dividends time over time."

A matter of priorities

A recent survey "Study of the Emerging Workforce", is an invaluable tool for managers in that it uncovered what attracts, motivates and satisfies workers today, says Andersen Contracting partner Sheryle Moon.

The workers polled placed a high priority on training, mentoring and education in determining where they work.

Of those polled, 62 per cent say they are more likely to stay with their current employer if it has provided training and mentoring; 61 per cent who think their employer provides them with mentoring opportunities say they are more likely to remain in their jobs for the next five years.

And 84 per cent said what they contribute, rather than how long they stay, defines their loyalty.

"Non-committed employees define security in terms of dollars and the present tense, while committed employees talk about the future and the opportunities they have," Moon says. In 1998 James Kelly, chairman and CEO of United Parcel Service, noted the employment relationship was now governed by self-interest, with workers these days considering themselves free agents.

"Responsible employers offer a career toolbox to workers - which includes tools, roadmap and the sounding devices to be used," says Moon. "The flexible worker picks up the tools and starts using them."

Moon notes that it is the worker's duty to stay employable in an era when lifetime employment is not guaranteed, yet many Australian companies are pulling back on education and training expenditure at a time when they should be ramping up such programs.

"The Net generation in particular is interested in ongoing learning opportunities," Moon says. "Having grown up in a world of constant upgrades to computer and games software they are continually looking for the next level of challenge and learning. They want to turn every experience into an opportunity to build skills, knowledge and wisdom that makes them more marketable."

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