4,317 words ~ 14 min read
Hold onto your stars
Why “job-hopping” is a myth – and how to retain your best employees
“No one stays at a job longer than a year.”
“Millennials want a raise, a promotion, and a trophy three months after they’re hired.”
“People used to value loyalty. Everyone spent 30 years with the same firm.”
I’m sure you’ve heard these tired workplace myths.
While the distracted, fickle job-hopper is a familiar archetype, it’s simply not real.
Recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that today’s employees actually stay longer with a company than they did 25 years ago.
In 1983, the average employee spent 3.5 years with one firm. In 1998, that number rose to 3.6.
In 2014, the average employee stayed 4.6 years.
While this isn’t global data, the U.K. and several other countries have reported similar trends.
I won’t speculate about the economic, political, or cultural reasons for this change. Instead, let’s talk about why people stay — and why they go.
In a privately-funded study, employees were asked why they quit their jobs.
Almost 80% cited “a lack of appreciation” as their reason for leaving.
Maybe you’ve been there. I know it hurts when exceptional work goes unnoticed.
And if you’re arriving at sunrise and ordering dinner to your desk, even a quick “thank you” can feel exhilarating.
So, whether you’re hiring that first employee (or assistant) or you’re trying to reduce staff churn in a team of 500, it’s essential to know what people really want from their work.
Once you hire the right people, how can you encourage them to stick around for the long term?
I’ve been thinking about this question for a long time.
At Jotform, we’re lucky to have low staff turnover. I recently did the math, and learned that we have a 5% annual churn rate. Or, a 95% retention rate, if you’re the glass-half-full type.
Most people stay for several years, and our Chief Technology Officer, Ertugrul, has been with us for 10 of our 15 years in business.
I certainly don’t have all the answers. But I’m always trying to keep great employees in the company — and I know many people are facing the same challenge.
Here’s what I’ve learned.
Get the basics right
Good salaries and yearly increases (or bonuses) are like basic hygiene. You need to brush your teeth. You need to pay your staff well — and on time.
One of the quickest ways to advance from “sketchy startup” to respectable workplace is by never playing fast and loose with the payroll.
People need to feed their families. They have to buy dog food and cover the electricity bill. You can’t pay them every second Friday-ish… or delay paychecks when a client invoice is late.
We don’t hire someone unless we have a full year of their salary in the bank. I made this rule when I hired our first employee. Fifteen years and over 300 staff later, it’s still in place.
Remember that people are pack creatures
Just like wolves, dolphins, and lions, humans move in packs. We’re social. We need to feel safe and secure, and we like to be surrounded by people we trust.
Those needs don’t disappear at work. A calm, warm, non-threatening environment is massively important for both productivity and longevity.
In a 2016 study from the Pew Research Centre, 60% of Americans say it is “not at all likely” that they will lose their job or be laid off in the next 12 months. Another 28% say it’s “not too likely.”
I think those numbers are still too low. I want our employees to know that their jobs are safe. Unless they do something crazy or massively under-perform, they have a longstanding place in our company.
Even when an employee isn’t working out, we try to move them into a new role or address the underlying problem before we even imagine letting them go.
Our small, cross-functional teams also promote a more collaborative environment. They form a family, of sorts, and that encourages tight-knit relationships.
What else helps? We always try to hire friendly, positive people. It sounds like common sense, but it makes a tangible difference in the office. No one (including me) wants to spend their days with a mopey Eeyore.
Take practical steps to minimize stress
In today’s business world, leaders need to actively help employees avoid panic and overwork. The key is to promote a challenging, but not inherently stressful, work environment.
For example, our Hack Weeks encourage teams to push their creativity. At the same time, they’re not high-stakes events. They’re fun. They encourage divergent thinking.
Everyone stretches their skills and we end the week with lively presentations. There’s always a lot of laughing and more than a few high-fives.
Having a single product also prevents overwhelm. We’re not pulled in 17 different directions. We practice continuous improvement and release product changes several times per week.
Also, pursuing the same goal brings people together. When everyone’s working on different projects, they don’t have a lot in common.
They end up making small talk about the weather or binge-worthy Netflix shows instead of the rich, complicated discussions that often happen during lunch breaks.
Don’t set deadlines
Despite the +10 million worldwide users who count on our product, we don’t have deadlines.
