How to Retain Your Key Employees

Your top talent are leaving? Learn the reasons why and what you can do to prevent that from happening.

It’s not every day your organization finds a top performer, so it’s a serious blow when they leave for another role.

Top performers outperform average employees by 400%. This number jumps to 800% when it comes to complex jobs that require a lot of information and interaction.

These employees account for the greatest amount of organizational output, so the departure of just one can lead to a significant decrease in productivity.

Plus, star performers tend to raise the performance of their colleagues, especially when they have desirable soft skills like strong communication and collaboration skills.

A star performer can boost an average team’s performance by roughly 5% to 10%. Companies that are skilled at identifying and engaging top talent perform better than those that aren’t.

So what should you do if you find yourself losing your best people? The first reaction is to panic and play the blame game. Why weren’t they happy? Who dropped the ball?

But if they haven’t accepted your counteroffer and they’re focused on moving on, it’s time to facilitate a positive exit and use this departure as a learning opportunity.

Here’s how smart organizations deal with losing top talent:

Support your departing employee

Avoid turning this into an awkward situation. Your employee had decided another opportunity aligns with their life trajectory. Respect that decision and congratulate them on the next stage of your career.

Respecting your departing employees protects your employer brand. Your employee most likely has colleagues they like and respect at your company. Those colleagues will pay attention to how the departing employee is treated and use that experience to make their own career decisions.

Your departing employee will also use this experience to determine whether they’ll recommend this company to others in their network. Word spreads fast, and high performers tend to associate with other high performers. You don’t want to gain a bad reputation among star candidates.

Transparently communicate the change to the rest of the team

Your key employee’s departure will have an impact on your team’s morale. Announce the resignation and be transparent about how the team will respond and pick up the remaining work.

Communicating the change and intended plans helps reduce anxiety among your team members, creates a sense of control, and demonstrates that the departure is amicable and positive.

Transparent communication gives your team a chance to be transparent in return. This gives you insight into how this team member’s departure will impact your team in ways you hadn't considered. It also gives you a chance to gather the right information from the departing employee. For instance, there may be important information your team member’s need from them.

Finally, transparency helps to avoid follow-up departures. The departure of a top performer, especially someone in a management position, can destabilize employee confidence in the organization and signal that it’s time to move on.

Invest in understanding why your top performer is leaving

Your key employee could be leaving for any number of reasons.

Some of these are outside of your control, such as moving to a new country or stopping work altogether.

Others are reflective of your employee experience. A top performer may not see any growth opportunities, have a bad relationship with a manager, want to make more money, or seek a job that gives them more time back with their family.

Exit interviews are a useful way to understand a top performer’s motivation for leaving, but they must be done in a structured, intentional manner.

Companies often view exit interviews as a “check the box” exercise. This prevents them from generating real value.

Here’s how you can design and conduct successful exit interviews.

Create the conditions for a successful exit interview

Your employees might not want to be candid in an exit interview. They may think HR will take their answers back to their manager. On the other hand, they might think HR will file their answers away and forget about them.

Consider asking the departing employee’s manager’s manager to conduct the exit interview.

This way, they avoid an awkward conversation about why they’re unhappy with their direct manager.

At the same time, they don’t have to worry about their participation being futile. A director or VP taking time to speak with them is a sign that their planned departure has been noticed.

Carefully select the timing of your exit interview

If you conduct exit interviews too soon after a key employee submits their resignation, you risk having an emotionally-charged conversation.

That said, you don’t want to schedule the exit interview for after they’ve left. They may not be invested in a conversation, or they may be too busy settling into their new role.

Schedule the exit interview halfway between the day they submit their letter of resignation and when they actually depart.

Have a goal in mind and ask the right questions

Why are you conducting this exit interview? Do you want raw data to help you understand why employees leave? Do you want to confirm existing theories for your organization’s high employee turnover?

The answers to these questions help you narrow down which questions to ask and how to ask them.

If you’re trying to build a data set, you’ll know to ask questions that produce structured data, such as questions that ask employees to choose a response from 1 to 5. On the other hand, if you’re looking for descriptive data, you can focus on asking open-ended questions.

At minimum, ask your employees the following questions:

  • When did you decide to start looking for a new job, and why?
  • Why did you accept this new job offer?
  • Did you have what you needed to perform your job well?
  • What is your opinion of the company culture?
  • What would need to change for you to consider working here in the future?
  • Were you happy with the way you were managed?
  • What did you enjoy the most about your job?

Record and use your data

Once you have this exit interview data, use it. If you have several departing employees, look for recurring themes within their answers.

Identify other top performers and then use this exit interview data to have targeted retention conversations with them.

