Marshall Atkinson examines the reasons why employees suddenly stop turning up to work, and how to prevent it

Has your shop ever been the victim of employee ghosting? This is when one person, for whatever reason, simply doesn’t come back to work. One minute they are there. The next? Poof! It’s confusing and frustrating. And, like it or not, it seems to be a growing trend in the workplace.

Why? For starters, currently, we’re in an employee market. Have you had to replace a production manager, embroidery operator, screen printing press operator or artist lately? It’s tough. And it is getting tougher.

So now is a good time to start considering why employees are ‘ghosting‘ and what you can do about it.

Reasons for ghosting

Let’s take a look at where this behaviour originates. As I mentioned, it is a tight job market these days. The unemployment rate is at the lowest point it’s been in about 40 years. As I’m sure you have noticed, even if you have a job opening it is taking longer than in previous years to find good candidates. Sometimes, the really good ones don’t even apply.

With more open jobs than trained and skilled workers in this industry, anyone with a strong background and a decent resume can upgrade their employment status easily. So this means that the person you’ve been counting on for all of these years may suddenly skip out on you. Something better just opened up, and loyalty is out the window.

This leaves many shop owners feeling extremely exposed and frustrated.

Avoiding conversation

The ghosting trend is also driven by the modern way in which most people now communicate. People don’t want a face-to-face conversation anymore when a text will do. For better or worse, we’ve grown used to that. So, in the case of ghosting, the employee has taken that one step further. In their minds, avoiding the drama and any sense of a confrontation is the reason they aren’t giving you any clues.

That one month‘s notice that has been the standard forever in business? Out the window when it comes to ghosting. You probably didn’t even call their previous employers or check their references anyway. In their mind, the next employer won’t either. And in fact, they may already have a new position working somewhere else.

I’m not defending the churn, just trying to explain it. These days, people want to avoid looking you in the eye and saying that they are moving on. Not everyone, mind you.

How strong are your relationships?

When it comes down to it, a business is a people-centric organisation. Your shop is no different. So, on the subject of ghosting, how strong are your employee relationships? What’s the culture like in your shop?

More importantly, how good a job are you doing building a solid foundation of support and respect for your employees? If you don’t want someone from your crew to suddenly vanish from your workforce, how are you going about establishing concrete connections?

If you are like most shop owners or managers, you circle the floor a few times a day like a shark. Having meaningful conversations isn’t usually part of the trip. Barking orders, pointing fingers and dropping ‘you are doing it wrong’ bombs happen more than any sort of positive encouragement usually.

Is that building a bridge of trust?

Strategies to avoid ghosting

Here are a few ideas that I’d like you to consider for your company when it comes to the idea of preventing employee ghosting. Make no mistake, what we are trying to do here is to prevent the talented, skilled and trained members of your team from disappearing. Especially when you need them the most.

Start with respect This is always a good place to begin: are you treating your staff with respect in every interaction with them? This goes for your managerial team too.

I’ve seen instances where employees feel disrespected by some casual comment someone makes from the front office management team. Flippant remarks can cause damage. There has always been a level of distrust and stink-eyed glances with the division from the front office and production.

Ensure that everyone on your leadership team is in alignment with how verbal and nonverbal communication comes across to others in your shop. Actually, spend time talking about this, it’s that important. Don’t let a snarky dig from your accountant drive off a key employee because they overheard something.

Everyone that works in your shop is on the same team. Regardless of position, seniority, pay scale, job duties or any other classification. Demonstrate your respect for your team at every opportunity. Try giving out three positive comments for every negative one you mention.

Communicate truth People want to know what’s going on. Don’t hide facts or sugarcoat challenges. In fact, the more you open up and trust people, the more forthright and empowered they may become. This means you need to talk to people and let them in on some things. There is zero room in this industry for secret agendas or back-door side deals with staff members. There is just too much at stake.

I’m not sure if you know this, but there are no secrets in your shop. The breakroom rumour mill cranks out the daily edition of gossip every day:

  • Who is about to get fired.
  • So and so just got a raise and it was lower than expected. Or higher and that sets off a chain reaction of people at your door with their palms out.
  • If we don’t meet our sales projections, there may be layoffs.

Sound familiar? This industry is intense. There is a lot of pressure. While we might think that nobody will tell another person how much they make per year, or some other private fact, that information always gets out.

While I’m not advocating putting sensitive information out on the company bulletin board, I am suggesting that your leadership team make more things transparent to the workforce.