We only set launch dates when a new product version is totally ready. Then, it’s a marketing launch. We can plan backwards to ensure a sane lead-up. Our teams don’t stay late or work on the weekends to hit the target date.
This is how we avoid the all-too-common software industry “death marches,” which go something like this:
A manager sets an arbitrary deadline. The team knows it’s impossible. There’s too much to do and not enough time. But, everyone accepts their fate. They pull out all the stops to meet the deadline.
As a result, people work late, guzzle coffee and eat chips at their desks, and spend weekends away from their families. They’re stressed, bitter, and they start to fantasize about quitting.
Once the deadline passes, everyone breathes a sigh of relief (even if the result was kind of janky)… until the next death march begins.
We do everything in our power to prevent this scenario. And if you’re hoping to avoid similar stress spirals, I’d recommend the following three books (which are not affiliate links, BTW):
- Peopleware by Tom DeMarco and Tim Lister
- Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency by Tom DeMarco
- The Mythical Man-Month by Frederick P. Brooks Jr.
Meet enduring needs
The world changes and we adapt, but just like our pack mentality, many human traits remain the same.
In their 2002 book, The Human Capital Edge, authors Ira Kay and Bruce N. Pfau looked at how certain HR practices can actually raise or lower a company’s stock price.
Although nearly two decades have passed since the book’s release, Pfau wrote a 2016 Harvard Business Review story about what millennials (those supposedly fickle, job-hopping employees) want at work.
The answer? The same things as everyone else:
“…across generation, race, or gender employees have generally wanted the same things from work. Four key questions continue to recur when employees are deciding whether to join, give their best effort, or stay at an organization. And they appear to stand the test of time:
Is this a winning organization I can be proud of?
Can I maximize my performance on the job?
Are people treated well economically and interpersonally?
Is the work itself fulfilling and enjoyable?”
If you’re working to increase retention, these are great questions to turn back on yourself.
Stand in the team’s shoes and think about how they might answer. Be honest.
If you’re ready for more feedback, sit down with some key employees and ask for their candid thoughts. Or, create an anonymous survey.
Clearly, bigger companies will have HR protocols to consider, but these questions hit the core of our need for meaningful work.
Meaning + compensation + environment + appreciation = major job satisfaction
It’s a powerful equation that works for nearly every company, industry or generation.
5 qualities of star employees: how to identify, nurture, and retain great people
Every team has its star members:
These luminaries help the group to reach big milestones.
Some have extraordinary abilities (like Messi’s speed or Biles’ sky-high vaults), while others create team cohesion (Gretzky’s on-ice vision and Wambach’s leadership).
Many excel in both of these categories.
Organizations also have standout members, which are often referred to as “high-potential employees.”
As consultants Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman explain, high-potential staff are usually in the top 5% of all employees:
“These people are thought to be the organization’s most capable, most motivated, and most likely to ascend to positions of responsibility and power.”
While everyone’s contributions are valuable, star members typically have a disproportionate effect on innovations, achievements, and results.
According to Harvard Business Review, the Pareto principle, which holds that 80% of all effects come from 20% of the causes, also applies to star team members. Studies show that “across a wide range of tasks, industries and organizations, a small proportion of the workforce tends to drive a large proportion of organizational results:
- The top 1% accounts for 10% of organizational output
- The top 5% accounts for 25% of organizational output
- The top 20% accounts for 80% of organizational output”
I’ve certainly noticed this effect at Jotform. Everyone works hard, but there are always a few people who rise above the crowd.
And we have both the “geniuses” with jaw-dropping talents and invaluable leaders who enrich the company culture.
Ultimately, star employees can have a major effect on our organizations, so it’s important to consider how we can identify, nurture, and retain them for the long run.
The 5 qualities of star employees
Before we can identify high-potential employees, it helps to consider what “star” performance means. Every organization will need to create its own definitions, but in my experience, standout performers have five traits in common.
1. A great attitude
Strong employees have a growth mindset, so they don’t dwell on negative issues or situations. They always want to move forward. These team members also respond well to constructive feedback. For example, when their work is critiqued, stars dig in and push to find new solutions. Inevitably, they come back with something better than expected.
2. Distinct skills and abilities
Skills are not the same as talent. While someone could have a natural gift for drawing, becoming truly skilled takes time. It requires concerted effort. Star players care enough to hone their abilities, which also stems from a growth mindset.
