Why can’t employees speak honestly about their career goals with their managers? It’s because of the reasonable belief that doing so is risky and career-limiting if the employee’s aspirations do not perfectly match up with the manager’s existing views and time horizons. It seems safer to wait until another job offer is in hand, so that if one’s manager reacts badly to one’s ideas, there’s no danger of being passed over for on-going professional development, or worse, left unemployed. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: once an employee has gone far down the road with another potential employer, it’s hard for her to maintain a positive relationship with her current company.
Neither manager nor employee necessarily wants the current employment relationship to end, but because of the lack of trust and honesty, that’s precisely what becomes likely to happen with talented employees.
If you want to forge a high-trust alliance with your workforce, take a page from a popular clause in founder employment agreements — the “Right Of First Refusal” (ROFR). When a founder wants to sell stock in the company and has an offer to purchase some or all of the shares, the company has the right to exercise its ROFR and buy the stock at the offered price. This compromise reassures the founder (or employee) that the company can’t block the sale of stock while allowing the company to make sure it isn’t saddled with investors it doesn’t want.
We believe that an equivalent compromise can help improve the employer-employee relationship: the “Right of First Conversation” (ROFC). If an employee decides she wants to explore other career options, she commits to talking with her current manager first, so that the company, if it so desires, has the opportunity to define a more appealing job or role. This doesn’t mean that the employee informs her manager every time she receives a call from a headhunter—this kind of disclosure would be onerous for both employee and manager. Rather, the employee should initiate a conversation when she is seriously considering alternate job offers or career paths. Similarly, the employee should also approach the manager if she felt strongly that her current tour of duty no longer fits, and that without a change, she would feel obligated to start looking for another employer.
As with other aspects of the employer-employee alliance, the ROFC isn’t a binding legal contract. It’s an understanding between manager and employee that carries moral weight if violated.
Because the employer typically holds the power in the relationship, it’s up to the company to take the first step towards building the necessary trust. Managers need to say, “We don’t fire people for talking honestly about their career goals,” and truly mean it. Once employees believe that the company will live up to those words, managers can point out the benefits to the employee of granting them the Right of First Conversation.
First, an employee can benefit from frank career advice from a manager on specific industry opportunities. In a high trust relationship, a manager will not reactively denigrate competitors or “say anything” to keep an employee.
Second, perhaps the current company can upgrade the quality of the employee’s existing tour of duty. An employee who provides advance notice allows the company the time necessary to explore and develop more possible options and offers. If the company has weeks to match or exceed an offer from a rival, it has a much better chance of pulling together a counter than if it only had twenty-four hours to respond.
Finally, even if the company can’t present a compelling counter or the employee chooses to switch firms, the ROFC helps preserve the long-term relationship. The split can be made amicably, and on a timetable that works for both parties, honoring the mutual obligations and investment they have made in each other.
As a manager, would you rather manage a planned separation from an employee who has completed her final tour of duty? Or would you rather scramble to perform damage control on a sudden departure?
As an employee, would you rather depart amicably and become a valued member of the company’s alumni network? Or would you prefer to depart under a cloud of acrimony?
The Right of First Conversation represents a major departure from business as usual, but that’s precisely the point. The lack of trust between employer and employee is costing both parties. Adopting the ROFC helps both parties build trust and a longer, more fruitful relationship.