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Birth and Death: The Life Cycle of Employment

Being a paramedic during the formative years of my working life, I’ve been surprised at how many of the lessons that I learned on the job have translated to the business world.

Watching EMS on TV and movies, especially when it’s fictional, is always entertaining. Everything goes smoothly, there’s very little blood (or anything else), and saving people is easy and always successful. Reality is something quite different. Life is messy, but it’s also beautiful. As a paramedic, I had the honor and duty of assisting as people took their first and last breaths.

Each process was hard in its own way, and ultimately provided insights into life that I would have gotten nowhere else.

Each of these times is so important for the person, but also for those who are present, whether a loved one or a bystander. When an infant is born, there are many things that can go wrong that we have to watch out for. Ultimately, though, if it has to be done in the field with a paramedic, we still try to make the experience as focused on mother and child as possible.

When someone is dying and a paramedic is called, we know it’s not going to be easy for anyone. Working an arrest/impending arrest (the term we use in the field) is the ultimate test of the skills and knowledge that we have gained as paramedics. It’s where we use most of the medications we carry, our EKG and physical assessment skills, airway management skills, and do it while also managing physically demanding work like CPR.

It’s a lot to do on a physical level, and it takes its toll emotionally as well, never mind for any family that may be there. We’re also trained to make the process of death as dignified as we can, despite what we have to do and how we have to do it. We talk to our patients and to the family. We provide what cover we can, and we help families begin the grieving process if we can as well.

So, what does this have to do with business? The transitions we have as employees, whether starting or leaving a job, are substantial life events with stress impacts of their own. Using the Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory as a means to quantify stressful events on a 0-100 scale, we see that while losing a close family member scores a 63, being fired is still a substantial stressor at 47, retirement a 45, business readjustment 39, changes in financial state 38, and changing lines of work 36[1].

This scale is useful in predicting the likelihood of near-future illnesses, with scores of 150-299 predicting a 50% rate of illness, and over 300 producing an 80% risk[2]. Clearly job transitions create stress for us, even if they are positive moves.

In retrospect, my move into consulting had several associated stressors. When the scores are combined, it created a stress score over 100 – more stressful than the death of a spouse[3]. When we view these transitions in this context, we begin to see the need to ensure that the transition is designed to reduce stress as much as possible.

When brought into a new job at a new company, there is almost always some kind of orientation or onboarding process.

When surveyed, companies report that the basics are delivered: administrative items (88%), an introduction to the business as a whole (86%), legalities and procedures – the policy manual (85%)[4]. But what other efforts are provided to ensure that the transition from one position to another?

When performing research on the transition of newly hired executives of VP or above, just over half of companies actively work to ensure that a newly hired leader has her/his expectations aligned with new teams and bosses[5]. One-third organize introductions between new executive and stakeholders he or she will be interacting with, and fewer still work to familiarize them with the culture[6]. This leads to most new executives in an organization feeling like they don’t understand the basic norms of how their new company works, and that nearly 2/3 are not a fit with the culture they hired into[7].

One could argue that if this “sink or swim” approach is taken with VPs, things are probably worse for new rank-and-file employees. This may be part of why 40% of employees voluntarily leave their jobs within six months of hire, and 56% within a year[8]. Culture and opportunity are a large part of this trend[9].

As I wrote about in last week’s blog, bringing new employees on is an investment, and like any investment, there should be a positive return for the business. If a substantial portion of hired employees depart within the first 6 months to year, there is considerable cost to the business. Too often, leadership fixates on short-term costs of investing in employees, but we repeatedly find that those investments have substantial returns.

When companies invest in onboarding employees – spending up to a year on helping them leverage the skills and experience that they were hired for and integrating them into the culture and organization – profits are measurably increased[10]. Reduced costs and increased profits along with improvements in engagement, productivity, and talent attraction[11]? Win-win.