3. The confidence to aim high
A high-potential employee will accept a challenge and then set the bar even higher. And it doesn’t matter if that bar exceeds their experience or skills; they’ll still tackle the problem head-on.
That doesn’t mean stars don’t fail sometimes. We all do. The ability to get up, dust yourself off, and overcome your fears is what matters.
I try to watch for people who are ahead of the pack — who are attempting what others haven’t even considered yet. And again, it doesn’t matter if they succeed; it’s exciting to see people stretching themselves.
4. The drive to stretch and grow
Raw talent is a good start, but greatness requires internal motivation. Star employees have an innate drive to create. Often, they pursue side projects, or tackle personal goals outside of work (watch for these when you’re interviewing).
As authors Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Seymour Adler and Robert B. Kaiser explain, drive is the “will and motivation to work hard, achieve, and do whatever it takes to get the job done. It is easily identified as work ethic and ambition — an ability to remain dissatisfied with one’s achievements.”
5. Strong communication skills
Extrovert or introvert, a skilled communicator can effectively convey ideas, understand other people, and collaborate to solve problems. They have empathy and aim for clarity, so misunderstandings don’t lurk under the surface.
Communication is closely tied with social skills, which, according to the same Harvard Business Review story, involves two fundamental abilities:
“The ability to manage yourself and the ability to manage others (relationships). Employees likely to succeed in bigger, more complex jobs are first able to manage themselves — to handle increased pressure, deal constructively with adversity, and act with dignity and integrity.
Secondly, they are able to establish and maintain cooperative working relationships, build a broad network of contacts and form alliances, and be influential and persuasive with a range of different stakeholders.”
How to identify potential stars
To prepare their top performers for leadership roles, some companies now create formal High Potential (HIPO) programs. Yet, research shows that managers often struggle to identify true leaders.
In a study of nearly 2,000 high-potential employees in three organizations, Zenger and Folkman found that 12% of these HIPO participants were actually in the organization’s bottom quartile for effective leadership. Overall, 42% of HIPO members scored below average.
That’s a long way from the top 5%, but in many ways, the research makes sense.
It’s not always easy to determine whether someone has a growth mindset or strong motivation during an interview. And sometimes employees take time to show their true potential, or they’re hired for the wrong role.
We certainly don’t have all the answers, but there are a couple of processes that help us to spot the rising stars.
- First, our internship program at Jotform helps us to find high-quality people. We receive more than 1,000 applications each year and select the top 50 candidates. It’s a chance to see potential employees in action before we commit to a full-time role. Many of our best team members have come from this program.
- Next, we often hire junior employees for product support and maintenance roles. They learn about the company and we observe how their teamwork. When these employees thrive, we often move them into higher-level positions.
- Our demo days also give employees the chance to shine. It’s so interesting to see their problem-solving skills in action, and to see who’s pushing the proverbial envelope. Interns often show their work, too, which helps to spotlight strong candidates.
- Finally, we watch for momentum. High-potential employees are always improving. They accept feedback gracefully, apply it thoughtfully, and strive to advance. Consistent growth is a great sign.
How to grow your stars — and encourage them to stay
Nurturing and retaining star employees requires a similar approach. That’s because high-potential staff have an insatiable need to grow. So, if you empower them to achieve their goals, they’ll naturally want to stick around.
Provide challenging work
Stars thrive when they’re challenged. In my experience, this applies across the board — regardless of personality types, roles, talent, or age. So, even if an employee doesn’t have the skills to match the challenge, chances are they’ll rise to the occasion.
Nothing breaks the spirit of a high-potential employee quite like micromanagement. As we’ve discussed, stars are usually self-motivated, so they need freedom to develop creative solutions. At the same time, they need to know that someone cares about the work. I try to provide feedback and encouragement, but I also try to step out of the way when a top employee is on a mission.
Group stars together
Great employees love working with other great people. Their effectiveness multiplies on strong teams, and then everyone benefits. After all, nothing incredible is ever achieved by a single person (other than painting the Mona Lisa, perhaps).
Invest in training, courses and conferences
When budgets are tight, it can be tempting to cut education from the expense sheet. But, training your top performers is truly an investment in the company — and a stronger future for everyone.
A colleague once advised me to make employees sign a waiver stating that if they leave the company, they have to pay back their training expenses (which can cost several thousand dollars). I think that’s unfair. It goes against the spirit of our company. And as Henry Ford famously said, “the only thing worse than training your employees and having them leave is not training them and having them stay.”
