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Plugging the Brain Drain

Posted by Elaine Varelas  March 1, 2010 07:00 AM

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by Elaine Varelas

Despite our best efforts as HR managers, the reality is that people leave organizations. While effective retention programs can reduce turnover and encourage longevity with a company, eventually people move on. Some may retire, get an offer from another organization, move out of state, or leave to raise families. In some cases, as in a reduction-in-force, or an M&A or restructuring, people may leave en masse.

HR managers are often charged with instituting strategies to retain employees. While this is the ideal option, it is not always possible to keep everyone onboard. While retention programs are cost-effective and worthwhile, HR managers must also prepare for employees’ ultimate departure.

When employees exit an organization, they don’t just leave behind an empty desk. They also take with them their knowledge of how they do their jobs, and more importantly, how they get things done. If HR managers don’t put systems in place to capture that knowledge, it can get sucked into a vast black hole, leaving the organization vulnerable. How can HR managers create a more seamless transition when there is job turnover and ensure that proprietary knowledge stays intact?

Document—It may seem logical to believe that a manager is the keeper of the proprietary knowledge within his or her group. In reality, though, managers may lead a team or department, but they don’t know everything about each individual job. Consider creating an “owner’s manual” for each position within a department that explains the job and the processes used to accomplish day-to-day and long-term tasks. This is important for executive-level positions, but also for entry-level posts. Imagine if your assistant left without an detailed explanation of files, programs, and contacts. You’d be lost (I know I would be)!

It is also imperative to document important correspondence, proposals, and plans. In the age of electronic media, it is easy to shoot off an email or text and then press “delete.” Important documents must be filed either in hard-copy or electronic format.

Make it a priority—One reason we don’t document our work is because we think it’s busywork. We have so much to do, we don’t want to waste our time documenting our work. But if Jim is the keeper of the spreadsheets for a department and Jim goes bye-bye, that will not only cost the organization time, but it may also cost dollars if deadlines or opportunities are missed. Employees can always find a more pressing matter that takes precedence over documenting work, so HR professionals need to educate managers about the value of the assignment so they can communicate it to their people—and give them the time they need to follow through.

Cross-train—Another way to make sure that critical knowledge isn’t lost when employees leave is to encourage “role hopping” within the company or departments. While employees shouldn’t be required to know everything about two or more jobs, multiple people should be trained to take on multiple tasks. This can also be helpful during extended absences for other reasons, such as illnesses or family leave.

Developing a mentor program is another way to promote a natural method for passing knowledge along. Mentor programs are also effective retention tools, for both the mentee and the mentor, which is an added bonus.

Create efficient processes—HR managers may also make the information that is available within the organization more accessible. How easy is it to retrieve a document in the company’s system? Is it possible to do a keyword search to find relevant information? Are like documents (proposals, spreadsheets) stored together in the same location? Are there templates for documents so there is consistency and uniformity within departments and throughout the organization? By making it easier to create or retrieve information, HR managers can help cut down on the practice of “reinventing the wheel,” ease frustration among employees (“Where is that plan we did last year?”), and improve efficiency.

Have a succession (or back-up) plan—As the Boy Scouts motto states, it is better to “be prepared.” If HR managers can anticipate losses and the fall-out from them, they can help put policies in place to minimize the effects of people leaving. Where is the organization at risk? Ask managers to look at their departments and identify the weak spots. Make sure that there are formalized procedures to follow so that managers can protect their people and their intellectual capital.

Flexibility is also important as some employees may request alternatives to the traditional workday. What can the organization do to keep people on? New parents may want a part-time schedule. Employees reaching retirement age may want to take a sabbatical or spend part of the year in a warmer climate. What is the organization willing and able to do to keep employees and their brain trust?

Be transparent—Some employees may be reluctant to share how they do their jobs for fear that the organization is trying to learn what they do in order to oust them in favor of someone less seasoned and less expensive. Make it clear to people that the process is about capturing knowledge and not about forcing people into an early retirement.

By putting systems in place to protect proprietary knowledge, HR managers can help organizations recover more quickly when employees leave. Losing employees is always difficult, but that loss shouldn’t be compounded by also losing the key knowledge needed to do the job.

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Featuring human resources advice and columns from The Boston Globe's On Staffing and Hire Authority writers.