Employee Relations: Why Employees Quit

You spend a lot of money recruiting and training employees. Are you unknowingly making them want to quit with small, seemingly insignificant slights? Find out how to identify and stop these “microinequities” before they harm your business.

Small slights can generate big problems. Take the boss who impatiently drums his fingers as an employee pitches an idea. Or the co-worker who is left out of an email loop on a critical project. Or the supervisor who constantly interrupts employees before they can finish explaining.

In the grand scheme of operating a small business, these so-called “microinequities” — the veiled putdown, the sarcastic tone, as well as nonverbal transgressions such as rolling the eyes and turning your back toward someone in conversation — may seem like piddling things to fret about. But think about it: How would you like to be treated insignificantly or indifferently at work?

Employees might be willing to blow off one or even a few such rude gestures. But if a boss, manager or project teammate habitually treats colleagues disrespectfully, they will feel demoralized. Perhaps that will lead to attitude problems and increased absenteeism.

Say a supervisor asks for suggestions on a project. An employee perks up with a thoughtful solution. As if tone-deaf, the supervisor then asks, “Okay, who’d like to get things started here?” Or, the supervisor embraces the idea but only after someone else mentions it. Next time the supervisor asks for recommendations, the unappreciated employee remains tight-lipped. Maybe co-workers also button up. Result: Valuable ideas never get aired, and productivity suffers.

In a worst-case scenario, the disrespected employees leave. And in a worst-worst-case scenario, they may end up suing you for these unwelcome gestures. At least that’s what is starting to occur, according to one San Francisco law firm that defends management in conflicts with employees.

Related: 5 Tips to Attract, Keep and Motivate Your Employees

In today’s ultra-competitive business climate, your small enterprise can’t afford to lose valuable workers. That’s especially true with an expected major labor shortage on the horizon. Who knows, the offended employees might have been your company’s next rainmakers.

So how do you stop these microinequities?

First, understand what they are. That’s easier said than done, because many such offenses are committed subconsciously. A boss might not even be aware he is botching the pronunciation on a colleague’s name. Or that he is glancing at his watch during an employee’s presentation.

According to experts, we’re sending dozens of powerful micromessages every time we speak, gesture or even do nothing. Those communications may vary somewhat from culture to culture and even organization to organization. But the point is, we’re sending a message even when we don’t think we’re sending a message.

A number of organizations are playing closer attention to this workplace behavior. They are paying for training sessions attended by their managers and rank and file. One role-playing exercise conducted by New Jersey consultant Stephen Young almost guarantees a reaction.

Related: How Do You Keep Your Best Employees From Flying The Coop?

In this demonstration, Young asks participants to pair off. Person A discusses his current job, responsibilities and challenges while Person B smiles and listens attentively. Then, in a pre-arrangement, Person A starts discussing his last job and Person B immediately begins fidgeting, checking her cell phone, looking around — anything to appear disinterested. After the exercise, Person As invariably report they became more and more incensed by the disinterest. One Fortune 500 CEO observed he wanted to punch an antsy Young after performing the exercise with him. Remarkably, Young stresses, increased irritation was a routine response even though participants knew it was just a game.

Short of taking training exercises, small companies can take several actions to prevent microinequities. Supervisors might bring up the topic at staff meetings to demonstrate their awareness. Or, the subject might be broached in company emails, newsletters or attitude surveys.

Going forward, pay closer attention to all your employees, not just your stars or those you are most comfortable with. Consider engaging in nonbusiness conversations so you can develop rapport, respect and trust. Solicit suggestions from them. Maybe ask what they are working on and then pose follow-up questions. And, very important: Give direct eye contact and listen attentively to them.

In group settings, Young suggests, be sensitive to how you greet or treat a colleague you’re close with, so it appears you’re not playing favorites. When possible, give public credit to “owners” of good ideas. And encourage participation — from everyone.

As with microinequities themselves, these positive gestures may seem small or insignificant. But these microaffirmations can help produce a giant return on investment: An engaged workforce that feels appreciated and is motivated to perform.

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