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The Designer's Notebook: Employees Leaving? Deal With It!
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The Designer's Notebook: Employees Leaving? Deal With It!

November 2, 2006 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

I’m on an Internet mailing list that happens to include a lot of managers in the game industry. About every two years or so, a discussion flares up in which a whole bunch of the people on the list start complaining about employees who leave in the middle of a project, and what evil scum recruiters are for luring them away.

You know what? I’ve got no sympathy at all. I’ve been a manager, and I’ve also been a worker bee. I’ve seen this situation from both sides. If you don’t want employees to leave, there’s a simple solution: create a job environment in which they don’t want to leave.

Let’s look at some of the reasons that employees leave voluntarily.

They Think You’re a Jerk

If that’s the problem, it’s your fault, not theirs. Maybe you are a jerk. There are a heck of a lot of obnoxious managers in the world. Trouble is, most jerks either don’t know it or don’t care. If you’re not willing to change your behavior to keep your employees, then obviously your attitude is more important to you than having them on staff. As the manager, that decision is yours to make, but you’ve got no grounds for complaint if they leave.

You’re Working Them Too Hard

This reminds me of Robert Heinlein’s observation (expressed in his “Notebooks of Lazarus Long”) that no state has an inherent right to survive through the use of conscript troops and in the long run no state ever has. I would paraphrase that to say that no company has an inherent right to survive through the use of unpaid overtime. People will work extraordinarily hard for a company if the conditions are right. They’ll do it for one or more of four reasons.

The first three are: because they love the work itself; because they love the company or their co-workers; because the rewards justify the effort. If any of those three are true, you don’t have to worry so long as you maintain the conditions that engender that dedication, and you make sure they receive the rewards they expect. Fail to do so and you have only yourself to blame (you’re management, remember – it’s your company to screw up).

The fourth reason people will work extraordinarily hard is because they have no alternative: you’re demanding it of them, they have nowhere else to go, and they can’t afford to quit. Too many companies rely on that. If having nowhere else to go is the only reason overworked people are staying, then you can bet they’ll leave when the chance arises – and again, you’ll have nobody to blame but yourself.

Personal Reasons That Have Nothing To Do with You, the Work, or the Company

There’s nothing you can do here, and no point in complaining about it. If an employee needs to move to care for an elderly relative, or if he has decided to exchange the corporate world for life on a commune, the best you can do is wish him bon voyage. Any effort to keep him will only be temporary and you can be sure he won’t be as productive anyway. Negotiate a reasonable transition with goodwill and start looking for a replacement.

They Got a Better Offer Somewhere Else

Here you legitimately have something to be concerned about, especially if someone with a lot of money sets up an attractive new company in your area. For example, Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson is building a new studio, Wingnut Interactive, in New Zealand. The other studios in the area are undoubtedly looking hard at this: the talent pool in New Zealand isn’t that large yet and developers will probably feel that there is a lot of prestige to be had in working for Peter Jackson, and possibly more money as well.

However, just because your employees might get a better offer somewhere else doesn’t make them evil if they’re tempted by one. It’s called capitalism. Your employees are selling you a product, their labor. They only have a fixed amount to sell – unlike building widgets, they can’t increase their output and sell more of it to make more money. Their only option is to sell their labor for the highest price they can get, and if they can get a better price from another buyer, they’re perfectly entitled to do so. About all you can do here is to create the best-paid, most rewarding work environment you can, and let your employees know that if they’re thinking about leaving for more money, you’d like the opportunity to make them a counter-offer, and you won’t hold it against them for looking.

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