It’s Not Me, It’s You

Bad bosses may be behind struggles with employee retention.

Sometimes even great jobs aren’t worth the hassle of a difficult boss. Fort Myers pediatric urologist Dr. A.R. Abd-El-Barr, 40, remembers a position he left early in his career. “In a surgical subspecialty, your training doesn’t end with fellowship,” he says. “It takes five to 10 years to grow into it, and you need a steady hand of support and mentorship during that time.”

He imagined this kind of mentorship role with the surgeon overseeing him at his new practice. But what he got instead was a trial by fire. “It was the exact opposite of what you’d expect in a mentorship relationship,” Abd-El-Barr says, “and it built up this general sense of unease.”

Though he toughed it out for more than a year, he ultimately decided to quit. “One of us was going to stay, and one of us was going to go. I was the junior person, so I had to go.”

The work world is full of stories from people like Abd-El-Barr, who quit promising jobs because of struggles with supervisors. In fact, interpersonal relationships may play a bigger role in job satisfaction and employee retention than many people realize. According to a 2018 survey from Randstad US, a workforce solutions firm, 60% of employees have left jobs or are considering leaving because they don’t like their direct supervisors, and 58% have left or are considering leaving because of negative office politics.

Joseph Liu

If employers are having trouble keeping employees, there’s a chance the problem lies with the company’s management. “It’s like dating,” says Joseph Liu, assistant professor in the management department at Florida Gulf Coast University. “If you can’t find a good partner, you need to look at yourself.”

Some companies simply throw cash at the problem, offering higher salaries and better benefits without addressing the underlying management issues. Liu says this isn’t a successful strategy. “Money plays a role, but it’s generally not what keeps people the most engaged with their work. Empowerment, benefiting society, having an impact on others—these tend to be more motivating than the money part.”

Dennis Chapman

Dennis Chapman, head of school at The Village School in Naples, understands this concept. In addition to the school’s competitive salary and benefits package, Chapman strives to create a workplace environment that’s as rewarding emotionally as it is financially. His techniques seem to be working: He’s been at the school for three years, and between his first and second year, none of its 120 employees quit.

“I’m a big believer in positive leadership,” Chapman says. “I want to create a school that people like to be part of, and people sense that. They want to be in an environment where they know their boss cares.”

Care is an important word at The Village School, and the administration regularly tries to provide more of it. “We call it ‘filling their buckets,’” Chapman explains. “We ask ourselves, ‘What are some ways we can fill their buckets?’”

One answer is shout-outs at staff meetings. Chapman dedicates time at the beginning of each meeting for teachers and administrators to highlight each other. He carries a bag of chocolate and hands out treats to those who get shout-outs. The effect is a positive vibe among his staff.

“Look, we’re all competing for the same talent,” Chapman says. “We can do what we can compensation-wise, but it has to go beyond that. What does that candy cost me? A hundred dollars for the year? But it creates an atmosphere and a culture that people want to be part of. That’s why people stay.”

Like The Village School, the trades face a similar dilemma when it comes to retention. Southwest Florida-based Conditioned Air is considered by many to be a local employer of choice, and yet the HVAC company sees its technicians poached every summer. “Other companies will come in and offer a dollar or two more an hour,” says Conditioned Air owner Tim Dupre. “But once summer is done, they lay them off.”

Conditioned Air provides a competitive salary and benefits package to its 350 employees. Still, like Chapman, the company endeavors to offer more. Dupre’s preferred technique is to focus on career development. “We want to make sure we’re having frequent conversations with our employees about their career paths,” he says. “Then we work on a plan to help them strive for their goals.”

This kind of personal investment from higher-ups ultimately keeps employees on the payroll. And it effectively eliminates the “bad boss” story.