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The Truth About Employee Retention

Over the past six months, Alicia and I have done a session called The Truth About Employee Retention at several conferences and as webinars. Today, I wanted to talk about some highlights from that session. I know it’s a crazy busy time of year, but it’s exactly this craziness that will help you understand WHY folks are leaving and how you can keep them there. You can’t afford to lose anyone, especially when you’re at your busiest. Not to mention, you don’t want the current round of busyness to be the last straw for any of your best people.

In 2023, CUPA-HR did their second Higher Education Employee Retention Survey. They started doing these surveys because so many folks were leaving their positions in Higher Ed and they wanted to know why. We used this data as a basis for our session. You can get the full results here - I did an article back in October about the results of this survey, but today I want to revisit this topic because it continues to be such a huge issue. FYI – I will be referring to some of the stats today, but I’m going to round the numbers up to keep it easier to absorb.

One of the things I mentioned in that article was that 33% of folks are likely or very likely to look for new opportunities – aka jobs - in the next 12 months. If you add in the folks who said they were somewhat likely to look, that number jumps up to 56%. As I pointed out then, that means at best one third of your team is or will be actively looking for a new job, but possibly over half. And when your people look, there’s a good chance they won’t tell you, even if you have a good relationship. I’m going to ask you a ridiculous question here, but one that hopefully drives this statistic home. Can you afford to lose a third of your team? Of course not, right?

I mentioned earlier that it’s a busy time of year. But we seem to have a lot of those, don’t we? There’s the beginning of the semester, the end of the semester…oh wait, midterms can also get a bit hectic. Hmm, that’s almost the entire semester. Now some of you get a lighter summer, but other folks are swamped with summer programs or getting students or campus ready for the fall term. It’s gotten to a point where there really aren’t any down times, just less crazy times. And I’m going to say that the root of this phenomenon is the old “doing more with less” business. Unfortunately, we’ve normalized this concept and it’s killing our teams.

And the results of the CUPA-HR survey reflect this. Over the past year, 71% of supervisors and 56% of non-supervisors said they’ve absorbed the responsibilities of folks who have left. Likewise, 71% of supervisors and 61% of non-supervisors have reported an increase in job responsibilities over the past year. I know I just threw a bunch of numbers at you, so let me rephrase it so things can really sink in. The powers that be – and it’s possible in some cases you are one of those decision makers - are asking most supervisors and their team members to do more and more. On top of that, many folks are absorbing the work of anyone who leaves the team either temporarily or permanently if that position isn’t replaced.

And I’ll add that most of this additional work does not come with a pay increase. I don’t think that it will come as a surprise that the #1 reason people are looking for “other opportunities” involves pay. I’ve worked with several supervisors who have been offered interim promotions which include continuing to do their current job but without any pay bump. The promise or hope is that if they do well, they’d be a good candidate for the permanent position. But if you’re already overworked, how exactly would you be successful adding on another position? Hot tip – you won’t be.

And honestly, this often works out well for many parties, just not you and certainly not your team. Things are done for free until the powers that be decide what they really want to do. When it’s time to hire a permanent replacement, they can easily let you know how you didn’t rise to the occasion so they’re going with an outside candidate. I mean, there was no way you could have succeeded under those circumstances, but they needed a warm body to keep things going. I’m not trying to be cynical here, but I’ve heard of that happening on multiple occasions. For your trouble, you get even closer to burnout and possibly start to doubt your abilities. And even if you do get the job, was it ethical to ask you to do all those extra things and endure that additional stress for free?

So, the situation we find ourselves in is that folks are leaving, in part or possibly entirely because of this “doing more with less” mindset. Then all that work falls to the remaining folks who must do even more with even less. And since you’re often told there’s no money for raises, it is not uncommon to get emotionally manipulated with promises of future raises, promotions, or the possibility of hiring new folks.

Or you feel pressure to step up for the students to avoid seeming like you’re not a team player. I’ve mentioned this before, but I’ve heard supervisors get frustrated with folks who have healthy boundaries around work. They don’t understand why some people are unwilling to go “above and beyond” or jump in to help other people do their work. They say things like, “I just wish Becky would be more of a team player.” And, yes, there are people who aren’t doing their jobs well which leaves work undone. Likewise, there are also folks who are overwhelmed with the amount of work they’re being asked to or volunteer to do. But why is that Becky’s problem? Why aren’t we assessing that people’s performance and hold them accountable. Or why aren’t we reevaluating job descriptions to make them more reasonable?

