Why Tenured Employees Are Your Greatest Flight Risk & How to Keep Them

By: Christina Zurek
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In ITA Group’s new employee engagement research, we were anxious to check how the pandemic impacted a trend we uncovered several years ago: tenure-driven declines in employee engagement. The answer is in and not only is the trend still relevant, it’s more prevalent.

Not the news we wanted to hear, but there is an upside: knowing a problem exists is the first step toward fixing it. In this article, we’ll focus on the causes of engagement valleys and practical ideas to help you keep these valued employees.

What the Data Tells Us About Tenure & Employee Disengagement

The first time we connected employee tenure with disengagement, we coined it the “Reality Slump.” That term describes a period (typically 1–2 years into the employee journey) when workers struggle across every analyzed measure of engagement.
In the research, employees with 1–2 years of tenure indicated they felt:
  • Undervalued and underappreciated by the organization
  • Detached from a sense of purpose and meaning in their work
  • Disconnected from peers and leaders
  • Misaligned to the company culture
The Reality Slump was present among all genders, generations and levels within the organization.
When we reran the study late last year, we saw the familiar Reality Slump again but noticed something new: employees with 11-19 years of tenure are disengaging, too.

graph showing changes in tenure-driven engagement slumps
Related: Learn about what’s causing the “Reality Slump” and how your organization can overcome it in our white paper The Pitfall of Great Onboarding: Is It Creating Employee Retention Issues?

How Employee Tenure Negatively Impacts Talent Retention & Acquisition

The chart below demonstrates self-reported differences in job satisfaction and willingness to recommend their employer among these vulnerable employee segments.
chart showing the impact of tenure on job satisfaction
A dramatic drop exists among those with 1–2 years of tenure (the Reality Slump) and those with 10+ years of tenure also experience an engagement valley that impacts their job satisfaction and willingness to recommend the organization long-term.

Why Tenured Employees Struggle With Motivation & Organizational Commitment

You can read more details about the root causes of the engagement valleys for each of these vulnerable segments in the research report, but we did find that both segments expressed several consistent challenges, including a lack of:
  1. Clear expectations from direct leaders
  2. Confidence in the authenticity of company culture, mission and values
  3. Self-esteem, belonging and purpose
A variety of strategies and tactics can solve the above challenges, but because the root causes of these challenges are different, a one-size-fits-all engagement approach misses the mark. The key to creating a more effective, more personalized approach is in segmenting the way you communicate to, motivate and celebrate unique groups of employees who share a similar experience. At a minimum, the following demographic and psychographic factors should be taken into account when tailoring your engagement strategy:
  • Employees’ work and where it gets done
  • People’s age and life stage
  • Team members’ motivational drivers
Related: Looking to reinforce your people’s sense of purpose for their work? See examples of how we’ve helped clients.

3 Steps to Personalize Engagement Strategies (& Keep Tenured Employees!)

If you’re not currently using segment-based personalization strategies this might feel overwhelming. For more than 60 years, ITA Group has helped organizations improve employee engagement using this method so I wanted to share three steps we’ve identified as key to driving desired business outcomes.
1. Listening
Your first step needs to be formalizing your employee listening strategy. By taking the time to hear what employees need, you’ll learn about their unique experiences and how your strategy (see best practices below!) should be tailored to accommodate their needs.
  • Distribute an all-employee survey if you’re unsure whether tenure-specific issues exist. If you’ve already uncovered areas of opportunity, go directly to those vulnerable employee segments for their feedback.
  • When seeking feedback, be sure to include quantitative and qualitative questions to better understand employees’ needs. Combining sentiment analysis with qualitative responses will help you identify trends quickly to streamline the process.
  • To round out your research, schedule deep-dive sessions for open, candid conversation like employee focus groups and interviews. Not only does this help employees feel their opinions are valued, it’s also a great time to address outstanding questions you have from the survey results.
2. Activation
Acting on what you’ve learned will show employees you’re committed to meeting their needs. But don’t fall into the trap of agreeing to everything right away.  
  • First, identify the most important strategies to help close the gaps identified in the listening stage. During this process, rank them based on anticipated impact to employee experience and projected level of effort.
  • Then, prioritize them to create a roadmap. You’ll need to decide to emphasize level of effort or anticipated impact for your prioritization, but it’s our best practice to balance both. For example, showing immediate effort is important to employees so you may want to prioritize something you can do quickly even if it doesn’t close your biggest gap identified just so they can see you acting.
  • Once your roadmap is determined, share it with your stakeholders. You may reveal different levels of detail based on your audience, but this step creates accountability for you and awareness for your organizational leaders of what you’re working toward and how they can help.
  • Be sure you also follow up with employees who shared feedback so they feel heard. Even if some suggestions are long-term fixes, letting them know what you are working toward is an opportunity to create psychological safety so they (and others) feel comfortable continuing to share feedback.
3. Evaluation
Revisiting and seeking additional feedback helps gauge the effectiveness of strategy adjustments.
  • Your roadmap doesn’t need to be set in stone. It can (and should!) evolve as the needs of your people do.
  • To ensure your strategies are as effective as possible, maintain open lines of communication with vulnerable employees.
  • Sometimes, people realize what they asked for might not be what they needed, and it’s important to enable them to share that feedback. 

Have a Vulnerable Employee Segment Within Your Workforce?

I’d love to discuss 1:1 to learn more and identify how personalization strategies might help you and your organization. Contact me and let’s talk.
Christina Zurek
Christina Zurek

Christina is an experienced leader with a passion for improving the employee experience, employee engagement and workplace culture. Few things excite her as much as an opportunity to try something unfamiliar (be that a project, development opportunity, travel destination, food, drink or otherwise), though digging in to a research project is a close second.