No More Lifetime Employment

Should it be a company’s ambition to keep people forever?

For my parents’ generation and before it was common to stay with a company your whole career. In some cultures this is still the case. Things look quite differently now, so perhaps it is time to reevaluate if we should adapt our approach to how we position our company as an employer.

I think it was Richard Branson I once hear speak about the millennial generation, and how to adapt to their “impatience” and “instant gratification” needs.

This is how I would summarize Branson’s perspective:

Millennials are flighty; they are impatient. You can expect them to move around. Rather than trying to fight it, accept it and adapt. Don’t aim to be their final destination — the place they grow up and work the rest of their career. Instead, try to be a fertile mid-station. Make sure you create an environment that can teach them plenty of things and helps them grow. In the mean time, make sure they add value to your company quickly. Then, when they want to leave, let them go. No hard feelings. If their experience was good, they will tell their friends. And if you’re me (Richard Branson), chances are they will end up in one of your other 10,000 companies anyway.

Although I’m not technically a millennial, reflecting on my career — this is also how I look at all the companies I’ve worked at. I did not leave a single one because they were “bad.” It’s never black and white. Most companies aren’t inherently good or bad, they just vary in how much of a match they are for your particular needs and interests, and the current state of your career. They vary in levels of organization, rate of change, compensation, type of challenges. That doesn’t mean we can judge them to be either good or bad, it all depends.

For instance, a stable company may be boring to some people: if things change all the time, you will likely learn quicker — but for others this may be super stressful. An outsourcing company may not be good if you care a lot about ownership of the product you work on, but if you’re looking for variety and to build up your technical skills in many different projects, such a company may be a great fit.

As a result, I’d happily recommend any of my previous employers to you after first listening to what you’re interested in.

There’s no such thing as the ultimate employer. And likely what type of employer is good for you will evolve over time.

Ok, I can tell you’ve bought into this idea.

How do we adapt as a result? I can see two areas of focus:

  1. Adapting how we get people in
  2. Adapting how we let people go (in the non-euphemistic sense)

I’ve run some “people manager” interview trainings over time. The people manager interview is the recruitment stage where we focus on the candidate’s motivation, soft skills etc. The part I always emphasize is trying to focus on the match. The two-way match: what do we need as a company right now (or near future), and what is this candidate looking for right now (or near future)?

You may see a super smart and competent candidate, but know they’re not a good match right now. Nevertheless, that may change in a year or two down the line. That’s perfectly fine, and a good reason to during this interview also get a sense of their future trajectory. I’m not sure if current applicant tracking systems support this very well to be honest. Yes, I’m sure you can keep candidates on record so you can ping them again in the future, even if they didn’t successfully go through the process — but not sure if you can take potential future career matches into account. PRODUCT OPPORTUNITY.

Let’s focus on the tougher part: letting people go. I don’t want to go to the extreme of actively pushing people out because that would be best for them — I’m not ready for such a step myself yet, probably. Nevertheless, we can still be more open to the idea that when people are stagnating, it may actually be good for them to leave. And perhaps we should be more OK with even suggesting it as an option.

A few years ago “Manager READMEs” where a thing, so I wrote one. Here’s a relevant part:

It is also my job to ensure you’re sufficiently challenged and growing. If you’re bored, tell me. There are always opportunities for change, either in my team, or in another; I will even support you if you feel you need to join another company in order to achieve your goals (my employers don’t always appreciate this).

How far should we go to retain people? When we know they’re thinking of leaving, or even got an offer, should we throw a promotion at them, golden handcuff them? Likely, that’s hardly ever an effective long-term strategy.

Having people quit on you is always tough, but not all cases are the same. You can classify these cases into two categories:

  1. The job they leave to is an improvement for them (again: for their particular needs, interests and stage of career), and likely better than what you can offer in your company right now.
  2. They leave to get out of their current job.

Determining which category you’re dealing with is a hard, because the person in question will almost always present it as a case of (1). It’s probably healthy to always reflect on their true motivation, and looking inward at your responsibility as a manager is the right place to start. In many cases it will turn out you could have handle the situation better: perhaps you didn’t offer the right opportunities, didn’t see the particular needs — there’s learning opportunity.

Nevertheless, if you accept the “fertile mid-station” model, you know this was bound to happen at some point, so let them go and support them in the process.

Easier said than done, though. This is hard, because you have to deal with various biases:

  1. You may really like this person, or value their contribution — you want them to stay because it’s good for you.
  2. This is going to cause you trouble — you will need to find a replacement, there will be some level of drama.
  3. It may reflect badly on you as a manager. “What is this manager doing that people quit!?”
  4. You know grass always seems greener elsewhere, so you’re worried they’re making a naive mistake. At least here you know what you’re going to get — the “known evil” argument.

It’s never easy as a manager.

Nevertheless, looking back, as an employee — I’ve never regretted a single job switch. Maybe I got lucky.

The value I got out of my jobs varied greatly, but I always got something out of it. We are lucky enough to be in an industry where demand is high, so we’ll always find something else if things don’t pan out. Also: if you accept the mid-station model, people may return to you at some later stage, another reason to make leaving a somewhat positive experience. I had one colleague that has left and rejoined a company I worked at twice already, every time in a different enough role that made sense for him at that stage of his career. Cool!

If you look at this at a market macro level this is probably going to be healthy too. If people make strategic job switches, they will grow more quickly as people. Therefore, as a whole market, the rate of people growth goes up. As a result, we get more value out of the limited “resources” (love to use that term) that we have. Wins all around.

So, let’s stop optimizing our companies to be a “final destination.” That’s likely not going to work out very well. Instead, let’s accept our role as “fertile mid-stations.” Retaining people forever should not be our ultimate goal, nor a measure of success.

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