Is there an “Upside” to High Turnover?

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This topic contains 16 replies, has 15 voices, and was last updated by  Henry Brown 8 years, 7 months ago.

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  • #157274

    Doris Tirone

    For as long as I can remember, the notion of employee turnover has carried a very negative connotation. However, in a recent GovExec article by Aliya Sternstein, she suggests that employee turnover can have an upside too.

    Have you ever viewed Employee Turnover as a good thing?

  • #157306

    Henry Brown

    I learned rather early in my working career, while spending some significant amount of time in the military, that turnover was usually a good thing. The challenge in my civilian career, was to implement the turnover with minimal disruption to all concerned (whether it be the project, remaining team members or ?!?!)

  • #157304

    Corey McCarren

    Definitely, but it depends on the position. I think in a lot of instances it’s good to have new blood and new ideas every once in awhile, but there’s also positions in which that isn’t the case. For example in management or client relations it may be detrimental to be constantly shifting people, but for things like junior-mid level in-house marketing positions new blood can bring fresh ideas. Of course this is far from a rule.

  • #157302

    Mark Hammer

    Anthropologist Margaret Mead had a very powerful and elegant idea. She proposed that the people one normally turned to for critical information would vary as a function of the stability of the culture. In highly stable traditional cultures, elders – as those with the greatest accumulated knowledge about the culture – would be the folks you turned to. Strong bonds would be seen between grandparents and grandchildren. As the rate of culture change accelerated, those viewed as possessing critical knowledge would strike varying balances between recency and accumulation. A moderately stable culture would treat adults as purveyors of cultural knowledge that was recent enough to be valid, yet no so new as to be minimal. Rapid cultural change would shift attention to those whose knowledge of the culture was most recent – children. Any comic strip you might have seen concernng a parent’s confusion with computer or cellphone technology, while their teen rolls their eys is an illustration of the model in action.

    So why am I telling you this? Because the value of recency will depend on the stability of culture and consistency of mandate, objectives, practices, etc. The author of the article is thinking in terms of cyber-security, which is inherently an area where “culture” shifts week to week, and recency has value. Bringing in new people (the young) has value, and preserving the old for consultation may have less. In other domains, the reverse might be true. What one may need in some contexts is a very long memory, and turnover – especially the departure of those with long memories – is highly disruptive.

    Personally, I don’t think there is any identifiable magic number about what proportion of staff turnover is “optimal” in the absence of a clear sense of context and work-unit “culture”. I also adhere to the (seemingly contradictory) view that turnover is never a problem. You can always find warm and motivated bodies to fill the seats. The crucial question is whether the people you have now know all the important aspects of what the-people-who-just-walked-out-the-door know. Turnover with a superlative knowledge-transfer infrastructure in place is much less pernicious and disruptive than turnover in the absence of such a plan.

    I would be remiss in discussing turnover without paying any lip service to the relative sluggishness of hiring in the public sector, compared to the private sector, versus the speed needed by managers. A signficant share of managers find themselves in a situation where an employee has told them “I’ve accepted another position at X, and will be starting there in 3 weeks, after I take a week off to catch my breath. Thanks for everything.” The manager now has to initiate a staffing action that could take months, from a cold start, leaving them shortstaffed for a while. Plus, in the vast majority of situations, the manager will not have any opportunity for knowledge transfer, because the departing employee will leave before a new employee can job-shadow them.

    So there is the knowledge aspect of turnover, but there is also the operational capacity aspect of turnover. Employees all too often leave their work-units in the lurch. One could place all the blame on slow staffing, I suppose, but I think there is something to be said for requiring a little more honesty from employees about their pursuit of other opportunities so that managers can prepare, and merge smoothly. How can managers develop a knowledge-transfer infrastructure if they don’t know when or how much knowledge they are going to lose?

    Finally, while they are blessedly few in number, there IS such a thing as a bad hire. And when they leave, everyone breathes a sigh of relief. Remember, plenty of folks get divorced and end up happier with another partner. In the office/organization, as in life outside the office, sometimes turnover can be good.

  • #157300

    Terrence Hill

    I’m sure that the newer generation views the exodus of baby-boomers (like me) as a good thing. Unfortunately, most of the people who end up leaving are usually the highest performers. I enjoy turnover when low performers leave, but this is rare. It’s always nice to have new (i.e. younger) employees in the office. They tend to bring enthusiasm and are motivated to perform (at least for a month or two). I enjoy this breath of fresh air.

  • #157298

    Mark Sullivan

    Perhaps it’s useful to look at turnover as an inevitable fact, with the turnover rate (or conversely retention rate) being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ depending on our projected staffing needs and operational flexibility. Voluntary turnover can be good if we need to restructure, downsize our workforce, or acquire new skills to meet new business demands. It can be bad if we don’t have the capacity to manage knowlege transfer, redeploy staff, or quickly bring on new talent.

  • #157296

    Deb Green

    Positives: New blood, new ideas, guarantee your management was going to change, like it or not

    Negatives: New blood, “new” ideas, guarantee your management was going to change, like it or not.

    My point – any change can be good if you have a good attitude to face the changes with. Even ‘good’ change can be a bad experience if you convince yourself it’s a negative event.

    Perspective is everything.

  • #157294

    I am reading everybody else’s comments with interest.

    To me it depends on two things:

    1. Rate of turnover relative to benchmarks (eg other offices in the same agency, other managers in the same office, etc) Too often bad managers are kept in place while their staffers flee. Bad.

