Recently I was working on site with a senior management team and the issue of “can’t find good employees” and “we can’t seem to keep good employees” continued to surface in our discussions.  After spending time with the team and drilling down on what has been happening, I realized that this organization was experiencing some serious capacity and job design issues.  And, these issues are continually getting worse because of their current organizational growth strategy which is to increase in size by 30% within 18 months. Yikes.

Sure, we all want growth.  However, uncontrolled growth is a bit like a roller coaster getting up to the peak of the track, before the fast swoosh down, only to realize that the scaffolding to support the swoosh down the rest of the track hasn’t yet been built!  So the roller coaster chugged higher and higher (growth!) and then runs right off the tracks because there is nothing there to support it.  So, using this analogy of the roller coaster and the tracks, I’d like you to think about the scaffolding that supports the roller coaster is like the “people infrastructure” in organizations.  The HR strategy or “people infrastructure plan” is needed to support the organizations growth. And, this is often overlooked in strategic planning sessions.  Yes, the “we’ll need to hire more people” subject always comes up in planning sessions, but generally senior leadership hesitates on approving job requisitions for Exempt, salaried employees in order to keep overhead expenses low.

These days I am seeing some organizations push their Exempt, salaried employees to the point of being utterly unreasonable. When did a 60-year workweek become the norm?   It is one thing to expect a professional to commit to a 60-hour workweek if the individual has an equity share in a business and/or is paid a salary above $200k.  However, what I’m seeing happen to a lot of Exempt-salaried professionals, who are most definitely not at that salary level, is just absurd.  And, I am especially seeing it happen with Operations teams and within my own profession of HR.

So, lets talk about how we retain good employees through HR strategy and through addressing capacity and job design issues.

  1. HR Strategy: It starts with HR actually being in the room with senior leadership for these strategic planning sessions.  If HR isn’t in the room, decisions are going to be made without any input regarding how growth plans are going to effect the existing workforce.  So, get HR in there! And, when senior leadership starts discussing timelines and aggressive growth plans, HR needs to address the people infrastructure issue to avoid going off the tracks.  And, when I say going off the tracks I mean losing some of your existing people due to burnout if they are required to support the growth without the appropriate resources.
  2. When senior leadership defines the organizational growth plans, it is critical to identify key supervisor and manager positions that will be affected. Often, the increase in organizational size and employee population will lead to rapid expansions of each leaders’ span of control.  In other words, one supervisor or manager that has 7-10 direct reports may now find him/herself with 15 direct reports, which is far too many to lead effectively.  Additionally, with an increased number of direct reports, it is likely the managerial role will also have additional workload that will come along with it, such as project management and/or business development. So, really take a hard look at how the growth plan is going to affect the leaders and figure out what the leadership headcount should look like now, and within the next two years or so and adjust accordingly.  Yes, I know, the leaders don’t want the additional overhead. However, what will the organization do if key people quit while you’re going through this growth mode?  This is a long game…not a short game strategy.
  3. Capacity is the amount of work that one human can reasonably perform in one work week, or 7 consecutive days.  The first step to talent retention is to make sure that the job description actually makes sense.  Has the job description had “creep” over the past few years? Is the job description 3 pages long?  (Hint: Capacity issue red flag!) Sometimes capacity issues happen because of turnover.  If the organization has lost a few people, the work is still there and how has to be spread among those remaining.  If that is the case, it is time to look at non-value added processes and tasks that may be bogging the existing workers down.  It may be that certain parts of an existing job may have to simply be deleted. Or, look at streamlining the functions by shifting duties around among a particular team.  In other words, group like-tasks and functions.  Sometimes members of the same management team get so much cross-over into project management, sales, HR, or finance functions without even realizing it. So, look for those bleed-over functions and then try to group those functions onto another management team member’s description.  E.g. if one manager tends to be the “finance” guy on the management team who does a lot of the analysis, spreadsheets, etc. then give him some of the finance responsibilities from two other managers and let them be more of the line operations’ leaders.  So, alleviate the spreadsheet pressure from them and take some of the line leadership stuff from the “finance” guy.
  4. Does the design of the job description actually make sense? In other words, does the job description have aligned functions or is it made up of a bunch of disparate functions?  Here is an example:  Ellen is an HR Director responsible for HR functions such as payroll, benefits management, employee relations issues, FLMA management, and related HR duties.  Recently, because the company lost their Facilities Manager who resigned, the senior leaders decided “not to replace Larry” in order to save the overhead expense.  Guess what? They decided that Ellen would be able to “handle” taking on Facilities Management in addition to her HR role.  This is an example of a Capacity + Job Design disaster-in-the-making!  Now, if the roof in the warehouse leaks it is Ellen’s responsibility to drop what she’s doing in HR to arrange the repairs.  It isn’t as simple as her having to just call a roofer…she now has to contact several roofers to get bids in order to satisfy senior leadership’s need to get a good price.   And, when the roofers show up to give an estimate, she has to leave her office to go into the warehouse to meet with each of them.  Then, she has to schedule time with senior leaders to discuss the bids, then once a decision is made get the contract from the roofing company, get the roofer set up as a vendor in the Accounting system (paperwork and data entry!),  schedule the work, inspect the work, and then ensure that Accounting pays the roofers.  This is just an example of the work involved FOR ONE ROOF LEAK!  You see?

The moment that Larry-the-Facilities Manager resigned, Ellen’s job description expanded by about 45%.  And, with this 45% expansion she is performing a completely different function from HR.  So, she is far over Capacity of what one human can do in a week.  And, the actual duties she is performing are so out of whack from the scope of her role and function in HR that the Facilities function is competing for her time in being able to accomplish her HR duties.  This led to enormous stress as Ellen just never felt like she could keep up.  Well, of course not! Who could?!

What do you think happened to Ellen after about 6 months?  She quit and rightfully so.  Prior to her resigning, Ellen tried speaking with her senior leadership to explain that she was stretched far too thin and that it was very difficult for her to keep up.  She explained the impact on her work/life balance and you want to know the response she got?  “Well, Ellen, we have to wear a lot of hats here.  Budgets are tight right now. That’s why we didn’t replace Larry.”  Beautiful.  So, senior leadership risked losing an incredibly talented HR Director because they were too cheap to just go hire a replacement for Larry-the-Facilities guy.  The idiom, “pennywise and pound foolish” comes to mind.  Now, they have to go out and find Ellen’s replacement and it is going to cost them probably 15-20% more in base compensation because of external market salary compression. And, they’ve lost all of Ellen’s institutional knowledge.  Now, what do you think happened when they began working on finding Ellen’s replacement?  The dunderheads…they kept the Facilities Management function in the HR Director job description!   So, I wonder how long it will take Ellen’s replacement to hit the burnout factor too.  Again, “penny wise and pound foolish.”

If you want to attract and retain good talent, let’s shift the focus away from just offering a boatload of benefits.  Let’s get back to some HR basics and shift the focus to the actual designs of the jobs we’re recruiting for.  If the capacity is out of whack–fix it before even considering posting the job.  If the job design is a veritable jumble of disparate functions: accounting function, operations function, sales function, customer service function, HR function… again, let’s slice and dice that dysfunctional job description to make it a functional job description that sets a person up for success and not failure.  When employees feel competent and confident in their ability to do the work we’ve hired them to do, the result is a much higher level of employee engagement. And, higher engagement most definitely equals higher retention.

Until next time…

Natalie Ivey, MBA, SPHR, SHRM-SCP is President and CEO of Results Performance Consulting, Inc. |

Published On: September 26th, 2021 / Categories: Blog / Tags: , , , /

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