How to Avoid a Retention Crisis

Workplace engagement is slipping (again). It's time to think about whether your top talent will leave once the pandemic has ended.

The workplace is returning to normal in one way, and it’s not exactly good news.

Last month, Gallup reported that employee engagement in the United States has returned to its pre-pandemic levels. According to a survey conducted in the late summer and early fall, the proportion of U.S. workers who are highly engaged—defined as “highly involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work and workplace”—stands at 36 percent, just a point above the pre-COVID-19 rate.

Diverse leaders still face significant barriers as they move up the ladder.

That follows a roller-coaster period for engagement—high at the start of the pandemic as many workplaces learned the ropes of remote work, then slackening during the advent of national social-justice crises. It’s hard to say whether the return to normal means things are settling. But we do know that a low proportion of highly engaged employees spells trouble when it comes to retention. And the survey’s finding implies that organizations are returning to some of their old habits—and some of their old leadership biases. So if the trend holds, that means a lot of your best talent may be poised to leave when the pandemic finally begins to fade.

Indeed, the Gallup survey shows that the biggest drop in engagement is among managers, and their loss can have a trickle-down effect. “The engagement of managers is critical because they set the tone for the engagement of the people who report to them,” according Gallup’s report on its research. “They are responsible for keeping employees informed about what is going on in the organization, setting priorities, and providing ongoing feedback and accountability.”

There’s evidence that mid-level executives are feeling some frustration. An October report from the consulting firm DDI found that executives from diverse backgrounds are twice as likely to say they’ll leave their current jobs than other executives. Though diverse employees are more likely to advance today than in the past, retention is still a challenge.

“It’s likely that these leaders still face significant barriers as they move up the ladder, which may be why they feel like they have to leave the company to advance,” said DDI’s Stephanie Neal in a release about the report. “Companies should be paying close attention to how inclusive their culture and talent practices are to ensure they retain these diverse and highly talented leaders.”

Moreover, companies haven’t been moving the needle much when it comes to women in executive roles. A report released last week by the executive consultancy BoardEx found that women account for only 19 percent of leadership roles in leading companies around the world. (The United States doesn’t do much better than the global average—women account for 21 percent of U.S. leadership roles, measured by companies in the S&P 500.) Moreover, larger proportions of women tend to lead teams outside of general management, which is to say they’re less likely to be considered for CEO roles.

The disparities suggest a problem with hiring, says Kester Scrope, CEO of the executive search firm Odgers Berntson, in a release on the report: Creating a diverse candidate pool is “particularly important for the roles that most often lead to a seat at the top table.” That’s true, of course. But there may also be a problem with the culture that already exists at your organization and the efforts you’re making to address the engagement of female and diverse employees.

Many organizations are making that investment—job roles addressing diversity have exploded in the past five years. But the exhaustion that the COVID-19 era has generated shouldn’t dissuade leaders from addressing engagement. Once we’re all back in our offices, we risk perpetuating the same problems we had before we had to leave them.

(gollykim/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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