Re-recruit employees instead of focusing on retaining employees

Todd L. Pittinsky of Harvard University and Margaret J. Shih of University of Michigan wrote Knowledge Nomads: Organizational Commitment and Worker Mobility in Positive Perspective, featured in the February issue of American Behavioral Scientist. Mallory Stark of Harvard interviewed Pittinsky about knowledge nomads and approaches to turnover in the July 26 issue of HBS Working Knowledge. I like the conclusions from the studies. More managers need to understand motivation and commitment rather than hours and salary.

Turnover is a symptom, not a problem. Change your mantra from “attract and retain the best employees” to “attract and re-recruit the best employees.” By re-recruiting employees you build their commitment. Retention will follow, when appropriate. Focusing on turnover can be counterproductive, focusing managers on the wrong things.

We split a cohort of managers of a large business organization, and later a large government agency, in half. Half the managers were asked to identify the steps they would take to retain a valued worker. The other half were asked to identify the steps they would take to elicit commitment from a valued worker. The two groups came back with very different action steps.

The managers who were asked to identify ways to retain workers came back with action steps like “increase salary” and “change his or her title.” These are small changes, with little payoff. They may keep an employee in a company for a couple of months, but they will not hold an employee for long, and little productivity will be gained. The managers we asked to identify ways to elicit commitment proposed deeper and more individualized action steps, like “find out what challenges make him or her tick” and “provide opportunities for learning on the job.”