Human Resources | March 2009 | By Dr. Jerry Newman

Why People Quit

There are three reasons crew members leave. Learn how to avoid them.

Turnover isn’t a simple behavior. People leave jobs for all kinds of reasons. While it’s easy to claim money is the reason people leave fast-food jobs, that’s only true some of the time. Take my job at Burger King. I started on a Tuesday. I was replacing a girl who started on Monday. She quit during her first break. Walked outside for a cigarette and never came back. Surely that’s not about money. She wasn’t there long enough to get any. In fact, I understand she never came back for her check.

People don’t behave the way we want them to for three reasons: Either they don’t have the ability to do what we want; they aren’t motivated to do what we want; or something in the environment is stopping them from doing what we want. Reducing turnover is about figuring out which of these is the primary cause of your turnover.

We influence Ability by doing a better job of recruiting, selecting, and training new employees. For example, my best manager worked at Burger King. She interviewed me for more than an hour, while other store managers usually spent less than 15 minutes on this chore. When she hired me, I asked what convinced her I would work out. Her answer was simple: “I want people who are going to fit in. You have a sense of humor (clearly she wasn’t on target with everything) and you take this job seriously. I only hire people who know how to take care of business and have some fun along the way.” This response highlights the keys to selection.

When you have a good team, make sure new hires fit.

After you select employees, make sure the on-boarding process intensively involves the store manager. Early training is too important to delegate. Remember, the first days are scary on any new job. If you care for your people in these early days, the memory of your effort will imprint on their loyalty gene.

Motivation is affected by how we compensate and reward, how we measure and manage performance, and what kind of culture we have. When I talk about compensation and rewards, I’m not just considering money. Other things like advancement and development opportunities, job security, and benefits all affect the way crew members behave. We’ll talk about the 13 types of rewards in a later column. But, overall, if the reward is important, and the store manager has control over it, that’s a powerful force. My best manager was good at using the rewards she controlled. She was excellent at feedback. And though she was a bit stingy with reinforcement, she delegated this job well to others. She also was good at building social relationships at the store. People stayed because their best friends worked with them. If crew members leave because the pay isn’t good, oh well.But if they leave because of things you control, and don’t do effectively, that’s a different story.

Managing performance is an art. Today’s crew members grew up with video games and competition. Scores matter. How you do against the other guy or the computer matters. Do you use this to your advantage? Do you post metrics for the best stores in the area, and challenge your group to come up with ways of beating them? And if goals aren’t reached, have you established an environment where feedback about ways to improve is not only OK, but expected?

Another factor within motivation is culture. Many behavior experts think culture would win a cage fight against compensation and performance management. Culture involves the informal rules and rewards that build up over time in a store and have a significant impact on how crew members behave. If there is anything that my McJob book preaches, it’s that store managers set the culture. Look in the mirror, if you’re not happy with the way crew members behave when you’re not watching.

Environment counters what I call the behavior demons. It turns out that when students tell me “the dog ate my paper,” sometimes that’s true. Dogs and other behavior demons find ways to make us perform in less than optimal ways. I worked at a Krystal where the franchisee was trying to squeeze out short-term profits at the expense of long-term success. The store manager, a very ingenious fellow, changed the organization design of his store. He left the assistant manager position vacant for several months. This cut costs, making his boss happy. Nothing was cut that hurt customer service, at least in the short run. It worked, sort of. He ended up giving some of the work to crew members, and doing the rest himself—without compensation. Good short-term solution for survival; perhaps a long-run prescription for burnout.

Organization development is part of environment and refers to programs designed to change beliefs, attitudes, and people processes. For example, when one brand added the Angus Burger to its menu, I happened to be the guy toasting the new buns. No one told me the buns were thicker than regular buns. The thicker buns stuck in the toaster. How did the crew advise me to handle this problem? Smash the buns with your palms to make them thinner. That worked just fine, but was it a good outcome?

When I asked why management wasn’t notified I was told: “They don’t listen to us.” Sounds like time to change the beliefs, attitudes, and people processes. That’s just what one Canadian chain did. Stores committed to regular meetings with staff, with Uphill Voice (crew members voicing their opinions to management) strongly encouraged. The result was both improved processes and happier crew members.

And finally we try to do some people planning to anticipate future shortages or excesses. Many quick-serves have advanced talent management programs for senior leadership. Look down at the bottom of the organizational ladder, though. Early identification of management potential at this level could reap huge rewards. In the seven stores where I worked, though, these programs were poorly communicated and executed. Tell good people that they have the talent and opportunity for advancement. Guess what happens—they sure are less likely to leave.

When I go into a company with turnover problems, the first thing I do is look at the three triangles. What’s not functioning right and how can we fix it. Over the next few months I want to talk about this detection process and possible solutions we might want to explore together.

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