With Martin G. Moore

Episode #193

The Great Resignation: Q&A with Marty and Em

A lot of businesses are finding it extremely challenging to operate in the volatility of a hot labor market. Despite the hundreds of podcasts, blogs, and articles that are published daily about The Great Resignation, there doesn’t seem to be an oversupply of solutions (other than the vague notion that you need to focus on your people and keep them happy in order to retain them).

In many cases, “keep them happy” equates to “pay them more”. This can have significant consequences for many businesses, which are forced to either raise their prices, or cut their margins. It can be a pretty tricky game to play and, for many smaller businesses, you may find yourself one bad decision away from a death spiral.

In this Q&A episode, we answer a few listener questions that focus on specific aspects of the hot labor market. We cover the bonus culture, and people’s expectations for financial rewards; we look at the increasing number of situations where people who’ve left your business want to return; and we talk about how to leave the door open for your top performers if they do choose to leave.

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Episode #193 The Great Resignation: Q&A with Marty and Em

Every day, there are hundreds of podcasts, blogs, and articles published about the Great Resignation. Despite a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth, there doesn’t seem to be an oversupply of solutions, other than this vague notion that you need to focus on your people and keep them happy in order to retain them. In many cases now, keeping them happy equates to paying them more. This can have significant consequences for many businesses, which are forced to either raise their prices or cut their margins. It can be a pretty tricky game to play.

Kelly, a member of the No Bullsh!t Leadership community, recently contacted me with some questions about the Great Resignation. There are so many leaders in our community who are struggling with issues related to the changes that we’ve seen in the workforce since COVID hit. They are finding it extremely challenging at the moment to operate their business with all the volatility in their workforces, so today I’m going to answer common questions about managing turnover in the Great Resignation and how to deal with resignation regret.


There are some employees who have left companies during the Great Resignation, and now find that they want to return to their original employer: so do you take them back? This is a great question because it goes to the heart of why people leave. This is happening in a lot of countries at the moment, so to speak generally, there are a couple of key drivers behind the Great Resignation:

First of all, when you’ve got a high level of demand in any market, it’s a seller’s market: and right now, that applies to the labor market. There are lots of jobs and it’s easy to get one – that reduces the risk of leaving where you are and spreading your wings.

Second, let’s examine a couple of the reasons why people are leaving their current jobs:

The pandemic shifted a lot of perceptions that were previously not questioned or debated a lot. Of course, working from remote locations would never have taken off without the pandemic acting as a catalyst. Then there’s the basic element of fear and realization that eventually, we’re all going to die. It gave people some time to reevaluate what was important to them. There’s clearly going to be some implications flowing from that. There are two broad scenarios here:

  1. People are tired of putting up with crap, so they leave for greener pastures, or

  2. People want to find their purpose, and leave to pursue that in a startup or self-employed capacity.

Although I don’t have any research data on this, there  are some strong anecdotal observations. I think people are tired of where they are and feeling as though they’re not being treated well. Somehow, that says to me, “Good luck, but I don’t know that the grass is actually greener.” Simply put, there aren’t a huge number of awesome leaders in the world. So, if you leave where you are, the likelihood of landing in a place where you have a better culture and stronger leadership isn’t as strong as you might think. The second thing is, if you are going off to find your purpose and pursue a startup or become self-employed, it’s still a business, and the failure rates are still very high. Considering these two things, I don’t think it’s at all surprising that you’re going to find people wanting to return to where they came from.

Do you take someone back who’s previously left? What are the pros and cons?

Like most things in leadership, it depends. You need to go through a checklist:

  • Is this person a strong performer? This is the critical question and number one concern. You don’t want to take anyone back who isn’t actually going to increase the strength of your gene pool, so to speak.

  • Are you just longing for some stability? When there’s highly volatile times and your team composition is moving around all over the place, it’s sometimes attractive to say, “I’d just like someone I know and trust,” – and sometimes that can be very seductive.

  • Is it someone who’s going to lift the current capability of your team or fill a critical gap? You should be looking to make sure that you have all of your critical positions filled with people who are capable of doing that job.

Make a decision, and then execute it dispassionately. If you want to take them back, take them back. Don’t punish them, don’t make them feel guilty, don’t have little digs at them, saying things like, “You’re really lucky we took you back after leaving us high and dry.” Treat them like you’ve just hired the next best thing, pay them what they’re worth, lead them the same way you would any other valued performer – but don’t take someone back unless they’re the real deal.

