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3 Reasons Your Top IT Pros Leave and Warning Signs Your IT Team Is Job Hunting

By Kevin Casey, InformationWeek

(Edit: New England has virtualy FULLemployment in IT)

Is your IT team toiling with one foot pointed toward the exit sign? It’s not always so obvious as an employee leaving a resume on the printer tray.

Recognizing the warning signs of unhappy employees is a vital IT management skill. When you see them, you can act before your employees — and especially your best employees — start leaving for other jobs.

“You’re more concerned with trying to keep your best people,” said Cinda Daly, director of content at HDI, in an interview. It’s far easier, Daly added, to watch subpar performers leave — don’t let the door hit you in the you-know-what on your way out, as the saying goes. “It’s hard to keep the really good, conscientious, strong employees. If you start to see [warning signs that they may leave], you’ve got to hit it head-on.”

[ Retaining top talent isn’t easy. Here’s why your best IT pros might be polishing up their resumes: 3 Reasons Your Top IT Pros Leave (below).

In identifying several of those signs, Daly gave a nod to John Reed, senior executive director at the IT recruiting firm Robert Half Technology.
Reed is among the experts who will sit on Daly’s panel, “Strategic Staffing: Winning the War For Talent,” at the upcoming Interop conference in Las Vegas. Let’s take a closer look at some of the omens that indicate your top talent might be job hunting.

1. People Act Differently In Team Settings

Changes in attitude and behavior, especially in group project work or other collaborative settings, should catch your eye. This doesn’t mean someone starts behaving badly, per se. It could be far more subtle, such as the usually gregarious employee who suddenly goes quiet, or the always-punctual team member who suddenly starts showing up ten minutes late to meetings.

“Someone who was previously very enthusiastic and is suddenly withdrawn and indifferent, you need to be looking at [that],” Daly said.

2. “A” Performers Start Making Rookie Mistakes

There can be all manner of reasons, both obvious and subtle, for changes in job performance. But slips in performance can be a clear sign that your most talented people might have their eye on a new job outside the company. When your all-stars start turning in mediocre or downright shoddy results, something’s up.

“They start to miss deadlines, they start to make errors more frequently — particularly in patterns you haven’t seen before — because they’re distracted or disengaged,” Daly said. “They’ve got their minds on the exit strategy and not what’s going on at hand.”

3. Flip-Flops Become Dress Shoes

Changes in dress and appearance — especially in offices with loose or nonexistent dress code requirements — are probably not a superficial coincidence.

“We live in a pretty casual workplace environment,” Daly noted. “If people start to dress more professionally — they’re a little more buttoned up — that’s a change in pattern and a warning sign.” That doesn’t necessarily mean the shabby dresser starts showing up decked out in tailored $2,000 suits; it could be the difference between a t-shirt and a collar.

So what do you when you see the red flags of employee dissatisfaction waving in plain sight? Money can solve a lot of people problems, but it’s not a panacea. It’s also often in short supply in smaller businesses and other organizations with tight budgets. In any case, focus on perks, benefits, and corporate culture. These include areas like opportunities for new-skill acquisition; allowing a less experienced employee to learn new technologies on the job, for example, rather than requiring them to do so when they’re off the clock. A visible career path is also important — if there’s nowhere to go but sideways, you’ll struggle to retain your most talented people.

There are two other related perks that are often highly valued among IT pros — and they can be big recruiting and retention tools. They’ve also been in the news lately thanks for a policy change at Yahoo: Schedule flexibility and the ability to work remotely.

IT executives who say no to working from home or other remote locations might be doing themselves a disservice, according to Daly. Scheduling and location flexibility fall under the “work-life balance” header and, when properly implemented and managed, can provide CIOs with a competitive advantage in the labor market.

“So many people have kids, [for example]. They want to be able to go to soccer games. It sounds so ordinary, but it’s true,” Daly said. “Companies have to be willing to provide that flexibility and culture. A lot of managers fight that and struggle with it.”

Bottom line: If you ignore the warning signs or let the underlying issues fester, you’re begging for a talent-turnover problem. “You can’t let this continue to loom,” Daly said.

Attracting top talent is harder than ever for CIOs, CTOs and IT managers. That makes retaining the “A” performers on your current team all the more crucial. So why do your best people keep leaving for other jobs?

There’s a diverse set of reasons why IT pros seek greener pastures in another organization, ranging from the empirical — a 30% raise, say — to the anecdotal. Perhaps their boss’ idiosyncrasies drive them to the loony bin.

What’s clear is that finding qualified replacements for departing staff is no easy task. A recent HDI research report calls the current IT labor market a “war for talent.” The issue is not finding candidates; post a job opening online and you’ll likely be inundated with resumes. The problem is finding qualified candidates with the right set of technical skills for the job, according to HDI director of content Cinda Daly.

The HDI study found, for example, that nearly two-thirds (62%) of respondents struggle to fill “level 2 or 3 and/or desktop support” roles with qualified people. Management’s not much easier; 59% of companies have trouble finding IT executives with the right skills and experience for the job.

With that kind of hiring picture, you can’t afford to lose the good people you already have. Daly identified three critical issues that tend to underlie IT job dissatisfaction and motivate workers with in-demand skills to start looking around for a better opportunity. The first one should come as no surprise.

1. Money.

Were you expecting a different headliner? The almighty dollar is a big mover and shaker in the labor market. “Compensation is always a key factor,” Daly said in an interview. Money might sound obvious, but it’s complicated by the fact that many companies froze even cost-of-living pay increases — let alone actual raises — for several years during the recent recession. Those organizations that continue to keep a lid on labor costs may be paying a higher long-term price on the IT talent front. “[Frozen pay] added a lot of stress and pressure,” noted Daly, who will moderate the “Strategic Staffing: Winning the War for Talent” panel at the upcoming Interop conference. “That’s an incentive to move.”

2. Opportunities For Learning And Advancement.

The good news for budget-constrained businesses: Money’s not the be-all, end-all. In fact, IT pros care almost as much about the chance to acquire new skills and move up the organizational chart, according to Daly. Training, education and career upside are roughly as valuable as current compensation on the list of reasons talented people start looking elsewhere — yet management often overlooks these issues.

“When there are limited opportunities for people to grow, to have a career path, to learn and stay up to date on things — those are equally important to compensation,” Daly said, noting that many companies slashed training budgets during the economic downturn. “In the IT profession especially, with so much rapid technological change, people cannot afford to get behind in their skills.” If their current gig restricts their ability to keep their skills ahead of the curve, Daly said, “They’re going to go look for places where they can.”

3. Stress And Workload.

Stress and workload might seem like a no-brainer, but in the IT context it’s a double whammy. Daly said that some 73% of companies are struggling to fill their open IT headcount. In the meantime, many of those firms are parceling out the extra work to existing employees. Translation: Those open desks are not only hard to fill, but they’re burning out the current staff in the meantime. That often makes external opportunities much more attractive, sometimes simply by virtue of the chance to focus on one job rather than needing to cover three or four.

“Everything starts to get overloaded, everyone gets stressed, and mistakes happen in those scenarios,” Daly said. “It’s very prevalent. There’s now empirical evidence that shows that connection between stress and workload, and people will move on.”

Worried your top-tier talent might be sniffing around on the job market? Stay tuned for an upcoming story on some of the warning signs — and some ideas for making your IT organization more attractive to current and future employees.

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