Honest career planning conversations between an employee and manager need to recognize that at some point the employee is going to leave the company.
Early in his career my father was a doctor working at a hospital. When he felt it was time to find another job, he told his boss he was going to start looking for a new job and wanted to give him the heads up so his boss could begin looking for his replacement. Being a doctor short was not only more work for everyone else but could even impact patient safety. His boss replied, “You can start looking today” and fired him.
This never made sense to me. My father was sharing information with his boss which would only make his job easier. In response, his boss reacted poorly. You can be sure no one ever shared information like that with him in the future.
The reality is, we’re all going to leave at some point
I tell this story to everyone I hire. I let them know that if they are thinking about leaving, I’d like to talk to them about what’s wrong and would try to fix it. I also say if their mind is made up, I’ll respect it and will be supportive. They won’t be punished for letting me know.
Not everyone I’ve employed has felt comfortable sharing; it’s not something people traditionally say to their boss. Some people have. In one case it was someone who didn’t get on a project she wanted during a reorg (I was one voice of many on where some people went). I knew she was going to leave even without her telling me. She did tell me, and I was supportive, giving her time to go interview, so she didn’t have to worry about sneaking off. I even offered to help her find another job. I was losing her either way, being supportive wouldn’t save her, but it did show my other employees that I cared about them, and not just the company.
Another person told me his wife got into grad school, so he was going to move across the country in six months. I offered to help him find a new job as well. I also sent him to a conference shortly before he left because I would have sent him if he hadn’t told me. If he did lose that opportunity after telling me, others would have realized that telling me they are leaving would have negative consequences for them and I’d lose the trust I had created.
The reality is, we’re all going to leave at some point (for retirement if nothing else). We have created a culture where, despite the inevitability, we don’t talk about it. It’s like cancer in the 1960’s, you only whispered the word, not saying it out loud. But why?
To have that honest conversation means talking about the possibility of going somewhere else
Understandably companies don’t want people openly talking about better jobs elsewhere. People do anyway, but certainly the company doesn't want to encourage those conversations among employees. But a conversation between an employee and a manager or HR, those should be that open and honest.
Managers and HR should want to understand an employee's future. What does she want to do? What roles does she want in the future? If she can’t talk about that honestly, then the company can’t work to give her the path she needs to stay. But to have that honest conversation means talking about the possibility of going somewhere else. Let me rephrase that; it’s a certainty that she will go somewhere else. It means talking about the possibility of going somewhere else sooner, when it impacts the manager and HR person having that conversation, rather than later, when it’s abstract and some future manager’s or HR person’s issue to deal with.
It’s hard. It’s not necessarily unnatural, but it is not something found in our cultural work norms. It will be uncomfortable.
It helps you better manage and motivate
Why do it? Because you get that clarity of what employees really want. It helps you better manage and motivate them. It may lead you to create new types of roles that will better attract and retain employees. It also builds trust between employees and the company that can help during times of stress or uncertainty. And, as noted at the start, it helps you plan better because people leaving aren’t a surprise.
It also means when someone says, “I don’t like this job / company anymore” other employees don’t wonder the same. They will have their answer because they will have had an honest conversation about their goals and needs. Together with their manager and HR they will have concluded that the job is a fit; if that changes, they’ll come to you to give you a chance to fix it instead of just walking out, too.
This is all easier said than done. Again, it’s a big cultural shift. It also takes only one story of a manager reacting badly to an employee talking about leaving to kill the trust. It doesn’t have to be a summary firing, even saying, “Well if you’re leaving in two months, I’m not sending you to the training we have you scheduled for next month” to destroy it. Likewise, if someone is thinking of leaving, denying them a benefit sends them out the door and gets others looking that way.
Employees only comfortable telling you some of what they want (e.g., their goals here, but not elsewhere) are like a patient only telling a therapist part of what’s bothering him. The therapist is hampered in helping the patient by the limited information. The more honest the conversation, the better the process for everyone.
I’m not proposing that you need to build up to a culture where everyone feels comfortable telling you they are thinking of quitting. However, it is important to have honest conversations about the future and realistically that means sometime in the next few years the employee may look elsewhere. It wasn’t going to last forever anyway, so let’s stop pretending and start talking.
It’s critical to learn about corporate culture before you accept a job offer but it can be awkward to raise such questions. Learn what to ask and how to ask it to avoid landing yourself in a bad situation.