I’m not saying the powers that be are doing this intentionally, but all these things are common practice that leaves folks feeling burned out and resentful. Even more importantly, it negatively impacts employee engagement. And if you want to retain your people, you need them to be engaged.

What exactly do we think will happen when you and your team members are expected to do more while always going above and beyond? People are burning out, getting sick, quiet quitting, and even loud quitting. CUPA-HR started doing this survey because there seemed to be some mystery as to why so many folks are leaving. But what’s the mystery here?

In a nutshell, folks are being asked to do more and more for less and less when you factor in inflation. And because we’re dealing with a period of low enrollment, everything gets blamed on budget issues. I mean if fewer people go to your institution that means less money. And since most institutions don’t have waiting lists anymore, student retention has become less about student success and more about the bottom line.

All of this is extremely stressful for you and your team. It’s negatively impacting everyone’s wellbeing and productivity. In fact, almost 30% of respondents said they disagreed or strongly disagreed that their institution cared about their wellbeing. I’ve had some coaching sessions about this very issue. Folks talk to their supervisor about how overworked they and their team are and the supervisor is sympathetic, but then almost immediately tells them something along the lines of, “But you’re so great at ____. I know you can do it.”

And I think in part, this happens because supervisors don’t know how to handle all of this. So many of us are told we need to be team players. Advocating for your team would require them to go to THEIR supervisor and say, “Hey this is too much for my team. We need to create a more realistic workload.” When supervisors haven’t been properly trained, and if you’ve been following me for a while you know that most haven’t, then why would you know what you’re supposed to do here other than go with the flow?

This is exactly why supervisor training is so important. Supervisors on all levels need to step up and undo the chaos and stress caused by all of this “do more with less” nonsense. And it’s not me just giving my opinion. Some of the key takeaways from the CUPA-HR survey is that supervisors need…

  • the power to advocate for their staff,

  • more resources and support,

  • to get adequate training,

  • and the power to allow for more flexible schedules.

You know Gallup developed CliftonStrengths, but they also do tons of research on managing and engagement as well. The more engaged your team members are, the more likely they are to stay in their jobs. I’ve mentioned this statistic many other times, but Gallup has found that over 70% of the variance in employee engagement are directly linked to their direct supervisor. That means supervisors have a HUGE impact on their team, including whether they will be engaged. And engaged employees are more positive, creative, productive, and have a higher sense of wellbeing.

So, if most supervisors aren’t getting the training and support they need to be successful, it’s no wonder their folks aren’t engaged. And if your team members aren’t engaged, there’s an excellent chance they’re going to leave as soon as they find something else.

Now let’s jump back and talk about this money business again. You may be thinking, “Sure, we should probably better train and support supervisors, but that doesn’t suddenly give us all this money for raises, Anne.”

You are correct! However, well trained supervisors can step up and be leaders. They can challenge the status quo. They can start prioritizing, better advocating for their team, allow for those flexible schedules, and do other things that don’t cost money, but give folks a better quality of life. Then suddenly they’re not comparing their salary to the extra hours, exhaustion, and poor wellbeing they’re facing. Instead, they can go to work without feeling like they’re being pulled in a dozen different directions. They can come in on time, go home on time, and not worry about work when they’re not there. That will make their current salary seem more in line with their efforts.

And for some of you, this may seem like a pipe dream. Everything seems too important, so there’s no way to cut out anything and no money to hire people, so it just is what it is. But if you’ve read any of my episodes on stress, you’ll know that most of us are caught in a chronic stress response that simply makes things appear this way. There actually aren’t all these fires that need to be put out, it just SEEMS that way because we’re stuck in fight-or-flight. When you give supervisors the tools they need to better manage their stress, their energy, and their team, you change this dynamic. We need to stop doing more with less and start prioritizing the things that make the biggest impact. And then cut back on everything else so that our folks – and us – can increase our sense of wellbeing and get re-engaged in the work we once loved.

If you want to improve your life, the life of your team, and ultimately the lives of your students, the #1 way to do so is by investing in your supervisors. Maybe that’s you. Maybe that’s members of your team. Maybe you’re in HR or a peripheral role that could impact where you invest those precious professional development dollars. There’s a proverb that says, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.”

If you’re reading this and are concerned about preserving your employees, you can’t go back and fix the mistakes that got us here. But what you can do is start investing in your supervisors now, not when things die down or next year.  It’s easy to say you don’t have the money or that folks don’t have the time to invest in their growth, but that mindset is simply going to perpetuate an environment that’s running off our best people. The time to act is now.


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