The curious case of the missing regretted attrition.

February 9, 2021. Filed under management 128

Over the past year, most of my writing time went into Staff Engineer, and I’ve accumulated a long backlog of topics that I didn’t find time to write about. Staring down that list of topics, I looked for something that inspired some energy and would be quick to write. My list of topics to write about is mostly just titles, occasionally with a supporting sentence to decode my forgotten intentions.

The first topic on that list that jumped out at me was recorded simply as, “The curious case of the missing regretted attrition.” Let’s talk about that.

Companies spend a lot of time worrying about their team. Is your team talented enough? Are they working hard enough? Are the “good ones” leaving? Are the “bad ones” sticking around instead of being managed out? At some point, every company starts tracking employee departures.

Soon afterward, they start labeling each departure as either regretted or non-regretted. A regretted departure is an employee that you’d hire back. A non-regretted departure is an employee that you’re glad to see “pursuing new opportunities.” All executives leave for either a new job or spending time with their family, but even for them, there’s a secret mark scribbled in a notebook asserting their regrettability.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this system, and in theory, it’s handy data. However, there’s one recurring issue that pops up at pretty much every company: far too many people are marked as non-regretted departures. There’s nothing particularly nefarious here. Humans are extremely good at rationalizing events with a comforting narrative, and there’s no narrative more comforting than, “We didn’t really want them, anyway.”

So, what should we do about this?

We can recognize this bias is hard to avoid for a start, even when you’re aware of it. Reserve judgment a bit when you hear someone labeled as non-regretted. More importantly, be a bit stricter with yourself about labeling folks non-regretted. It’s uncomfortable to admit a good member of your team has left, but there’s something valuable for you to learn just a step beyond that discomfort (and maybe, let’s be real, some shame and embarrassment).

More importantly, we should take this as a call to be more stringent in our performance review processes. Is there someone on your team who is getting a satisfactory evaluation but would be a non-regretted departure? I bet there is, and that’s a bad sign. Are these mixed signals because folks are avoiding conflict, or do different evaluators have genuinely mixed opinions? While many folks will argue about someone’s performance rating's fairness, few will waste their social capital arguing about a departure’s non-regretted rating. They’re already gone, so most reasonably ask, why bother? That’s even if they’re aware of the rating anyway, which they probably aren’t since they’re rarely communicated beyond a narrow group.