A Philosophy on Employee Turnover


Losing people sucks…kind of.

It is a crucible by which a shops leadership and remaining staff alike are tested. It is a signifier of both success and failure depending on the context. Administratively and logistically it is a burden. But is turnover bad on all accounts or is the hassle it presents clouding our judgment so all we see when someone leaves is inconvenience?

As I write this one of the three managers I oversee at Sunergos here in Louisville is preparing to leave after a very successful two-year stay with us. It was bitter-sweet hearing the news but I always knew that he was going to need to go on to his obvious calling as a writer. I hired Drew and then promoted him to manager after only 1 month as a barista because of his clear dedication, orderliness, and leadership. As the two years passed, those attributes and more shaped the cafe he managed in great and immeasurable ways. This story is not uncommon and it played out hundreds of times a year (maybe more) in cafes around the world.

As I think about his leaving, it brings up a host of questions about staff retention and turn-over. Of course there is the conversation about the “Career Barista” and whether or not that is an ideal to strive for. It is great when that happens but it is very rare. The reality is that a vast majority of those employed as baristas now, will not continue to be baristas in the future. This can be attributed to many different things and this post is not going to open up that discussion per se. We will however explore the options you have for how you can experience and use turnover for your benefit.

Shops are temporary entities that are organized for a shared purpose or mission, then, over time, they dissolve. That is not bad it’s just natural and I find it to be a rather beautiful cycle. My working philosophy on turnover right now is founded on that reality. Plus the idea that organizations of people around common goals are like latte art; ultimately temporary.  They are momentary alignments of variables that are designed to be experienced then realigned in order to help move forward positive change in the world, our industry, and our individual lives.

I want to re-frame the reality of turnover as a positive thing as well as a great opportunity. There are 2 things that I believe are great reasons to see turnover in a positive light.

Internal Cultural Evolution 

     The culture of your shop is an ever evolving thing. It is made up not only of the original mission and values that were laid out in its founding but also every staff members interpretation of those values. Each employee you have changes the shop in big and small ways just by their presence. They interpret the values of the shop that are communicated then live them out. There are staff who move the ball down the field and then there are staff who for whatever reason do not and have a negative impact on the culture. No matter what the situation, your culture is always in flux and so turnover, like the body constantly reproducing its cells, offers an opportunity to reinforce the good and to fix and replace the bad. To reinforce the positive influence of the good barista you will want to openly celebrate their contribution by communicating to other staff their legacy and values -e.g.: “John is leaving us for college out-of-state! We are going to really miss him and his hard work, flexibility, and attention to detail (plus his bad jokes). He’s leaving us an example to live up to and we are a better shop because of him.  Thanks, John.” Something like this statement expresses both the fact that you recognize the work and you also expect its continuation.

Now if you are losing an employee that has presented a negative influence, well, that is sad and hopeful all at once. Sad, because celebrating their contribution is made harder and sometimes is best left as just a polite send off. Sad, because in all likelihood they are leaving because either they were not happy, you were not happy, or both. They may have been a poor hire. They may have been a good hire but you were not a good boss. No matter the case the hopeful part is that their leaving affords you (and the shop as a whole) an opportunity to improve. You can and should take another look at your hiring practices and your management. What can we do better? How can we improve communication and follow through? What are our core values and how do we improve our ability to find staff that hold those values?

Finally, conduct exit interviews. I am a big fan of receiving evaluations from those who report to me. I want to foster an environment of openness and learning so they feel comfortable enough to give me feedback that I need to improve how I lead them. An exit interview should be the final feedback conversation of many preceding ones, not the only one when it’s likely too late. Ask about their view of the company and your leadership. How can we improve? You can do this with anyone leaving no matter on what terms they are leaving. Just be ready to take it in humbly and thoughtfully. The exit of a staff member affords you a unique opportunity for the growth of your shop. How you choose to experience that exit will determine if it is a missed opportunity or a well utilized one.

Training and equipping people for broad impact

     When we hire and train people to work as baristas we are inviting them to become part of a system that produces a product and an experience for both the customer and staff alike. That system is based on values that, if fleshed out well in the daily operations, determine what customers and staff take away from their time with you.  When you work in a place and are tasked with upholding those values daily, it has a huge impact on your personal development sometimes without you even realizing it.

When a barista leaves your shop they are not only a walking billboard for your company and a more savvy coffee consumer, they are also taking with them experiences and lessons that will likely stay with them the rest of their lives. How well you lead and manage will determine how they recall their time and what lessons they learned. Most all of us have experiences from our past jobs as baristas that have made us cleaner, more focused, better able to serve with grace etc.

We should view those people we have with us now as people in training for greater impact than just the job at hand. We can see turnover as a huge opportunity for large-scale contribution that could not be achieved if we retained all our staff. Our shops are training grounds for future leaders and influencers. We should celebrate that we get to be of service in this way and embrace the momentary opportunity we are given to host people in our companies who are destined for futures outside our four walls.

    With a balanced percpective we can experience turnover not as simply a burden, an unwanted cost, or an inconvenience, but as a natural and somewhat underutilized opportunity. An opportunity for betterment, not only for our stores or the coffee industry but literally for the whole world.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s