Dilemma of the Month: Getting People To Give Notice

Back Q&A Mar 30, 2017 By Suzanne Lucas
We service clients who are kids in the foster care system. We really value when our employees that resign give at least a three-weeks’ notice, so they can transition their clients — kids who have already had upheaval in their lives — to their team members before they leave. Is there any meat that we can put on the bones of a policy requiring a three-week notice, with some type of consequence for not providing this notice, such as not paying out vacation? Just having it as a policy is not working.

In some states, you could add teeth to your notice period by saying you don’t get your vacation paid out if you quit without a specific notice period, but in California, vacation is considered earned income. And while you’re not required to provide vacation, if you do, you can’t revoke it. So that’s a nonstarter. But I had another question about why this organization requested three weeks instead of two, which is standard in most industries. She replied:

“We feel as though it takes three weeks to transition the cases fully so that the kids are totally covered with all of their issues. These are attorneys and child advocacy specialists who have been following these kids’ cases for years — sometimes from the onset of the abuse allegation until they are legally out of the system at the age they graduate from undergraduate school if they never leave the system. We actually ask for four-weeks notice from supervisors.”

It’s quite unusual for professional staff to not fulfill notice periods. We expect that from workers in retail and restaurants and other entry-level jobs, but not from degreed specialists. So I pointed that out and asked for some additional information.

It turns out that the problem wasn’t with all professional staff, but just one group: the attorneys. Now, as much as I like to make lawyer jokes, even lawyers are known to fulfill notice periods. But it turns out the lawyers at this organization were severely underpaid. So much so that when an attorney got a new job with a market-rate paycheck, they couldn’t stand the thought of working one more minute at the lower pay and left immediately.

Nonprofits, of course, often have tight budgets. And lots of people are willing to work at a lower salary for a job they believe in, but at some point, most people get to a point where the paycheck is important. (This is why I have no problem with executives at nonprofits earning good sized paychecks — the nonprofit sector has to compete with the private sector for talent.) If you don’t pay at least a moderately competitive amount, you’ll lose talented people.

Many companies — for-profit and nonprofit — make the same mistake. They think, “Hey, we will save a bundle if we underpay!” Or by not giving raises. Or by withholding benefits. This is true, but only in the short term. Having poor compensation practices results in two really bad things happening: 1) high turnover and 2) retaining only the worst employees.

If your salaries are so low that the attorneys won’t even work out a notice period, you’ll find that the best attorneys are leaving because they can find another job. Who can’t find another job? Well, the not-so-good staff. Every once in awhile, you’ll attract a fantastic person who is either independently wealthy or willing to be underpaid for the cause, but it’s rare to keep someone like that for a long period of time.

So, the answer to your problem here isn’t to fix the notice period problem by giving it some teeth — it’s to fix the pay problem, and the notice problem will fix itself. That’s not to say you can’t tell new hires that, given the nature of the work, you request three-weeks’ notice. You can. But the problem is with the salaries and not with the notice period.

Getting more money for salaries is hard in any business, but especially in a nonprofit organization. It’s hard to convince donors and grant-givers that what you really need is to pay people more, but that’s precisely what you need to do. Consider the cost to your clients when turnover is rapid. Consider the cost of recruiting and hiring and training new people — many estimates say the cost of training a new employee is equal to at least six months of their salary. Those numbers are absorbed into lower productivity and so don’t show up on a spreadsheet, but they are there.

So the task now is to figure out how to raise those salaries. Good luck.