The Revolving IT Door Starts to Spin


Recently our IT department lost two of its top leaders.  One was the head of IT who left for a position at a university in Texas.  The other was essentially the second in command who left for a different position within the organization, but not in IT.  In the past few months, we also had a lot of other people change position, more so than in any other period that I remember over the last eight years.  Most of the moves have been to get more money, not because they really wanted the new position or were unhappy in their old position.  I’ve had the opportunity (so to speak) to sit back and watch objectively while I wait in doctor’s offices while my wife investigates alternatives that might help her live with her cancer (there may not be a cure, but there may be a way for extended managing of this disease).  While I have an MBA and thus some background in looking at business issues and not just technical issues (which is why I alternate between a business blog and a technical blog), not many of my co-workers recognize that I just might have some insights to business issues.  But just in case they are reading, here is what I think is going on.

Over the last three years, salaries at our organization have been essentially frozen.  I know some of you might be thinking at least salaries were not cut, and I get that.  However, salaries at local public institutes like school districts have never been on par with business in general. Now the gap still exists, but is not quite as wide.   At one time people came here to work because of the greater benefits and the almost guarantee of a job.  Well, some dents have been put in those arguments lately as well although they are still better than at most businesses.  At one time, there was very little job stress in these positions.  Again, not true anymore.  Long days and extended workweeks are not uncommon.  In fact, using the terminology of the ‘Carrot a Day’ people (Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton) there are not a lot of carrots going around.  Some might say there is a famine.  Some of this is because there is little to no discretionary spending especially in the public sector where local newspapers are ready to pounce on the hint of any money spent to reward individual employees.  Some of this is because there is a fear of being taken to Human Resources because of treating some employees unfairly compared to others.  Some of it may even be because management just doesn’t recognize who their best performers are because they really don’t understand the work they do and effort expended to do it.  It doesn’t matter what the reason is, just that good performance often goes unrecognized and unrewarded.

As a result, good employees are faced with two options if they want to grow their career.  One option is to find someone within the organization to help them move to another position.  The other option is to look for a job in some other organization.  Both options are viable even in today’s economy, but both options result in a loss of knowledge and capability in their old department that could take months or years to replace.

A quick example of this is that during the eight years I’ve been with our organization, I seen 4 different heads of our IT department.  That is like one every two years.  However, between each one there has been a gap of between 6 months to a year to fill the position.  How beneficial is that for our organization’s strategic effectiveness?  Did some of them leave because similar positions in other organizations paid more for the same level of commitment?  Did some leave because there were not enough funds to ‘make a difference’ in our organization?  Or were there other reasons such as less stress or not being on call 24/7 for the same pay?

In any organization today that artificially limits salaries of anyone in IT below the average level in the industry for any given position and regardless of performance, especially when there have been few or no raises over the last several years and no year-end bonuses, cannot be surprised when they see their best employees start to leave?  I know the arguments.  They tell you the times are tough and there are few jobs out there.  But honestly, that is just not as true for IT as it may be for other areas in business.  IT always rallies first as businesses try to leverage their data to gain an advantage as the economy improves.  ‘Ride the wave’ so to speak.  For example, anyone with some experience looking for a job in BI (Business Intelligence) can probably get a new job fairly quickly.  So perhaps an indicator that times are improving is to look at how many of your top performers are leaving.

Top performers also look for new challenges, and if your organization has cut back on new exciting projects and have relegated the best people in the organization to maintenance tasks while giving the few fun new projects to consultants, is it really any surprise that they will leave as soon as the economy appears to pick up?  Do you have consultants come in to write applications and then turn the maintenance over to your internal staff?  Money is still tight.  But investment in the future as the economy begins to dig out of the doldrums it has been in for the last three years can separate the winners from the losers.  It is sort of like playing Monopoly.  One strategy is to buy as many of the ‘better’ properties as possible early in the game even if you don’t have a lot of money because holding those properties will give you an edge later.  Yes, that means buying certain blocks of properties, utilities, and or railroads depending on your personal strategy.  Employees want to be on a winning team, not just a team that ‘gets by’.

I’ve also heard both within our organization and from other organizations that there just isn’t money for training, or the alternative is that training employees just makes them more attractive to other organizations.  While money spent on training is a tricky subject, it is important to employees, especially in IT, to feel that they are not being left behind in their skills.  I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve upgraded my skill set over the years and almost every time I’ve paid to learn those skills with my own time and money.  If I hadn’t, I would still be looking for a job writing FORTRAN applications on large mainframe computers and there are not many of those.  The point is that employees will just as easily leave your organization if you don’t provide training than if you do.  Maybe even more likely to leave.  Think of training as a benefit.  Yes, you might have some employees leave after the training, but then probably your best performers would have left anyway if you did not provide the training.  At least by training employees, you might reap the benefits from those who do stay because they feel at least some loyalty to an organization who at least tries to help them to be happy in their jobs.  And being happy to a technical person is using the newest tools, languages and hardware to get their job done more efficiently, faster and with fewer problems so they can have a life outside of work too.  Yeah, even IT people sometimes want to have a life outside of work.  That is really best for their health and wellness, or as some may say, sanity.

It is too easy for management to hide behind the opinion that technical people like to work 24/7.  Most really don’t.  At the same time, they can and will put in extra time for interesting challenges or in exchange for some promised reward such as bonus, time off, more training, etc.  But don’t promise without delivery on those promises because that is a sure way to guarantee they will leave or take an ‘I don’t care’ attitude the next time you need something special.

One last point, if your technical people are constantly on call 24/7 so that they begin to feel that they are really working two jobs and getting paid for one just because management uses the phrase, ‘other tasks as assigned’ don’t expect loyalty.  Occasional overtime is one thing, even extended overtime with a promised reward can be tolerated.  However when overtime becomes the norm and daily expectation, you can also expect to see an exodus when the economy starts to improve.

So what are your plans?

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