Future Friday: What are you doing to prevent the ongoing “brain drain”?

A major problem for companies.

When you read the term “brain drain” most of us envision freshly trained, younger students, leaving a state or country and taking their talents elsewhere. Many of us have not thought about the brain drain that is occurring at the other end of the scale, baby boomers that are retiring and taking all their knowledge with them.

10,000 per day

Baby boomers are retiring at a pace of over 10,000 people per day according to The Washington Post. This is putting many organizations at risk to lose needed talent and needed institutional knowledge. Organizations from government to small business are in danger of losing leadership. According to author Riia O’Donnell, 65% of leadership positions in the US are held by baby boomers. It is not just leadership positions that are held by baby boomers, however, sales, customer service, accounting, even HR have baby boomer employees nearing retirement age. When they go they take decades of knowledge with them. Are you prepared for that?

Steps you can take

O’Donnell has written an excellent piece on steps that companies can take to keep from being harmed by this brain drain. She says companies should do the following:

  • Create paper trails. Have senior workers document jobs, including the shortcuts that would not normally appear in an operations manual.
  • Expand relationships. Where senior workers have key relationships with customers start introducing potential successors into the dynamics. Have the person with the key relationship take a younger worker along with them to start “learning the ropes.”
  • Bridge the gap. Have senior employees take on mentor roles.
  • Foster a culture of sharing. Many employees, senior or otherwise, hoard information in the thought that by retaining knowledge they are less likely to get let go. The potential for loss, whether intentional or unintentional, in this scenario, is great. People don’t just leave jobs because of retirement. Everyone should share information.
  • Incentivize the transition. O’Donnell means that programs should be set up that allow baby boomers to transition into retirement. Part-time or shared schedules would allow workers wishing to retire to stay engaged longer while still earning a paycheck.

One key component to making this work

Many companies are hesitant to talk to employees about their retirement plans because they are afraid of decisions and moves being seen as discriminatory on the basis of age. O’Donnell says “The challenge is creating a culture that allows for an open dialogue about such issues, and ensures that such dialogues aren’t perceived as punitive.”
It is critical to have a culture where issues of retirement and succession can be discussed openly. Having a succession plan in place will help foster such a discussion. Having programs in place that help employees with financial planning will help open the discussion as well.
HR and management need to make sure that decisions are not being made solely on the basis of age. Engaging in age discrimination will collapse any attempt to discuss age and retirement.

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