If professional development is a common theme, you can focus on creating clear career development plans with your other star employees before they begin looking for new jobs.

When you’re conducting these retention conversations, don’t make assumptions. Use your exit interview data as a conversation starter and wait and see what resonates with your top performers.

Reasons for leaving can include:

  • Low compensation and benefits
  • Friction with their manager
  • Lack of interesting projects
  • Lack of career development opportunities
  • No recognition or appreciation
  • Feeling overworked
  • Broken promises related to raises or promotions

Use an employee retention tool to turn exit interviews into meaningful retention conversations

In the beginning, manually identifying your top performers and engaging in retention conversations might work. Eventually, you need a way to scale up your retention efforts using data analytics.

An employee retention tool helps companies understand their top performers better by making the most of their company’s data.

Human resources is changing to become a data-driven function that uses the information it collects to help the business make smarter decisions. The HR leaders of tomorrow will need to know more than just what’s happening with their people – they’ll need to know what will happen.

Traditional HR analytics is descriptive and uses past data to describe what has happened. While it can help companies recognize patterns, it doesn’t help them make predictions.

Predictive HR analytics uses advanced statistical methods and machine learning to help companies assess the flight risk of different employees.

Adopting a data-driven approach to HR has a meaningful impact on your business. Using data to predict attrition can help companies reduce attrition risk by 5% to 8% per year.

Here's how Sparkbay can help you improve employee retention:

Our platform automatically surveys your employees at regular intervals (70% of our clients opt for monthly surveys).

Using this data, Sparkbay captures trends and alerts you in real-time when an employee segment shows an increased risk of turnover.

Sparkbay also uses data from recently departed employees to uncover the real causes behind turnover, empowering you to take early action and address the issues that matter before it’s too late.

We also created a library of easy-to-implement actions from the most successful organizations to help you and your team managers learn how to prevent turnover.

If you're interested in learning how Sparkbay can help you retain your talent, you can click here for a demo.

Strategically re-distribute the departing employee’s work among the remaining team

When a top performer quits, they leave ample work in their wake. Dumping the work on another team member only causes more problems. Instead, managers must come up with a work re-allocation strategy to limit the impact of this star performer’s departure.

Obtain visibility over the departing employee’s responsibilities

Before your employee leaves, ask them to create a transition document that lists important information such as:

  • Ongoing projects
  • Key customer relationships
  • Location of important information
  • Passwords to any software or accounts they managed

Ask them to share key pieces of information with the team, so that they’re prepared to pick up where they left off.

Strategically re-allocate the departing employee’s workload

Resist the temptation to assign all the work to your second-most productive team member. You also want to avoid randomly assigning tasks.

Assess what needs to be done, assess each team member’s strengths and weaknesses, and assign responsibilities accordingly to avoid any overwork or resentment.

Invest time in succession planning

Saying goodbye to a departing employee isn’t fun, but it is an opportunity to advance existing talent within your company. Before looking externally, consider your existing workforce.

Perhaps there’s someone else who has the chops but just needs some extra training. Hiring internally reduces some of the friction of a new hire, since the internal hire already knows the business and the culture.

Plus, it gives high-potential employees in different areas of the business an opportunity to become high performers themselves. Finally, it shows a commitment to advancing existing team members.

A popular tool is the 9 box grid. The 9 box grid helps employers categorize and understand their current talent. It focuses on two things:

  • Their current performance
  • Their potential or future performance

Low performer

High potential

Moderate performer

High potential

High performer

High potential

Low performer

Moderate potential

Moderate performer

Moderate potential

High performer

Moderate potential

Low performer

Low potential

Moderate performer

Low potential

High performer

Low potential

The 9 box grid considers each employee’s combination of these elements. Along the vertical axis, the 9 box grid measures potential (from low to medium to high) while the horizontal axis measures performance (from low to medium to high).

Someone who has high potential but low performance could be considered a “dysfunctional genius” while someone with high performance but low potential could be considered a “workhorse”.

Once employees understand where different employees fall in this 9 box grid, they can use it to make strategic decisions about each employee’s next steps.

How does this fit into dealing with losing top talent?

Smart employers use their 9 box grid to understand where to turn to for new employees. It also helps them use their exit interview data to take proactive action with specific employees.

Where an employee falls in a 9-box grid determines what actions the HR team or managers need to take. It also ensures the wrong people don’t accidentally replace the departing top performer.

Consider the following example. Suppose a superstar (high performer with high potential) leaves the company.

Without a clear understanding of where people fall on this grid, it’s easy to simply promote a hard working person into the vacancy. But they may be a workhorse (someone who’s extremely productive but doesn’t have a lot of growth potential) into a role that requires both high productivity and high growth potential.

