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The Not-So-Hidden Costs of Losing an EHS Team Member

Posted by Matt Segal on Nov 1, 2019 9:00:00 AM

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Turnover is inevitable at any organization.

But it’s especially problematic for EHS departments, where workloads are heavy, skilled professionals are required, and critical information often only resides in the minds of the people leaving.

Employees often walk out the door with valuable knowledge about processes and specific company issues that can’t be replaced. Those left behind are forced to try to pick up the pieces and reassemble the puzzle. Sometimes, the pieces are missing and you may not even know it.

In this article, we’ll look at the true costs and risks of losing an EHS team member, retention strategies, and how to safeguard your organization’s institutional knowledge. 

What is institutional knowledge?

Institutional knowledge is the combined experience, skills, processes, records, data, concepts, and wisdom held by company employees. You can think of it like your organization’s collective memory.

Sometimes institutional knowledge is stored in known, findable locations (such as a software system or spreadsheet) and accessible to others in the organization. Other times, this information is stored in paper files, sticky notes, or directly in someone’s head.

Institutional knowledge is essential to understanding how an organization operates and makes basic decisions. It also helps to maintain consistency and keeps the organization running smoothly across several generations of employees.

Watch out for “the bus factor”

Losing an employee is a scenario most employers don’t want to think about. But what if you found out that one of your employees got hit by a bus tomorrow?

It’s a concept known in software development as “the bus factor”: the number of employees who would need to be incapacitated before a project would be unable to proceed. For many organizations, that number is one.

Of course, there are many events that could cause a similar situation. It could be a retirement, vacation, someone getting fired, maternity leave, or promotion. When an employee leaves — voluntarily or not — loss of institutional knowledge poses a serious risk to operations.

Let’s look at some of the specific challenges organizations face when an EHS team member leaves.

What are some EHS-specific challenges when an employee leaves?

Turnover is challenging for any department, but losing an EHS team member comes with a specific set of challenges. EHS employees play a critical role in preventing harm, reducing risk, and supporting research logistics. Not only that, but the great ones form strong relationships with researchers and other employees over the course of their career, making them central to the organization’s safety culture. Here are just a few challenges to consider:

1. Recordkeeping:

Where (and how) does this person keep their records? Are they easily accessible to other team members? Are they even stored anywhere external to the person’s own mind? Siloed information represents a significant risk to your organization and your team’s efficiency.

2. Inspections:

What inspections is this person responsible for? What needs to be closed out? How frequently do certain spaces get inspected? Are there any problem areas or issues that need extra attention? It’s important to know these deadlines so an inspection doesn’t get overlooked.

3. Corrective actions:

Is this person responsible for implementing or enforcing any corrective actions? Where are they on the road to success? What are the next steps, and what problems are the corrective actions supposed to be addressing?

4. Communication:

How does this person communicate safety issues and updates to researchers and other employees? Do you have access to the appropriate contact lists or database? Do you know what messages were previously sent, or which ones are needed, and when, and to who?

5. New employee onboarding:

Do you have a training and onboarding plan in place? How will you pass along knowledge of processes and job tasks? Who will handle “overflow” work? Who has the time, resources, and knowledge to onboard the new person? From the point to when someone leaves to when their replacement is fully trained, the risks associated with their role can spike. Make sure you’ve got a plan in place to uncover, and address those risks in the interim.

How to retain EHS employees

Of course, the best way to avoid these problems is to do a better job of retaining EHS employees in the first place. Paying employees well, providing opportunities for growth and career advancement, providing necessary work resources, and offering benefits can go a long way toward employee retention. However, in most cases these factors will either be outside of your control or there may be another unavoidable reason employees leave — for example, in the case of a downsizing, a merger, or budget cuts.

There are some steps you can take to ensure that valuable employees stay on, though. One of the biggest reasons employees voluntarily leave is because they don’t feel valued. Lifeworks, the world’s largest employee assistance provider, found that three out of four employees who don't feel valued at work are seeking other job opportunities.

Other times, people don’t feel heard or supported. This can contribute to burnout — a factor that’s responsible for up to half of annual workforce turnover, according to HR professionals.

Finally, 92% of employees said that they would be more likely to stay with their job if their boss showed more empathy. That can be as simple as asking about their plans for the weekend or giving someone the afternoon off to take their child to the doctor.

While your actions may be limited, when you know you’ve got a team member who’s a critical contributor, it never hurts to make them feel included, appreciated, or valued. Sometimes, an employee will stay at a job just because they’ve got that one team member/friend who makes the grind worthwhile.

How to mitigate the risk of losing an EHS team member

Even if you do everything right, some employees will still leave. EHS is a field where skilled professionals are in high demand, and turnover isn’t unusual. Sometimes it may just be time to retire.

If you can’t persuade them to stay, there are still some steps you can take to prevent institutional knowledge from walking out the door with them. We’ll leave you with these tips:

  • The best way to protect institutional knowledge is to document it. Exhaustively, as much as possible. Have insight into what different people are responsible for to avoid those “unknown unknown” situations. Put procedures into place to ensure people regularly log the institutional knowledge they may be hoarding.
  • Make sure knowledge of processes and workflows is stored in a formal system that’s available across the organization. Enterprise EHS software is designed specifically for this purpose.
  • Don’t be fooled: just because information is “in a system” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s useful to others. Often, employees develop their own ad hoc systems that make sense to them but not to anyone else. (imagine going into your neighbor’s garage looking for a hammer — you wouldn’t necessarily know where to look).
  • Don’t wait until the retirement party to start planning. If you think you’ve got a colleague on the way out the door, start documenting the scope of their responsibilities and recordkeeping systems as soon as possible to ensure a smooth transition.