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Awkward Kitchen Parties

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Today we’re going to talk about awkward kitchen parties, because I’ve been thinking about this for a long time.

I’ve been wondering, What if we had parties, celebrations, and speeches for the people who stay?

I mean, think about it. How many times have you attended a going-away celebration for a person who has resigned? As you listen to everyone going on and on about that person’s accomplishments, what a great employee they were, and how much they’ll be missed, you, (like me), might be wondering silently to yourself, What might have been different if we had this party before they quit?

I began thinking about this topic many years ago when I was working at an organization that had – what we affectionately referred to as – Awkward Kitchen Parties (AKPs). They were held each and every time someone resigned, and here’s how they went…

The announcement would come out that so-and-so was leaving, and we’d all pretend that we were surprised; it was a pretty small company, so the rumor mill had pretty much already taken care of the announcement. But we would take that as a signal to begin planning so-and-so’s AKP.

It always involved a grocery store cake and some kind of trickery to get them to show up in the lunchroom (a.k.a kitchen). We’d all yell Surprise!, and then their supervisor would lead off the Awkward Kitchen Party speeches – talking about how amazing the employee was and how much they’d be missed.

Once the supervisor finished their tribute, the rest of us would begin speaking and sharing our reflections about the person and their work. Sometimes it was a little bit forced and there’d be some squirming or knowing glances among us (hence the term Awkward Kitchen Party).

But before long, everyone would jump in and begin heaping compliments on the team member, sharing funny stories, or generally affirming their talent and how much they would be missed. And sometimes, depending on who was leaving, there’d be some emotion and choking back of tears. And I’d always wonder what was going on through this honoree’s mind...

Were they having second thoughts about leaving? Did they believe all these comments and compliments? Did they wonder why they’d never heard them before? Or did they just want to yell, “Are you kidding me, people?!”

What we know from all of the employee engagement research is that lack of appreciation is the number one reason why people report resigning or leaving their job – 78% of them, actually. And out of those people, the majority of them do not complain about salary, pay, or benefits. They were only looking for appreciation and validation. We also know that appreciation is the number one thing that people say motivates them to get up out of bed in the morning, go to work, and do their best.

One of the biggest expenses that organizations deal with is the cost of staff turnover, and you can find all kinds of literature and information studies about how much the turnover of a single employee costs the organization. It’s in the ballpark of five times the person’s monthly salary, depending on their length of employment, the work they do, and the ROI (return on investment) of their position.

But right now, I want to talk about what the not-so-obvious costs are when someone leaves an organization, the things we frequently don’t take the time to quantify or qualify.

The first one is the amount of time the other employees engage in gossip and speculation when someone among them resigns. We all have heard the questions: Why are they leaving? Do you know why they’re leaving? Where are they going? Is it because of so-and-so? Is it because of this or that?

The second one is that there are very real emotions that employees feel when their teammate – their partner in a project, their supervisor, a member of their team, their friend, their lunch buddy – departs the organization. There are grief and loss, sadness and fear that go along with that.

The third cost we frequently don’t calculate is what I call the Grass Is Always Greener Effect. We hear someone’s leaving and they’re getting a bump in pay, they’re getting better benefits, maybe they’re reducing their commute, or maybe they’ll be able to work from home part of the time (or all the time!). And then we begin to take a look around, to see what’s out there that can also improve our circumstances. That’s time that the employee is distracted and not working on the tasks at hand.

Then there is the nuanced – yet really practical and valuable – knowledge and experience that the person takes with them, and I’m not talking about the stuff that’s documented. I’m talking about the shortcuts that they know, the inside scoop that they have, the contacts that they’ve cultivated. All of that walks out the door with them, and we frequently don’t even realize the gap until the employee is gone.

Then there are the lost opportunities as the person who’s leaving begins to focus more on their exit than on their day-to-day performance. Most people who leave don’t come to that decision the day before they resign; they’ve been putting time and attention on the tasks of getting ready to leave and leaving long before the announcement comes out. During that time, the company is suffering from lost opportunities without even knowing it.

There’s also the stress on other employees as they worry about how the gaps are going to get filled and how much more work will be added to their plate in the interim. I always tell people that when someone resigns, most people are sad about losing that person for a few minutes, but their thoughts immediately turn to What does this mean for me? Have you ever experienced that?

And of course, there is all of the conflict and drama, and all that goes into planning that crazy Awkward Kitchen Party. I don’t know if you’ve ever had this happen, but just the other day someone told me, “And we had to pay for the cake! The company wouldn’t even reimburse us for the cake!”

Someone else recently told me about a resignation party where the list arrived of what each person would contribute to the potluck, and this person had evaluated it to: “Well, I can’t believe it’s the people that make the most money who are bringing things like chips and bread, while the people who make the least amount of money are bringing the meat and the sandwiches and the salads and the casseroles.” All of this stuff happens around these types of events.

So, what’s the solution here?

Well, I say this is an excellent time to seek quick and easy ways to increase employee loyalty and employee happiness, and to ensure people know that they are seen, heard, and valuable to your organization. Maybe by holding Awkward Kitchen Parties throughout the course of the year for the people who stay – now, how much fun would that be?

Here are some simple ways you can begin implementing Awkward Kitchen Parties in your organization today…

  • Be the person who regularly acknowledges people’s contributions in casual conversations, such as in emails, through handwritten notes, and yes, sometimes with a spontaneous cake.
  • Hold regular staff meetings with a big focus on making sure there is time for individuals to acknowledge the contributions and support of their colleagues.
  • Bring your staff together for weekly stand-up meetings, and teach each of your managers or supervisors to brag about what their staff has achieved.

And you need to be the one who leads the way on the clapping and the congratulations. That will create space for people to begin to practice recognizing others.

  • Go ahead and have a monthly Awkward Kitchen Party that involves a cake, and use it as an opportunity to recognize all the employees who are celebrating an anniversary that month.

You don’t even have to do all the legwork on finding out who is having an anniversary or how long they’ve been there. You can ask people, “Who’s celebrating an anniversary this month?” and of the people with an anniversary, “How long have you been here? And what’s a thing about this organization that makes you happy to get up in the morning and come to work?”

  • Make sure you invest time and effort to check in individually with each member of your staff, a time when you sit and chat about where they are, what they’re thinking about, what they’re hoping for from their job, and what they see as their strengths and their accomplishments. Really honor that time. Be fully present and truly listen to them.

All of these ideas are pretty simple and easy to implement, and when I share them with organizations that are struggling with high turnover, I often get the response, “Oh my gosh it takes so much time and energy to put these in place.”

But when you think about the time, energy, and lost opportunity that occurs whenever someone resigns, you may realize that these simple, proactive measures are not nearly as expensive or time-consuming as you might imagine they are. So, go ahead, take one of those ideas and begin to implement it in your work environment!

Also, if you’ve seen great ideas that I haven’t mentioned happening in your work environment or heard about them at a place that you know, share them on my Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/bethwonson/ or send me an email and tell me what’s happening in your organization that positively creates an environment of employee recognition, validation, and awkward kitchen parties­.