Accept eager volunteers
I love when someone volunteers for a task or a role, because it usually means they’ll do an amazing job. Returning to the all-important growth mindset, volunteers usually see what needs to be done, and they want to experience that challenge or acquire new skills. Whenever possible, let them run with it.
Consider holding hack weeks
Hack weeks are five-day sprints where our product teams set day-to-day tasks aside to focus on a single problem or challenge. These immersive periods have led to some of our biggest innovations — and they allow employees to flex their creative and technical muscles. Hack weeks are also catnip for star team members.
Find the right fit
Sometimes we see great promise in a staff member, but they just don’t fulfill those high expectations. Instead of giving up (either on the person or their potential), it’s often worth moving them to a new role. Try to find an area where they will be successful.
What high-potential employees can offer
Most leaders want to ensure that their whole staff base is thriving — and that’s a worthwhile goal. I never want to undermine anyone’s contribution or underestimate their potential. At the same time, top employees bring more than sheer talent and cultural currency to the table. They also:
- Attract more awesome people to your company. Star performers want to collaborate and challenge each other. When your talent base is high, it shows that good things are happening at the organization.
- Raise the bar for everyone. When someone achieves an impressive feat, it expands the whole team’s ambitions. Morale and confidence grow, and people begin to believe they can solve tough problems — which usually means they can.
- Make teams better. Standout employees are force multipliers who make the group exponentially more effective. As former NHL goaltender Ken Dryden once said about the legendary #99, “Gretzky made his opponents compete with five players, not one, and he made his teammates full partners to the game.”
A final word of encouragement
In the rush of daily deadlines and ongoing projects, it can feel unnecessary (and maybe even unfair) to think about nurturing star employees. Yet, I always try to remember the old saying, “a rising tide lifts all boats.”
Encouraging excellence will pay off for everyone. And even if an employee starts below the bar, yet continues to grow and develop, they may eventually reach impressive heights.
Pay attention, keep them challenged, and one day, even those “dark horse” candidates may surprise you — and themselves.
The truth about toxic workers in the workplace
You’re baking a cake for a special occasion. You make sure all of the ingredients are high-quality — from the organic flour to the artisanal cocoa.
It turns out one of your eggs is cracked. You notice its less-than-fresh odor but decide to use it anyway.
What difference can one egg make?
You use a kitchen scale to weigh each ingredient with precision and set your timer for the recommended baking time. Patiently, you let the cake cool and frost it with homemade buttercream frosting.
So, how will your cake taste? Will it be as delicious as it is beautiful? Not exactly. Because one bad egg will ruin the flavor of an otherwise perfectly executed cake.
Just like in the confectionary world, in the world of business, one bad egg can impact the overall well being of a company. One Harvard Business School study refers to these bad eggs as “toxic workers.”
According to authors Housman & Minor, a toxic worker engages in behavior that is harmful to the organization, including its property or people.
Some forms of harmful behavior are overt: an employee misusing company resources or engaging in Wolf of Wall Street style NSFW behavior.
Or the recent controversy at Netflix, involving the firing of a chief communications officer over, ironically enough, totally unacceptable communications.
But there are other types of behavior, what I like to call “subtle misbehavior,” that can also harm a company — the teammate who’s always complaining about her workload or the chronically disorganized employee who leans on colleagues too frequently.
The true cost of bad eggs
At its most serious, toxic behavior can cost an organization millions or even billions of dollars.
At the other end of the spectrum, the authors of the HBS study found that more subtle forms of toxic behavior can cause customer loss, loss of employee morale and increased turnover, among other things.
What’s more, exposure to toxic workers can cause other employees to become toxic as well. Yes, one bad egg can ruin the cake.
8 types of bad eggs
As founders and managers, we might try being hypervigilant for bad eggs. To that end, I find it helpful to keep in mind various kinds of toxic workers.
- The know-it-all: overconfident in his or her knowledge and/or abilities, this person is usually dismissive of opinions and ideas that conflict with his/her own and refuses to reach out for help, forsaking the good of the company for his ego.
- The know-nothing-at-all: under-confident in his or her abilities, this person is always leaning on others to complete projects and can cause a serious strain on the human capital of your team.
- The overachiever: this person bites off more than he/she can chew and refuses to delegate tasks. They’re constantly overwhelmed by their workload and contribute unproductive stress to the work atmosphere.