That, on average, 17% of new employees leave within the first three months is a difficult statistic for a company to manage, especially with the associated costs[12]. However, we all recognize that employment is necessarily a temporary agreement, whether it will last for weeks, years, or decades.

The end of that relationship should be treated with care and dignity. The loss of an employee and/or leader, especially one who has been with the company for an extended period can have significant impact on the business and must be managed effectively.

Perhaps the most feared loss with a long-term employee is the institutional knowledge that goes with the individual. Trying to capture all of that information after an employee has given notice can present a formidable set of challenges. Ideally, leadership will be looking across the organization and identifying where those single points-of-failure are, and having that information formally documented, backups delegated, jobs shadowed, etc., long before notice is given so that when that employee finally leaves the transition is much more positive.

It’s dangerous to assume that the person in that role will, or even can, document what they do and how they do it, and that they can do so in a typical job departure window. Leadership should be evaluating its workforce with what I call the “Powerball” test: think about each employee, one at a time, and decide how bad the impact would be were that employee to call on a Monday morning and say “I won $500 million in the Powerball, and I won’t be coming back to work.”

If any of these scenarios causes leadership to break out in a cold sweat, it is time to start distributing and preserving knowledge[13].

In my personal experience, one of the most forgotten and underutilized tools is the exit interview, if it is even conducted at all. Two-thirds of exit interviews are talk-based with no effective follow-up[14]. There certainly is cause for discounting the word of departing employees for fear of overvaluing the word of the disgruntled.

However, there is value in asking how and why that employee became disgruntled. We hire people to be excited and optimistic about the work they are doing, and we hope to bring them to a place where they will fit in and join our culture and be successful. If that didn’t happen, or if something changed and an employee that has served well for years suddenly departs, it is worth investigating what the root cause is, in case a problem that cost one employee grows to cost much more. Identification of ineffective or dangerous policies, toxic management, or similar situations can be difficult.

We know that high turnover and low performance go hand-in-hand, so if performing effective exit interviews can reduce turnover, there can be a positive return on investment[15].

Even for employees that are involuntarily departing, maintaining dignity throughout the situation also provides substantial benefits. By providing the departing employee with a departure that allows for that person to leave with a positive experience – yes, this is possible – can yield numerous benefits for the company in the long term[16].

While, obviously there are some instances in which a terminated employee must be shown out immediately, many terminations can be handled differently. Employees who are to be terminated can be given a departure plan that allows for job hunting and a departure to a new position rather than a period of unemployment will obviously leave with preserved dignity, but also a better reputation and have an easier time finding work[17].

That tends to ensure that the relationship with that employee is intact, if not improved[18]. With as small as some circles can be within industries, that preserved relationship can mean the difference between earned or lost business. The business also benefits with reduced risk of legal exposure resulting from the termination, an easier shift of duties to the newly responsible, and a better relationship between leadership and employees[19].

Ultimately, the entire lifecycle of employment is worth investing in as an overall strategy for the business. Investment in the company’s people, as well as product, customers, and sales, provides a net positive return for long-term success and growth.

[1] https://www.dartmouth.edu/~eap/library/lifechangestresstest.pdf

[2] ibid

[3] ibid

[4] https://hbr.org/2017/05/onboarding-isnt-enough

[5] ibid

[6] ibid

[7] ibid

[8] https://www.inc.com/adam-vaccaro/voluntary-turnover-six-months.html

[9] ibid

[10] https://hbr.org/2017/06/your-new-hires-wont-succeed-unless-you-onboard-them-properly

[11] https://tallyfy.com/benefits-of-onboarding-new-employees/

[12] https://hbr.org/2017/06/your-new-hires-wont-succeed-unless-you-onboard-them-properly

[13] https://hbr.org/2016/01/the-right-way-to-off-board-a-departing-employee

[14] https://hbr.org/2016/04/making-exit-interviews-count

[15] ibid

[16] https://hbr.org/2018/08/a-more-humane-approach-to-firing-people

[17] Ibid

[18] ibid

[19] Ibid

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