I recently asked a roomful of managers responsible for hiring and retaining talent for their organizations a routine question: Is employee turnover a good thing?

The response I typically get, quite appropriately, is nuanced. Turnover is costly, upwards of 50 per cent of the annual salary of the person being replaced and as much 200 per cent, depending on the role, its impact and the difficulty in filling it, according to many studies.

People cite the importance of retaining people at a time when "wandering talent" is the norm while understanding that some turnover is healthy as it refreshes the workforce with new ideas, different perspectives and different experiences. (I love the term wandering talent, as offered by one of the participants). 

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One person, in response to whether staff turnover is healthy emphatically said "absolutely not." Her response was understandable. Her employer, a not-for-profit that does important work in our communities, is essentially a training ground for larger employers who scoop up their good hires after they gain some experience. The institutional employers offer the salary, benefits and most importantly the employment stability this particular not-for-profit often cannot because of its precarious annual funding model and ever present annual contracts for staff.  For the not-for-profit, it results in a huge turnover rate sometimes as high as twice the alarming rate of 20 per cent or so the Conference Board of Canada cites in 2014 as normal for retail in Canada, the sector with persistent turnover challenges far greater than the rate of seven per cen or so seen in most sectors.

So in the words of a colleague, "When life hands you lemons … make orange juice, then sit back and watch as the world wonders how you did it."

Where many an employer would bemoan their fate as the perpetual training ground for other better equipped larger players, their ill-suited geography or depleted labour markets, some have chosen to embrace their situation. It allows them to innovate, rethink their needs and go beyond their habitual approach.

'When life hands you lemons … make orange juice.'

My observation is that virtually all organizations have a retention challenge of one sort or another either internal or external to their operation. Employers who grasp their retention challenge, pay attention to it and deal with it head on seem to fare better in my experience.

If your employee retention problem is due to a poor workplace culture count yourself lucky compared to those who are challenged primarily by external forces. Workplace culture and working conditions typically stem from leadership and people practices.  By shedding some light on the issues of the physical workplace, the work atmosphere, compensation, the quality of relationships with supervisors, communication, training, workload and performance issues and then turning to the countless resources that are available to enhance a workplace, an employer can, over time, turn a culture around with a reasonable investment.

The goal is for employees to feel at home at work and have them stay longer rather than leave early, before there is a return on investment on their learning curve. It's not about putting a pool table in the employee lounge or a bigger staff party, it's about focused efforts to create a culture of employee engagement that has as one of its many outcomes great retention. The other outcomes of higher engagement aren't bad either, better results in virtually all key performance indicators. All achievable essentially by focusing on the quality of leadership practices.

If you have your ship in order but your issues are external, embracing those challenges as your own and bringing some innovation to bear may make a dent. Talking to others who share the same plight in your industry or geographic location and looking to partner with them and others to find solutions may help. Finding your way around systemic labour force issues, structural challenges in your sector or a less than desirable location takes ingenuity and a willingness rethink more than just who you hire and how to keep them. Enjoy your orange juice.