In my view, every resignation is an opportunity to hire someone better. Focus on that – and if you can’t find someone better or you know there’s no one better in the market, then sure, take back someone you know is a high performer.

Need some help? Download my High Performance Checklist.

What do you do if you decide not to take someone back?

If that’s what you decide, that’s fine. But again, you have to execute dispassionately. Say that you really appreciate the fact that they would consider returning. Don’t reference the fact that they were disloyal, or that they let you down. Just focus on the present. You can say something like this:

I’m really flattered that you would consider returning, but since you left, things have changed considerably in the business. We’ve had to restructure some of the roles and our requirements have changed as a result. We don’t have a position for you, unfortunately, but I wish you all the best with your future endeavors.”

How can you leave the door open when a high performer leaves?

This hasn’t really changed. When you are losing a high performer, the most important thing is to try and find out why. Now, bear in mind almost no one tells the truth when they leave an organization. You hear about these exit interviews asking: Why did you leave? What could we have done better? All those kinds of questions. But most people just prefer to play a straight bat, leave the organization without any sort of acrimony or conflict, and go onto their next thing. You won’t always be able to get down to their reasons behind leaving.

The next question is the important one: Is there anything I can do to keep you? Just to illustrate why this is so important, here’s a real life example:

I had someone who was two levels away from me. He wasn’t a direct report, but he was someone who was really on the rise in the organization at the time, and I’d had some contact with him, I knew what he was doing. He was a really, really good guy, and one of the people that I had on the hot ticket for succession planning.

I’d heard along the grapevine that he’d tendered his resignation. Now, he’s a really honorable guy, he wouldn’t have thrown his boss under the bus, and he certainly didn’t talk to me about it. He just quietly went about saying, “I’ve had enough.

They say that one of the main reasons people leave is because of  who they’re working for. I knew there’d been some issues with the boss that he was reporting to – who was a direct report to me. So I called in this guy two levels down and I said, “Look, I understand you’ve resigned. Is there anything I can do to keep you?”

He came back with, “No, there’s not. I’ve just been offered a better opportunity...”

So, I said: “Okay, look, that’s fine. I am aware of the dynamic between you and your boss. I don’t want to give away too much because this is confidential, but I’m dealing with that issue myself from my angle as his boss. Would it make a difference to you if I could tell you that I was going to resolve that problem soon?”

He thought for a minute, and he said it would actually make a big difference. I told him, “Okay, leave it with me.”

What that conversation did was to increase my appetite for doing the performance management on his boss, so that I could actually move him out of the organization quickly, which I’d already decided to do anyway. And it enabled me to retain this really good individual.

What if they still decided to leave after all that? 

You can’t stop them. But, if they still decide to leave, you can always leave the door open by saying something like this:

I understand that you need to pursue this other opportunity, but I just want you to know that I would have you back in a heartbeat. While I certainly hope everything works out for you and that you find what you’re looking for, if by chance, it doesn’t, don’t hesitate to call me and I’ll see if I can find an appropriate role for you here.”

Have you ever tried to keep them closer to you by keeping some ties to the organization? 

There’s plenty of ways this can be done, such as giving them leave without pay for 12 months, or a sabbatical. I must admit I’m not a huge fan of that approach for several reasons:

You want them to have a genuine choice that exposes them to the risks of what they’re doing. If they feel as though there’s a readily-accessible safety net, then it makes it much easier for them to leave. They think, “Well, I can always come back if it doesn’t work out.” Giving them that lifeline, de-risks the option of leaving and it just makes it more likely that they will.

I’ve always wanted people to be successful and happy in whatever they chose. Locking the door firmly behind someone actually changes the way they approach the new opportunity, and it gives them a greater likelihood of success. You operate very differently when you don’t have options, and to go forward hard, dynamic, and not thinking about what you’re leaving behind is the best way to success. If they come back to you, it’s likely they’ll feel a little embarrassed and this can also affect their performance, which is why you should consider only taking your highest performers back.

With so many movements in the labor market, the tendency to want to keep everyone for the sake of stability is very tempting: and, don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to be said for stability. But it’s also important to be mindful of the opportunities to improve your workforce capability. Whether someone chooses to go, stay, or return is up to them, but how you respond to their choices may be critical to your team’s future performance.