    2. Timing relative to leadership initiatives or policy changes. An exodus may signify disagreement with a new direction in which case it could be positive – clearing the deck for unified operations.

    Whatever the reason though, turnover has to be examined carefully.

  • #157292

    John Husfield

    Simply said: there is a reason turnover is viewed so negatively – it damages projects, departments, and staff. The solution is to use good management technique to avoid the pitfall of turnover. In organizations where turnover is an reoccuring issue look to the manager – this person likely needs training or replacement.

    Everything else is just lipstick.

  • #157290

    Kevin M. Schafer

    I think that loyalty and respect of an employee should be recognized by upper management in an organization more often. If an employee is honest in his/her doing, the organization should should want to keep him/her. The organization will then benefit from the sucesses from its employee…

  • #157288

    Brian Dowling

    Sounds like it only applies to government geeks but also argues that bureaucratic, particularly large bureaucratic organizations get diminishing return from technical creatives and need to find fresh fruit while technical creatives find little sustainable nourishment from such organizations. Does this mean that the real innovation and creativity is starting to happen at the edge and outside such organizations but is disseminated through such organizations because of size and established proximity to the public or social function? If the organization is only offering a commodified version of access or dissemination then likely other paths will be found over time.

    The question of whether employee turnover is a good thing or not may be irrelevant. The question assumes that there is an entrenched organization that can maintain itself by absorbing and developing such talent and by finding fresh fruit can sustain itself, but if that organization is in truth no longer adding value like a farmers field providing nutrients to a fruit tree, then how sustainable is it? If the fruit tree does better as a species of fruit (not necessarily each tree) then will it start to return to the wild?

    This would not be a quick transition but each fruit tree will have to decide which path to take. The farmer’s field has a longer future in terms of survivability but its future is also inextricably bound by its own nature and dependent upon the collective outcomes of all those fruit trees over time moving from the farmer’s field (bureaucratic, hierarchical organizations) to the wild (collaborative, creative enterprises).

  • #157286

    Yes in the Canary Islands (the place where I was born) they have developed a biodiesel from seaweed, Why you can not do the same in USA?

  • #157284

    Mark Hammer

    In 2002, I inserted a question into our federal employee survey here in Canada, asking whether turnover was a “problem” in one’s work unit. A not insignificant chunk of folks said it was. Of course, with just the one question, we had no idea what sort of problem it was causing. A few years ago, I started rethinking the question, and the scale in particular. Some survey questions are appropriately presented in terms of their “truth value”, and employ an agree/disagree scale. Other things, however, are more appropriately addressed in terms of a frequency scale – something desirable or undesirable happens consistently vs infrequently – so I persuaded folks to change the scale. Once the scale was changed, the wording was also changed to: “I feel that the quality of my work suffers because of…high staff turnover

    Looking at the publicly posted results for that question in the most recent survey – Q18f: – I notice that the perceived problematic nature of turnover is greater for employees with more PS tenure than those with less, for employees who had been in their current position longer, and for supervisors than non-supervisory staff. It was also more likely to be the case for some job families and communities of practice than for others:

    I should add, in closing, that none of these survey findings necessarily factor in how much actual turnover there was, or where it was, or who it was. The departure of one key person who is the “go-to” individual regarding policy-interpretation or organizational history can have broad ripple effects, even though, in terms of head count alone, the organization appears remarkably stable. And certainly, even if recruiting bright, capable, energetic people is easy to do, that doesn’t mean you don’t have to take time from all the other stuff you need to do in order to train them up.

  • #157282

    Trick question! When people leave my agency they don’t get replaced. Turnover is just another word for “Do more with less”

    My agency, when it is allowed to fill slots back up, doesn’t actually get to interview anyone. Instead, a central management agency will do a test then a standardized interview. The manager will have no idea who they get and no say in whether or not they’ll be a good fit or not.

    If you have a model like that, then turnover is always always always a bad thing.

  • #157280

    Allison Primack

    These responses were shared on GovLoop’s Facebook:

    Jeff Friedman All organizations – government or otherwise – need to have a healthy churn.

    Lynn Kirby Depends on your definition of “high.” I agree with Jeff above. Employee changeover breeds fresh perspectives and ideas. However, I think organizations should also maintain employees with longevity as they have the history of decisions and repercussions at their disposal that are important to the way ahead…
    Jennifer Brand I thought low turnover was good until I saw the stagnancy created. Then I saw places with high turnover and sure there are more promotion opportunities but there is also a tendency to lose internal controls when no one understands the agency’s function well or the history as to what caused the need for something to be done a certain way (i.e., due to a fraud 10 years ago there are certain processes in place for cash transactions and then when those were lost there was supposed to be shock when a similar fraud was pulled off).
  • #157278

    Jo Youngblood

    Turnover is an opportunity to capitalize on innovation. And right, your highest performers are more likely to leave in turnover scenarios especially if there is no room for upward mobility for them from their current position or there is not enough support for their current position. But that doesn’t mean that the next person that comes in wont have an idea or two about how to get the job done.

  • #157276


    I read and enjoyed the article by Aliya Sternstein. While I agree that there may be value in high employee turnover in a unique field like cyber security, in general it deminishes the return on investment of the government’s training and perfessional development dollars. Even with the laws and policies in place requiring “continuing service agreements,” we lose considerable falue when one of our graduates from a master’s program in cyber security leaves after three years to work in a coorporate position paying a higher salary for his or her government experience and government funded education. Should we be doing better in retaining the value of our employees while ensuring that their skills remain current and their motivation remains high?

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