- The slacker: organization and timeliness don’t come naturally to this person–and it shows. Easily distracted, his or her seemingly harmless time wasting can come at a high cost to your company. For example, one study found that companies lose an estimated $28 billion on employees surfing Facebook alone.
- The gossiper: This person may be your best friend at happy hour, but during office hours his/her unprofessional attitude and behavior may be throwing off your team’s productivity and creating an unprofessional work atmosphere.
- The super-hero personality: though he or she may be a strong performer on individual tasks, this person refuses to collaborate with colleagues and puts individual achievements before the group.
- The short-tempered: this teammate cannot control his/her emotions and can easily get upset, angry, or annoyed. Such mood changes can create a challenging environment especially when quick problem-solving is required.
- The job-hopper: this person will jump from one company to another but will hardly be pleased no matter wherever he/she goes. Though they are easier to spot at the interview stage, further investment in these people will be a waste for the company.
These are just some of the types I’ve encountered since starting JotForm. It’s by no means an exhaustive list, and sometimes more than one of these traits manifest in a single employee.
Hiring: weeding out potentially toxic workers
Back in 2011, Jotform had a small team of 6 people. In those days, it was easier to avoid a bad hire — potentially toxic workers — and maintain a lean and clean team.
But as we grew and hiring decisions were delegated, it became increasingly important to create clear hiring guidelines for managers. Because the best way to avoid bad eggs is to not hire them to begin with.
Indeed, the aforementioned study also found that avoiding toxic workers is twice as valuable as hiring a superstar worker. Simply put, a bad worker has a bigger impact than a good worker.
Here are a few hiring guidelines I’ve gleaned from 15 years of entrepreneurship:
- Go with your gut: It won’t always feel quite right and that’s OK. Trust your intuitions about the qualifications and character of interviewees.
- Add an outsider’s perspective: One of your current employees in a different department or an advisor can provide valuable and objective evaluations of a potential hire.
- Interview efficiently and decide quickly: We usually take no more than 24 hours to contact or share feedback with candidates after an interview. Often, we call the candidate as they’re walking to their car — right after the interview. To move so quickly, we believe in having all the decision makers in the room. Everyone has the chance to observe and ask questions. After the interview, we have a five-minute discussion. If it’s a long debate, the person is probably not right. But a quick, easy consensus usually means that we’ve found a great fit.
- Hire for skills and knowledge: Knowledge and skills are not the same. Sometimes, people speak in buzzwords but they don’t have real knowledge. They’ve just memorized headlines and jargon. Whatever position you’re hiring for, ask the candidate to perform a hands-on task. Over the years, we’ve encountered both “developers” who can’t actually code and dark horses who performed far beyond our expectations. It’s equally important to talk with the applicant about their chosen field. Can you have an intelligent discussion? Do their ideas and arguments make sense?
- Set clear expectations: Create an objective framework for judging whether or not an employee is performing adequately, and don’t hesitate to take action as soon as the employee falls below that expectation.
- Watch out for the overconfident: Like Icarus, the Greek mythological character who wore wings made of wax and flew too close to the sun, these candidates have a hard time checking their egos at the door. For instance, every new Jotform hire goes through Bootcamp. In their first month, they handle at least 100 customer support requests. It’s the best way to understand our users, their struggles, and their product needs. It also ensures that new hires know every nook and cranny of the software. When they hear about this during an interview, some candidates show their immediate discomfort while a few others openly said customer support is a low-profile task they would never spend time on. Despite perceived or actual abilities, these candidates are more likely to melt their wax wings, aka become toxic workers in the future.
- Reference the references: Many people skip this part. Speaking with outside parties who have known the interviewee in the past — in most cases, much longer than the interviewer — can really offer new insight into whether a candidate is well-suited for your company.
Culture is always in motion
“Leadership is absolutely about inspiring action, but it isalso about guarding against mis-action.” - Simon Sinek, author, speaker and marketing consultant
Culture is always in motion. And much like pastries, when it comes to your company culture, every egg counts.
Whether you’re dealing with an Icarus or a chronic complainer, one employee can make a large impact on your team and entire company.
Make sure your managers are vigilant of the quality of employees — on multiple dimensions, not just performance — before, during and after the hiring process.
Be aware of the different types of toxic workers, and if and when one is identified, don’t hesitate to take action immediately.
Just like that celebratory cake, your company can’t afford one bad egg.