An illuminating and common example is when companies move a top performer into a management role, not realizing that subject matter expertise doesn’t automatically translate into managerial skills.

With the 9 box grid exercise already completed, a company will know who the medium performance, medium growth players are – the core players – and advance them into the organization and help them develop.

Finally, the 9 box exercise can also help you identify employees looking elsewhere for opportunities.

Keep in mind that your top performers (high performance, medium growth potential) are not considered superstars (high performance, high growth potential) in the 9 box grid.

Once you’ve identified these top performers, you can help identify a path for becoming a superstar within your organization instead of looking for ways to act on their potential elsewhere.

How do you place employees within the 9 box grid?

To capitalize on the insights of a 9 box grid, you need to score your employees based on performance and potential.


  • Low performance: They don’t meet expectations or targets and they don’t fulfill the requirements of the job.
  • Medium performance: They sometimes meet expectations or targets and they somewhat fulfill the job’s requirements.
  • High performance: They meet or exceed targets and they more than satisfy the job requirements.


  • Low potential: They aren’t expected to grow more, usually because they don’t have the expertise or the motivation.
  • Medium potential: There is room to grow and the employee is motivated to do so.
  • High potential: The employee has grown within their role and they are ready for the next level.

The 9-box grid also helps companies avoid investing in the wrong people.

For instance, training and professional development are great ways to keep good employees, but it’s also a fast way to drain resources if directed at the wrong people.

If your 9 box grid identifies a high number of low performance and low potential employees – aka bad hires – you can focus on transitioning them out of the company and focus your attention on others.

Sparkbay makes it easy to go to one spot and have a bird's eye view of what's happening. Each manager can pinpoint the goods and where to improve.

How NARS reduced turnover by 10% with Sparkbay

Learn more

Identify and remove poor managers

An exit interview may reveal that a bad manager is to blame for several departures.

In this case, companies must act decisively by moving a manager back to a contributor role or encouraging them to find a management opportunity elsewhere. Keeping a bad manager can have a corrosive effect on your ability to retain top talent.

Consider the case of a financial institution that hired a new manager to oversee a team of 17 employees. Within a year, five transferred and four resigned, leaving only 8 team members behind.

Exit interviews revealed that the newly hired manager lacked critical managerial skills such as communicating the team’s purpose or appreciating employees. One bad manager led to the breakdown of a team within a year.

Even a mediocre manager can have a negative impact on your high performer retention rates. While low and average performers may tolerate a bad manager, high performers are motivated and ambitious and have little incentive to stick around in a poor work environment.

At the same time, avoid using managers as a scapegoat for larger issues.

Turnover rates are often used as a performance metric for managers. While this is usually a sign that there’s a management issue, there’s also a chance turnover has to do with other issues we’ve discussed like career development opportunities or compensation.

Focus on developing a new cohort of top performers

When high performers leave, good companies develop their next cohort of top performers.

They use frameworks like the 9 box grid to identify the employees who would benefit the most from development and focus on turning them into the company’s next set of leaders.

You can develop your top performers by:

  • Offering them exclusive training opportunities related to management and leadership
  • Provide support for projects they’re working on to improve the business such as streamlining a process or solving a difficult business problem
  • Offering mentorship opportunities with senior leaders within the business

Investing in employees in this meaningful way assures them that there’s a future for them at this company. It also gives them the support and encouragement to apply their best ideas to your company instead of using these ideas to pursue opportunities externally.

Remain in touch with your departing employees

If your departing top performer is receptive, stay in touch with them.

People leave for any number of reasons. Sometimes, they just want to try something new. When a great employee departs, view it as a “hope to see you soon” as opposed to a “goodbye”.

They may decide they want to return to your organization, and if you’ve stayed engaged, they’ll be comfortable initiating that conversation.

In some cases, your organization may benefit from that employee’s departure and eventual return. They may gain valuable insight into how other companies in your industry operate that can help you remain competitive.

In some cases, top performers want to leave to start their own venture. If that venture aligns with the company’s long-term strategy or product roadmap, the company may invest in that employee’s venture creating a win-win situation.

The departing employee has a chance to act on this goal while the employer continues to benefit from that top performer.

Make the most of a top performer’s departure

Saying goodbye to a top performer can be a stressful and upsetting experience. Nevertheless, the best companies view these departures as a learning opportunity and a chance to build their next group of top performers. They use data and technology to understand the reasons top performers leave, and apply predictive analytics to their future retention efforts.

If you're interested in learning how Sparkbay can help you retain your talent, you can click here for a demo.