Retention, Long Tenure and Employee Weaknesses

Years of the same strengths and weaknesses

A hidden challenge results from long service employees’ strengths and weaknesses.  I have, more than once, been appointed nonprofit interim Executive Director where the former director had very long service.  Say that an individual in a leadership position has weak performance areas and he/she works for 15 years.  This means there have been 15 years with this particular weakness. Here’s an example.  Maybe the director is strong in finance and fundraising but not so strong managing and dealing with people. Funding and finances are probably in good shape. But after 15 years of less than positive attention to the matters of managing people, human resource strategies and policies are probably lacking.  Perhaps the organization never hired anyone with professional HR skills.  Perhaps they did, but the professional HR person was frustrated by a leader that didn’t want to grow and improve HR practices through the years.   I’ve learned to gather information about strengths and weaknesses of the person I am replacing as a means to assess how to approach the assignment.


Long employee tenure is generally considered to be of great value. The logic is that employers invest time and money to train new employees.  There are technical matters, getting to know fellow employees to form a good team and then corporate values and philosophies to master.  The greater a position’s complexity, the longer it takes for an employee to learn the position and ramp up to competency. Reaching competency is the level where the employee’s real contribution can be realized. In the beginning the new employee is actually a drain on productivity.  At some point, they begin to add value by producing results at an acceptable level.  From a financial standpoint, the key is to keep employees after they reach the productive-results level long enough to return the original investment. All things considered, a company would be better off to keep these productive employees until their retirement.

Change is the new normal

The faster the world changes the more obsolete a given employee’s experience can become. In addition, nobody’s perfect.  Even your best long service employee comes to the job with weaknesses that may continue through their tenure. Read below for a discussion of the some of the hidden problems with long service employees.

Companies change their products, programs and services to remain competitive and to maintain profit margins.  Some lines are sold off and new ones are developed or acquired.  Even with one product line, the changes and advancements over a 25 year period would require significant re-tooling and process improvements.

In addition,  the external world changes around the company. Technologies change. Equipment and processes advance and improve. Consumer needs change and evolve. Accordingly, companies must adapt, retrain and develop employees skills to keep current.

Employees who grow along with the company, develop new/emerging skills  and perform well should be rewarded with opportunities, money or continued employment regardless of age, gender, race, etc. This is the main concept of an end-result oriented performance-based evaluation system. In addition, companies need to maintain good dialogue with all employees, particularly those who are falling behind.  Maybe they need more time to learn, maybe they don’t want to learn and change, or maybe they want to move into a more comfortable area of the company.

Status quo vs. let’s change everything

During this process of change and evolution, dynamics develop inside the company. As new employees join the company over time they come in and begin to make their own observations and changes.  This can cause conflicts between experienced, longer service staff who have built their ways of doing things and less experienced employees who have little loyalty to the way things have been done in the past.  Though it is not always so, long service employees can take offense and develop distrust.  Newer workers are seen to have new fangled ways to do things; they don’t know “how it is.”  It is not necessarily an age thing.  Plenty of young workers resist change and plenty of older workers adopt technology faster than young people. This dynamic is easily addressed with communication and attention.  The problem is that many companies are oblivious to the “camps,” choosing up sides and negative social issues that distract employees.

The key is to develop the kind of positive work culture that encourages communication among various employee groups, encourage everyone’s focus on company goals and make sure training and staff development keeps up with the times.

Contact the author with questions or comments.
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