Culture   //   May 28, 2024

What to do when your top performer shows signs of attrition

Having high performers who can absorb higher workloads than other team members can be a gift for managers. But it’s often unsustainable.

That’s partly because these individuals can start to feel a little too relied on. For instance, a corporate manager at online delivery company DoorDash posted on the anonymous workplace community Blind that they have a top performer with an eye-watering workload who feels undervalued and unsure how long he can sustain it.

In the post, published last month, the manager wrote that they were unsure what to do, with fewer promotions and bonuses happening company-wide. 

“Everyone calls him a ‘rockstar’ and he doesn’t seem to like it since people say that to ask him for more work that he’s not rewarded for,” the manager wrote in the post. “I told him I would support him in any way I can, but I’m not sure what levers I have left to pull.”

If you’re a manager, you’ve probably faced this situation at least once, where you’re caught in the middle, knowing who is carrying a team and is a top performer, but not having all of the resources to support them. 

A high performer in the workplace can deliver 400% more productivity than the average performer. Even in a tighter talent market, these especially high performers are likely to land other jobs where there are more opportunities for them. That’s why it’s absolutely necessary for workplace leaders to spot the signs of when a high performer is considering leaving and have an action plan in place.

We spoke to people leaders, HR and talent management experts to better understand how to navigate a situation like this. 

Spot the signs

“I would recommend managers trying to get ahead of this because it really comes down to communication and expectation setting,” said Kareem Bakr, managing director at recruitment agency Phaidon International. He notices that high performers might get that itch to look elsewhere after being at a company for around two years. 

He says that things you can look for include the high performer not behaving as usual, deselecting from group settings or outings, or an overall lack of effort or care at work.

“You might see things starting to slip, you might see a lack of interest in a performance review or a monthly catchup where they were once engaged than switched on,” said Bakr. “Keep an eye out for that.”

“You might see things starting to slip, you might see a lack of interest in a performance review or a monthly catchup where they were once engaged than switched on.”
Kareem Bakr, managing director at Phaidon International.

When a manager does spot that a high performer is struggling to find reasons to stay, communication is critical. 

“By maintaining open and transparent communication, the manager can explain current company limitations to the employee and emphasize their commitment to support the employee’s growth and recognition despite constraints,” said Amy Mosher, chief people officer at HR and payroll software company isolved. “The manager should listen to their employee’s concerns and express empathy while recognizing the employee’s strong performance.”

Consider a book of options

One of the most important things to recognize is that every worker is motivated by different things. While seeing an increase in pay with a raise satisfies most, especially in a cost-of-living crisis, others are motivated by flexible work options, career growth opportunities, title changes, increased recognition, and more. 

“You need to treat them as the star players of the team,” said Bakr. “You expect them to play at a high level at all times, so you can’t really forget about them.”

Spot bonus. “You may not be able to give someone a raise, but if retaining someone is important and they are business-critical, what type of retention incentive compensation program can you develop where you’re getting deliverables from the employee and they feel recognized?,” said Eric Mochnacz, operations director of strategic HR and management consultant Red Clover. 

Career development. Having a clear career development path that is revisited frequently is not to be overlooked. Huda Leininger, vp of HR, at background check company Asurint, explains that top performers especially are often motivated by the prospect of learning new skills, taking on challenging projects, or moving up the career ladder within the company. 

However, it is important to note that the highest performer won’t always want to be rewarded with more work with no pay increase. 

Title change. Mochnacz has seen people be driven by status and title more than financial gains in the past. While it might be disappointing to some to have a title change that better reflects the hard work they’re doing without the pay change, other people might really respect it. 

“What does the employee actually want?,” said Mochnacz. “It’s possible some employees might not assign that much value to money.”

“What does the employee actually want? It’s possible some employees might not assign that much value to money.”
Eric Mochnacz, operations director of strategic HR and management consultant Red Clover. 

Increased recognition. Leininger says that regularly acknowledging and appreciating the contributions of top performers can have a bigger impact than you might realize.

“Public recognition, praise from leadership, or even small gestures can go a long way in making employees feel valued,” said Leininger.

Enhanced flexibility. When Bakr was working with a client, they really wanted to stay at a company but needed assistance with childcare. If that couldn’t come in the form of a raise to afford childcare, then they would need a flexible working arrangement to stay at home three days a week and work remotely to also watch their child. 

Additional PTO days. Encouraging a healthy work-life balance can be significant for a high performer, who might be the one who actually needs the time off to recharge the most. 

“Encourage a healthy work-life balance by setting clear expectations around workload and deadlines,” said Leininger. Avoid overworking employees, especially top performers, as burnout can lead to disengagement and turnover.

Other non-monetary benefits that can be considered include wellness programs and employee discounts.

Advocate for the employee

In the case of the original post on Blind, the DoorDash manager said: “Part of me wants to drop a hint to my manager that the employee is dissatisfied but I also don’t want to put this employee on the chopping block if it hurts him in other ways.” 

It’s a valid concern, but ultimately, the high performer needs someone willing to advocate for them. 

“The manager must continue advocating for their employee to upper management to show why they’re a valuable member of their team they can’t risk losing,” said Mosher. “It’s essential for the manager to carefully plan how they will communicate the value of this employee and the risks of losing this employee to their superiors.”

Mosher says that might include outlining all of the employee’s contributions to their supervisors and explaining how the employee goes above and beyond with a higher workload than their peers. Emphasizing their strong technical and soft skills is also helpful.  

Some of the above plans of action can be done without manager approval, like increased recognition, but others, like additional PTO days or spot bonuses, will need the green light from upper management.

“The manager must advocate for spot or performance-based bonuses, push for constructive feedback, and find other ways to recognize the employee,” said Mosher. “They should also work with their supervisors to re-evaluate the team’s workload distribution to ensure all tasks are distributed fairly, instead of falling on the high performer because they are a reliable employee.” 

A last push

Knowing that this high performer who feels undervalued might be looking elsewhere, be prepared to negotiate to retain them. ​​“This could involve discussing potential salary increases, bonuses, or other incentives to persuade them to stay,” said Leininger.

If a company truly is not in the place to be able to support this high performer, Mochnacz argues that the company should do its part in helping them land a different job. 

“Sometimes, for employees, letting them go is the best thing,” said Mochnacz. “If the person is being honest and saying ‘I want to stay here, but there just aren’t the opportunities for growth because of the size of the organization,’ there’s actually a good opportunity for HR or the manager to engage with that person and help them as they do their job search. It would also ensure a proper transition with their role with a good knowledge transfer, and have that person be a successful alum.”