The 5 Words You Never Want Employees to Say

"I think I'm going to quit." This from a young woman who's considering a job change. By all accounts a promising employee, she's been at her company since right out of college, taking an entry-level position two years ago for its future potential. But increasingly she says, she's realizing there's nowhere to go. "I like what I'm doing," she told me. "I'm just not learning anything." And there it is, the five-word kiss of death: "I'm just not learning anything."

It's the real narrative behind the "employees want to develop" statistic researchers like to talk about -- the stories behind the numbers showing the importance of gaining skills. Study after study says employees (particularly young employees) crave learning opportunities. Our own data show more than 2/3 of Millennials prefer development opportunities to pay raises. 

Numbers alone can make the data seem a little faceless. But the young woman, above, shows the actual costs. People really will leave to avoid stagnation, and a record-setting quit rate says they have choices. So an investment in education isn't just a benefit for employees, but a solid retention plan for your organization. The baseline is your employee tuition assistance program -- a solid reimbursement plan to make it possible for people to earn the knowledge they want and the skills you need. But money alone doesn't a learning culture make.

Show them the way

Faced with a barrage of opportunities, even the most dedicated future learner can feel overwhelmed. And what you don't want is a flock of people taking classes that have no purpose -- on your dime. One executive coach wrote about why students took her leadership class. "Time and again," she wrote on HBR, "the reasons include: they are checking a box on their development plan, their manager told them to come, or they've been told that their participation will increase the chance of a promotion."

The antidote is upfront decisions about what you want your education program to accomplish. Is it to fill specific positions? Is it to gain credentials for a particular skill? Is it to inspire people with knowledge outside their area?  Whatever it is, write it into policy and set the rules so the classes (and your investment) match the goal.

Map out the end game

Sometimes the failing of a learning program is not about the "what" but the "why." LinkedIn said roughly half of mid-career employees have no idea where they're heading, and are instead simply "sleepwalking" through careers with no particular goal in mind. Talk about an engagement killer.

This is a bigger problem for younger employees who LinkedIn said would actually bolt to blaze a trail. The young woman I spoke to was on the brink of giving notice, but she said she'd absolutely stay for even the glimmer of a clear pathway -- and the support to get there.

Creating an Employee Tuition Assistance Program that Works

What we know is that learning and growth matter to people. And the quit rate says people are heading elsewhere if they can't find it with you. While your employee tuition assistance program is a good start, a checkbook and good intentions will only get you so far. Put some time into the specifics of your program -- what positions you need to fill, what skills are required, and what steps employees will need to take to get there. The right approach could solve two talent strategies (retention and skills gaps) with one tuition program. Even better: you'll not only dodge those dreaded five words about learning, you might even bypass the two-word phrase no manager wants to hear: "I quit!"

Written by: Lisa Oppenheimer

About the Author

Lisa Oppenheimer at Bright Horizons

As Director, Brand Storytelling at Bright Horizons, Lisa writes “from the trenches” about the real life challenges of people in today’s workplaces: from the tensions of being a working mother, to working with millennials in the digital age, and everything in between. With a career ranging from freelance to full-time, Lisa brings a diverse employment background to her perspective.