Great employees keep resigning: How to start fixing the underlying problems at your agency

Written by: Karl Sakas

Agency owners often come to me for consulting help after their key employees resign. They say things like:

  • Two employees quit without notice in the last month. When I walk through the office, people stop talking.”
  • “My highest-billing employee resigned to work for my biggest competitor. Now I’m worried other people are thinking of leaving.”
  • “Another long-time employee walked out without a new job. What am I doing wrong?”

Unexpected voluntary turnover—people quitting that you never expected to leave, or to leave so soon—can be a symptom of deeper problems at your agency.

What comes as a surprise to you is often no surprise to your employees. As I discussed recently:

When someone quits, don’t give them a counter-offer to stay—they’ve mentally moved on and it’s too late to keep them. Instead, figure out what you need to change to keep others from leaving. This will probably hurt short-term but you’ll be glad long-term.

Questions to ask when your good employees keep quitting

As an agency consultant, here are the things I think about when agencies have high turnover among employees they didn’t want to leave. My goal is to assess what went wrong, and to identify how to prevent the problem among the remaining employees.

Why did they say they left?

Sometimes people are quite honest about why they’re leaving. Other times, people clam up, because they’re concerned about their reputation or think you won’t do anything with the feedback.

It’s at least worth asking. If one of your directors has a closer relationship with them, ask them to do the exit interview—your outgoing employee might be more upfront with them.

Did they go to a competitor, or change fields entirely?

When an agency employee goes in-house or leaves the field entirely, I’m less concerned—this is usually a sign that they weren’t happy in the role or the industry.

But if they go to a similar role at a competitor, it’s a sign that something wasn’t a match at your agency.

How much notice did they give?

The norm in the U.S. is two weeks’ notice. If someone’s leaving to go to grad school or to move out of the area, they may give several months’ notice.

Although legally most employees can quit without any notice, walking out is almost always a bad sign. It usually means people were so frustrated, they couldn’t take it any longer.

Keep in mind that if you tend to terminate people immediately when they give you notice, you’re training your current employees that it’s not safe to give two weeks’ notice. In that case, the lack of advance notice is your own fault.

Were there warning signs?

Think about what the exiting employee has said and done over the past few months. There are usually warning signs.

Did you ignore requests for help? Did you make promises you didn’t keep?

Had you rejected their suggestion to fire a terrible client, demonstrating to employees that revenue is more important than morale? A client agency came to me after losing their strategist—their highest-billing employee. It turns out the agency had ignored her continued requests to reassign her from a particularly obnoxious client.

A friend doing SEO at an agency told his boss that he couldn’t handle more accounts, but they kept loading him up. He finally got a new job and his boss complained that he was letting them down—when in fact, his boss should have known better.

Employees don’t expect perfection, but when things are difficult, they need hope for the future.

How receptive are you to employee feedback?

I sometimes see Culture Survey comments along the lines of, “I give <CEO Name> suggestions but they never act on them.”

Sometimes, employees are “too helpful”—they bury you in ideas that aren’t a strategic fit. But more often, people are making good—or at least well-intended—suggestions.

Take the time to let them know why you would or wouldn’t implement their suggestion—or say you’ll consider it and ask them to take the lead in following up with you in a week or a month. You can also ask them to share a brief proposal on how their idea might work, or put them in charge of implementing it so it doesn’t increase your own workload.

When a small agency can’t afford to pay above-market salaries, the easiest way for them to recruit people is to find “lightly disgruntled” employees at other agencies, whose bosses keep ignoring their smart suggestions. Show that they’ll be appreciated at your agency and you can often get people to join your agency without requiring a raise.

How long were people there?

What’s your typical employee tenure? Do people tend to quit at a certain point?

If people quit fast—in the first few months—you probably made a bad hire. This is usually a sign they weren’t a good fit for the role or the company. Sometimes, they had unreasonable expectations about the work they’d be doing—which is sometimes your fault, for not managing their expectations.

If people quit after a long time at your agency, consider whether they felt like they were stuck in their career.

Did you give people hope for their future at your agency?

In my Culture Survey, I typically ask what people think about the agency’s future—both the company as a whole, and about how they fit into that future.

People typically see a bright future for the agency, but they often aren’t clear how they fit into the agency’s future. They might not know where you’re headed, or they might see a dead-end career path.

Sometimes, weak benefits make employees see your agency as a short-term stop in their career, before they go somewhere more generous and more stable.

Were you making people uncomfortable?

When I do anonymous Culture Surveys for clients, I sometimes get feedback that the owner or top manager makes off-color jokes or other inappropriate comments.

The jokes you made when the agency was you and a friend may not be appropriate as you grow. Some comments may come across as sexist, or otherwise create a hostile work environment.

Freedom of speech doesn’t give you license to be inappropriate. Even if people laugh, that’s not proof people find it funny. You’re the boss—people “have” to laugh.

Even if your jokes aren’t inappropriate in their content, too many “in jokes” leave everyone else feeling left out. When someone feels excluded for months or years, don’t be surprised they want to leave.

Were they truly a great employee?

Sometimes the person you thought was a great employee… wasn’t a great employee. You might find things in their company email account that suggest they weren’t working as hard as you thought, or was even using company time for other activities.

Clients and I have found things like people applying to new jobs, employees forwarding negative personnel feedback to their parents, and even what may have been a drug deal via their company email account.

You might also find a huge backlog of work that they claimed to be doing but weren’t. A client found an entire ream of unfiled paperwork after their office manager left. Another client found—when his star developer went on vacation—that projects were more delayed than the employee had let on. Turns out the star developer wasn’t a star after all.

Looking to the future

I’m glad to conduct a Culture Survey at your agency—the anonymous format consistently produces valuable, actionable insights for agency owners—but you can start by looking at the situation yourself.

One of my best bosses made it safe for employees to talk about their career goals. If your current role wasn’t a match, she’d do her best to move you to a role that was a better fit, or else help you find a new job somewhere else. Most CEOs aren’t that open-minded, but when you make it unsafe to talk, you shouldn’t be surprised when people “suddenly leave.”

Question: How do you keep good employees longer at your agency?

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