Rethinking Retention

A new warden at a jail discovered that he took over a facility with an annual turnover rate of more than 100%. Knowing the importance of retaining staff, the costly consequences of turnover, and the need to provide consistent oversight of the inmates in his charge, the warden was determined to reduce turnover. To his credit, within just a couple years, the warden decreased the facility turnover from more than 100% to around 13%. By industry standards, his accomplishment was nothing short of incredible, but what happened as a result of this feat of success wasn’t as wonderful.

While the facility reduced the number of new officer training classes and saved plenty of money through the retention efforts of the warden, the quality of employee diminished significantly. The warden implemented policies that made it almost impossible to terminate an employee. As a result, hardworking, quality staff saw that they were pulling the weight of staff who weren’t, and no consequence came to those who weren’t doing their part.

Morale took a nose dive, and job satisfaction went out the window. People who once scored “above expectation” on their review were barely meeting their expectations, because . . . Why not?! Not doing your job and doing your job exceedingly well provided the same outcome.

The conventional thinking among managers in today’s corporate culture on retention and turnover was that they were two sides of the same coin. The reality of that is nowhere near accurate. Turnover is the rate at which employees leave your organization and are replaced. Retention is the rate at which you can keep employees on the payroll.

A cursory understanding of turnover and retention could lead one to believe they are two sides of the same coin, but let me explain why they aren’t:

Turnover and retention are not opposites. Turnover can occur because of retirement, termination/layoffs, and voluntary resignation. Retention can happen because people are too invested to leave, or the organization doesn’t have procedures in place to facilitate needed change. Regardless, turnover and retention are neither mutually exclusive or two sides of the same coin. Maybe, they’re more like a Venn diagram.

Turnover isn’t necessarily bad. You may have someone on the team who drags down morale, stirs up conflict, or causes everyone else to work harder because of their performance. Letting that person go and replacing them with someone fresh and ready for the job isn’t bad  

Retention isn’t necessarily good. Keeping the person just mentioned above may look good on paper for your retention rates, but what is it doing to your organization. Your staff recognizes when dead weight is dragging them down. Your lack of action doesn’t go unnoticed either.

Change is inevitable. Retired General Eric Shinseki was fond of saying, “If you don’t like change, you are going to like irrelevance even less.” Change is necessary; change is inevitable.


Question: How do turnover and retention relate to your organization? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

I am an author, speaker, and leader with a passion for developing people into practical leaders who put their principles into practice. I am the co-author of the acclaimed book Faith Acts with best-selling author Dillon Burroughs, the Chief Operations Officer at the Chattanooga Community Kitchen, and an independent leadership consultant to up and coming leaders and start up nonprofit organizations. My greatest joy, however, is serving Christ and his Church. I am the proud husband of Shay and father of two great boys. We live in Chattanooga, TN. #NoogaStrong

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive, off-topic, or downright annoying.

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