A Simple Idea to Radically Increase Employee Engagement

Reading Harvard Business Publishing the other day, I ran across Bill Taylor’s post on how Zappos actually incents people to quit. It’s part of how one extremely high service and collaborative culture works. Here’s an excerpt:

"After a week or so in this immersive experience, though, it’s time for what Zappos calls “The Offer.” The fast-growing company, which works hard to recruit people to join, says to its newest employees: “If you quit today, we will pay you for the amount of time you’ve worked, plus we will offer you a $1,000 bonus.” Zappos actually bribes its new employees to quit!

Why? Because if you’re willing to take the company up on the offer, you obviously don’t have the sense of commitment they are looking for."

Shades of an idea I had about ten years ago. Time to trot it out again.

If your company hires an executive search firm (aka headhunter) to do a search, you also get (or at least you used to—it’s been a while since I’ve checked it out) a commitment from the firm to make your own company “off-limits” from searches they run for other firms—to some extent, for some period of time.

The thinking is, if you hire us to steal away someone for you, we’ll promise not to steal your people—at least until you stop paying us the hush money.

And implicit in that thinking is: employees are hard to get, harder to keep. You have to lock employees up. Golden handcuffs for starters. But also, make it disloyal for anyone to leave. Make it a sin to be seen talking to headhunters. Get headhunters to stop seducing your employees. Lock them up. Don’t let them hear about other firms. Tell them they’re much happier working for you—but don’t let them do any direct comparisons.

So it is with the ethos of "attraction and retention" these days. (Why do those terms sound like ad copy for a roach motel?)

 But what if—just imagine—a really forward thinking company, a Zappos wannabee, went to a search firm and said this:

We don’t want to hire you to do a few dozen searches to get new people for us. Instead, we want to hire you to find a bona fide job offer for every one of our existing employees: a legitimate job offer, one offer per person per year, to leave us for someone else.

Because if someone isn’t happy/engaged/fulfilled here, we are committed to helping them become happier/more-engaged/more-fulfilled somewhere else. 
And, if they weren’t in the right place in the first place, we want to know why: was it recruiting, training, leadership, motivation? What went wrong?

Why should a company pay to have its people recruited away? Taylor’s answer for Zappos, that it weeds out the uncommitted, is only a part of the truth. The bigger part is that a company which is clearly is committed to long-term personal development at the apparent expense of the company’s short-term economics is a company which will in fact prosper greatly—precisely because it is committed to personal development, and not just until the W2 form relationship is over.

Those who stay have truly re-upped. Those who leave give the company great market research data, and are a walking advertisement for devotion to people development.

It’s the familiar trust paradox. Long-term management delivers better short-term results than does short term management. Long-term commitment to people gets better ROI than "human capital" optimization strategies.

An employer that is people-focused enough to constantly offer their people alternatives is a company that is going to attract a whole lot of high-development people.

But, you might say, what’s in it for the search firm? The chance to walk in through the front door for once, rather than skulking around the back. A chance to find great candidates without having to slink around, to actually place great employees in, occasionally, even greater situations. To make a difference. Maybe to even get a better nickname than “headhunter.”

Sounds like a win-win-win to me.