There’s an interesting detail about any given company’s OGs – the people with long tenure who seem to have been there forever. The definition of “forever,” especially in tech, is highly elastic.
Retiring after 40 years is a helluva run by any measurement. I had a co-worker do that. But I also had an OG co-worker move on to a new job after four years, from a company that was less than two years old when she arrived.
An OG leaving the company is different from regular turnover. It feels momentous because they represent the company’s history and evolution. They remember who and when and why.
But in the grand scheme of things, an OG leaving doesn’t matter that much. It won’t significantly affect productivity, morale, the pace of change or the culture. Regular turnover affects the company more, even if it happens at normal intervals, i.e. no layoffs, etc.
What about irregular turnover, though? By which I mean an unusually large number of people leaving the organization within a far shorter period of time than would happen with normal attrition, and likely accelerating over time, possibly after colleagues have been laid off.
Irregular turnover means the organization is in serious trouble. Event horizon trouble. Trouble that becomes apparent outside the organization and may merit a whisper network among those who might have considered going to work at the organization.
So what is this organizational death knell and why is it so insidious?
When turnover reaches irregular levels, you are going to lose people who do stuff, including important stuff, and their domain knowledge. So much domain knowledge.
It’s not even just the deep magic, but basic stuff like how to log in to things and run standard processes and reports. You’ll be losing this knowledge faster than you can make arrangements to try and transfer it, and no company ever has fully comprehensive documentation. Of course, plenty of this information or the access to it you won’t realize is gone until well after the people are out the door. Oops.
You’ll also find out just how many important accounts were under a (now deactivated) person’s email address instead of a group address accessible by multiple people, like devops@ or marketing@. If you’re lucky the deactivated email address will at least be a corporate one and not, say, Hotmail. (True story.)
Some tools will also probably stop working, because in addition to losing access to the logins and the account email address, the credit card that paid for the accounts was probably cancelled.
There are times when remaining people or replacement hires will have to come up with new ways of doing things, not for efficiency or progress, but simply because they *can’t* do things the usual way anymore.
Unsurprisingly, when people don’t know how to get things done, or can’t access the tools they need to do them, productivity suffers. This will be spotty over time, but will grow as resources disappear, and bigger cracks will start to show. Especially when particularly useful operations staff or managers leave. But hey, much of it won’t matter. Why prepare the reports when the manager who ordered them quit?
Another big reason productivity suffers is because teams lose cohesion. Everyone has too many roles they’re trying to fill or things they’re trying to get done without enough info or resources. Everyone is reduced to tunnel vision and just getting through what they need to do (or the portion of what is needed that they actually *can* do).
A lot of people’s time will get wasted trying to find out information or see if anyone anywhere has access to this or knows where the documentation for that is. There’s no real team anymore. It’s just a bunch of people drowning in their own stresses and not working together towards a common goal… though I guess patching ever-larger leaks in the ship counts?
Forget planning or strategy. You don’t even know if the company’s going to exist in a year, let alone what innovations it should embrace by then. Good luck catching up to your competitors. Or attracting investors.
Same goes for product development. How do you hit milestones when people responsible keep leaving, and everyone left gets further behind? You can’t properly support whatever you try to get out the door, anyway. Who’s left for QA, marketing campaigns, tech support? A bad launch or bad user experiences are just going to compound the escalating problems.
This state of affairs is an absolute gift to your competitors. They don’t even have to explicitly slag you. They could just mention that they’ve heard you’ve been having a lot of turnover. Or just nod when a prospect brings it up. They’ll all know what that implies.
If your customer support becomes too slow, or bad – as it likely will if the ranks are full of newbies – that’s going to be yet another disaster. Amazing support will cover for a multitude of other sins, but companies with bad support end up shovelling massive amounts of resources into trying to distract from it, which only works sometimes.
Of course, when you lose cohesion among teams or people in the company more broadly, you lose culture. Not only does no one have time for team building or whatever, there’s going to be some *serious* cynicism, which is probably well earned. The lore and values that formed much of the corporate culture are being forgotten, and no one has the energy or inclination to focus on that anyway.
This is often the most painful aspect of a company that’s crumbling. Losing your people, your camaraderie and support system. Losing your work bestie/spouse is rough, if they’ve left. Suddenly you have no one to vent and decompress with when you need it the most. You’re also unlikely to have time or inclination to try and build new relationships within the company. After all, if someone of just the right awesomeness was already there, you’d have found them already.
And by god, you do not want to be the last person standing from your old team or department or what have you. You will rarely feel more isolated and demoralized at work than if you become the OG in an empty cube farm (real or virtual) or in the middle of a bunch of new people who you don’t know, who know little about what the team did or how the company runs, and with whom you have no shared history or rapport.
Especially if these new people have been sold a bill of goods about the organization that you, as an OG, know isn’t true. After all, if any sane person with options knew the state of the nation, would they choose to come aboard? I mean, aside from those with saviour complexes or who are true believers or whatnot.
See, it’s not uncommon for there to be fans of whichever executive is currently steering the ship… into the rocks… and they will hear nothing against the enthusiasm and spin and vision. I’m sure you can imagine how much fun they are to work with when you’re painfully aware of how few clothes the emperor is wearing.
After a certain point, it won’t be a secret that the organization has issues, and that a lot of people have been leaving. But if the organization continues to hire to replace them, then those replacements are either true believers or they’re all the organization can get, given the state of the company, its finances, whoever is even left to handle hiring, etc. (And the organization is the best they can get, too.) You’re probably not getting an A team, is what I’m saying.
Ever been hired by a manager who quits shortly after you arrive? That’s a special kind of fun.
What can really mess with your mind, as an OG, is seeing new people just settle in and keep butting up against chaos and disorganization, but acting like such levels of dysfunction are somehow… normal? Extra weird when the new people start coalescing into teams around you, but not really with you. Since, you know, you’re not really one of them.
You get by however you can, everyone’s been there. But when things are clearly messy and broken and everyone’s just kind of… sidestepping around it? I mean, sure, what choice do they have? But you can start to feel like you’re being gaslit by a company.
Again, those folks were sold a story that things are just in flux and changing fast or evolving – which is exciting – and they are going to help (re)build bigger and better. Some people will figure out that things are not as they were told, and there are some *serious* issues. But then what? Sure, some people may cut bait and start job hunting immediately. Other people will just… do their best. Especially if the job market isn’t great.
You often read that people don’t quit jobs, they quit bad bosses. Or operational needs that never get addressed, a lack of innovation, stalled career growth, poor compensation, bad processes, etc.
But sometimes, when it all starts rolling downhill and speeding up? People quit because other people are quitting. Nobody wants to be last. Even the OGs. Especially off a sinking ship.
M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached on Twitter at @melle or by email at email@example.com.