People want to know these things:

  • That someone is noticing their effort. Are you measuring performance or daily activity?
  • That there is something better down the road for them. Is there a plan for their career? How do they make more money?
  • Company news. Are we doing okay? What’s needed? How do we stack up? The truth. Don’t mislead with white lies or half-truths. People can sniff out what is not being said, or wrong.
  • What does the future look like? Share what’s around the corner. That big job you just landed. The thank you from a client that came with a huge reorder.

Transparency In the section above I alluded to some transparency concepts. I think that this may be a key to understanding why ghosting happens with employees, so I want to elaborate on that a bit. Transparency is about clearly communicating information to your staff that impacts their lives.

For example, let’s look at some clarity in how a new vacation policy is rolled out. Did it just happen, or was the staff involved in creating the plan? Who was responsible for creating it? What are the accountability measures included on how many vacation days an employee will receive? Who gets to decide? How does it compare with the rest of the industry or business neighbourhood?

When thunderbolts strike down from the heavens regarding company policy, often there is some pushback and resentment. This can lead to a feeling of disillusionment and reduced job satisfaction. That’s when people start muttering under their breath, “Boy, I sure am tired of this place.”

That’s when that person, who already isn’t too thrilled about working for you, starts their secret job search. In a short period of time, they are working for someone else and you are standing there wondering what happened.

But what if they were asked for feedback or their ideas? Involvement means they matter.

While everything can’t be run by a committee, enough things in your shop that affect the lives of your staff could be up for discussion.

It doesn’t have to be policy initiatives either: workflow ideas; efficiency; how to improve something… Trust me on this: your staff has ideas on how to do it better. You should ask, “What can I get you to make your job easier or better?”

Reviewing performance differently How frequently are you having a performance review? Not just the formal ones either. Often, you can significantly impact a worker’s performance by reviewing what they are doing right now.

This means you have to be present in their work. That only happens by observing.

Stand there and take note regarding what happens. How’s the organisation? What happens when? Are there any factors from other departments or people that affect their work? Do they have any ergonomic or equipment challenges? Do they constantly have to borrow a tool to complete a task?

Your goal as a leader is improving your people. If you are truly committed to keeping your staff on the payroll, you should invest in time spent making their work easier.

Your staff recognises when you are there and noticing, improving and tweaking. This shows you care. During the process, if you ask a question or two on how to improve, this demonstrates you listen. When that new gizmo shows up, or you give someone some extra training, that illustrates that you act.

Employee ghosting problems usually happen because the staff member sees that their ideas don’t matter; that the boss doesn’t listen. They are no longer engaged in their work because “nobody cares”.

You can flip the switch on that by making sure the management and leadership teams see that improving employee performance is their number one goal. That’s one criterion your leaders should be measured by.

The main reasons for employee ghosting

The number one reason why employees leave their job and start this entire ghosting problem is that of bad managers. That’s no surprise: simply barking orders and waving arms around in the air isn’t managing. Constantly pointing out negative employee problems isn’t either. Let’s close by examining the top ten reasons why staff members quit.

No credit for the work performed People want to be acknowledged for their hard work and effort. When that doesn’t happen, they completely lose any motivation.

Trust issues Bad managers operate with the assumption that the employee will make mistakes. Command and control style managers don’t allow for empowerment.

No empathy What does it say when the shop is crazy busy with overtime, yet the managers take extended lunches or leave early for a round of golf? It says nobody cares.

Not advocating When an employee’s manager doesn’t go to bat for them regarding some point, they feel that they don’t care about them.

Favouritism When one staff member is singled out over others, this creates a tremendous amount of ill-will.

Weak leaders They might be experts in their area regarding skill, but they aren’t up to par with managing a team. Invest in people skills too.

Micromanaging Every. Tiny. Detail. Excruciatingly. Examined. And. Discussed. Constantly.

Always negative Nothing is ever correct. More emphasis is on the ‘how’ something is completed and less on the end result.

Unclear expectations What is supposed to happen? How does anyone know what success looks like? What is the timeframe or due date?

No training When things feel like a dead end job, they are.

Take a look at the top ten list above. Do any of these seem familiar in your shop with your management team? You’ll also notice these aren’t about money. Money is always important, but it’s not what drives people to abandon their jobs.

Have you had a ghosting problem in your shop? Maybe it wasn’t the employee that had the issue.

Marshall Atkinson is a leading production and efficiency expert for the decorated apparel industry, and the owner of Atkinson Consulting, LLC. Marshall focuses on operational efficiency, continuous improvement and workflow strategy, business planning, employee motivation, management and sustainability. He is a frequent trade show speaker, article and blog author, and is the host of InkSoft’s The Big Idea podcast.
www.atkinsontshirt.com