Following on from Kelly’s fantastic questions about the Great Resignation, and continuing the theme of employees searching for greener pastures, No Bullsh!t Leadership listener, Nathaniel, has reached out with his questions about dealing with a bonus culture:

I’ve been setting targets and KPIs for my team, and I provide ongoing updates and feedback so that my people know how they are performing against these standards. Since taking this approach, I’ve been faced with a barrage of questions like “What do we get if we meet the targets?” It’s great to have the feedback, and to know that you are doing a good job, but it seems that the expectation I have created is that there would be further reward. 

I work in the mining industry, where there is a common expectation that any discussion of targets equates to financial reward. How can I set KPIs and targets for my people without creating a bonus culture?

They call those industry-influenced expectations pattern bargaining. There’s quite a few elements here. In Union-united workforces, there’s a much stronger sense that any improvement made by the workforce has to be traded for extra money. Now, I don’t object to the principle – let’s face it, a negotiation is all about trading terms, so you never give away something for nothing. And, if people are going to go over and above to help the company make more profit, it’s only reasonable to give them a share of that profit. Right? Well, it might seem that way, but not always. Let’s just consider a few scenarios:

  1. The team is grossly underperforming and the improvements you’re asking your people to make are simply to reach a reasonable minimum standard. Now, you are already paying for that, you’re just not getting it. That’s their day job, that’s why they get their salary every month. Sometimes you just need to enforce that and lift the standard without paying them anything.

  2. Sometimes, employment instruments, like collective bargaining agreements that stipulate very clearly what people in different roles are paid, have already had allowances or payments baked in to reward future performance improvements.For example, in wage negotiations, the employee representatives may say, “We agree to make these changes in how we work. As long as we’re paid X percent more in our salaries.” Now, often the pay rises flow through, but the improvements are never realized. You come back later to ask the workforce to make the improvement, and they have really short memories: “We’ll do it, but you need to pay us more.”

– “Wait, we already paid you for that.” 

“No, no, no, no, you didn’t. That was for something else.”

Whose fault is this? Well, it’s management’s fault. It’s sh!t negotiating, and it’s poor execution – but this is what happens in weak leadership teams. This is a very real example, and it demonstrates why over the years and decades, unionized businesses have become inefficient and unproductive in relative terms, when compared to non-unionized businesses.

People may have philosophical views about whether or not that’s acceptable, but I find that lack of competition and protection of commercial businesses is a recipe for disaster. It’s bad for all stakeholders in the longer term- including the employees with the undemanding, well-paid jobs.

3. As a final example, it may be the case that you’ve just done some benchmarking work and found that your performance in a particular area is way below industry standard. Is it unreasonable to suggest that the standards improve without having to pay people for the slightest performance increment?

These are just a few scenarios to give you an idea about some of the situations you are likely to encounter.

As a leader, what do you do when people expect bonuses for making improvements? 

Every company’s different of course, but here’s a couple of things I’d consider:

Is it causing a flight risk? This of course feeds into the Great Resignation concept. In a hot labor market, don’t you want to keep your best people? Well, yes – but be aware of your desirable versus undesirable turnover, which I’ve spoken about a number of times on the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast. There’s two types of turnover, and it’s not all bad.

Desirable turnover comes from the people you don’t necessarily want to keep or need to keep, and they choose to go somewhere else. That’s fine. That opens the door so that you can hire someone better. It’s an opportunity.

Undesirable turnover is when someone who is really good, who you really want to keep, who’s part of your succession plan decides to leave. Those are the ones you need to regret and to chase after. But don’t feel as though you need to keep everyone.

Look at the corporate bonus structures.
These are normally very clearly defined and they’re also completely discretionary, so you’ve got options there.

If you are going to set KPIs, you better be certain that they achieve the value delivery that you anticipate.
For example, I’ve seen plenty of cases where the employees have been paid for delivering a piece of work, such as a new financial reporting process, and it has resulted in precisely zero additional benefit for the stakeholders of the business. You don’t want to be paying more for something that delivers no tangible value.

If something is worth paying for, be really clear upfront about this.
And only pay when the benefits have been captured! Not one minute before. Equally, if it’s something they should simply be doing as part of their day jobs, make this clear too.

Culturally, you can get into a lot of trouble if you are seen to promote the use of financial rewards when no financial benefits are delivered, or when the slightest improvements are made. Don’t underestimate the importance of having a true understanding of value. Knowing the actual value delivered to the organization by a project or initiative is absolutely critical – and this should be done ahead of time. Setting this out in advance means that you know what you are looking for when it comes to assessing whether a project is a success or not.

Need help tapping into discretionary effort? Download my 7 (Non-Financial) Tips to Motivate Your People


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