Just as high turnover is a retention problem that interferes with company growth, long tenure can cause problems too. Here’s how.

We often associate long employee tenure with top workplaces – and frequently there’s a correlation.

But just as high turnover can interfere with your company’s growth on one end of the employee retention spectrum, long tenure – the opposite extreme – can stunt your business’s growth, too.

To stay ahead of retention problems and maintain a thriving workforce, it’s important to understand both of these extremes and their downsides.

This blog will focus on the latter – addressing problems with long-term employment and preventing issues from forming in the first place.

This blog will:

  • Consider the specific issues caused by long tenure
  • Help you identify whether it’s a problem at your organization
  • Explore possible solutions and preventative steps

When employees stay too long

With average tenure just above four years in the U.S. and the popularity of employee retention strategies, it’s hard to imagine long-term employment ever being bad for business.

But “super tenure” can in fact be a false positive if not managed correctly, and here are some of the reasons why.

1. Disengagement

When people stay at the same organization for many years, there’s a natural tendency to trend toward complacency and disengagement.

This can occur for many reasons, including:

  • Burnout
  • Resting on past successes
  • Boredom

The trouble is, in a loyal employee, disengagement doesn’t necessarily present itself in the form of a checked-out person who fails to show up for work or meet the requirements.

Instead, it shows up as a seemingly consistent person who has stopped challenging your business to be better, which can be harder to recognize at first.

2. Stability mindset

What’s sometimes underneath long-term employee disengagement is a stability mindset, or having a preference for defending the status quo.

As company goals, systems and technologies change, those employees with a stability mindset cling to the past, sometimes standing in the way of innovation necessary for growth.

This reluctance to evolve usually doesn’t come from bad intentions – it’s simply a means of avoiding the discomfort change can cause and preserving the past.

3. An us-versus-them mentality

When long-term employees become entrenched in this stability mindset, it can create tension for new hires coming into your organization because they are often seen as a threat.

Very tenured employees may tout their years of service and deny newcomers the support they need to succeed in their roles, which could drive them out prematurely and even damage your employer brand and future recruiting efforts (if they go on to share their negative experiences).

When retention is your problem

Extended tenure doesn’t become an issue for every employee.

But when you have long-term employees with fixed or self-protective mindsets, they can become responsible for organizational stagnancy.

If you’re not experiencing as much growth as you’d expect based on the resources you’re putting in and you have long-term employees, it may be time to ask your leadership team some tough questions.

 Being as honest as you can, ask yourself:

  • How has our organization improved lately?
  • When was our last real success?

If you have to reach back further than you’d like for answers, this demonstrates more than just a problem with hitting your goals. It also shows that you team members who have accepted these flatlining results.

If you’re not OK with your company’s progress, but some of your team is, you’ve got a problem – no matter how loyal they’ve been to your company in the past.

This can be a tough spot to be in as an employer when you care deeply about both:

  • Honoring loyal employees’ contributions
  • Maximizing your company’s potential

Finding solutions

What can be done to resolve problems that stem from too much tenure? Here are two ways forward that can get your business growing again.

1. Bring in new employees.

If you have open roles or are in the position to expand your team, bringing in external hires is one way to restart growth.

And despite the challenges mentioned earlier, when done well, hiring outsiders who bring new ideas can eventually help motivate your tenured staff members, too.

The key to getting existing and new employees gelling as a team is to honor both groups for their unique perspectives.

You can do this by:

  • Setting aside ample time for everyone to get to know each other on a personal level
  • Acknowledging the successes of the existing team
  • Empowering external hires
  • Encouraging existing employees to be open to their suggestions

However, to make this most successful, you also need a separate plan for improving employee engagement among any poorly performing long-term employees.

2. Give people a chance to grow again.

Getting super-tenured employees into learning mode and restarting their personal growth process is one of the best ways to get them back into a position of helping your business grow.

Here are a few ideas:

  • Provide personal development opportunities such as attending a conference or networking with people in similar roles at other organizations
  • Offer skills assessments to generate excitement about further developing their strengths or picking up new skills
  • Create formal opportunities to try out new roles or responsibilities within your company

Another great proactive strategy is to identify long-term employees who have worked with a growth mindset, staying invested in themselves and your organization throughout the many years they’ve worked for you.

Recognizing these employees can inspire others to follow their lead.

A note on moving on

When you start making a concerted effort to help long-term employees grow again, it can become more uncomfortable for them if they’re unwilling to reengage.

Many times, this can help those employees make their own choice to move on, which is sometimes better for everyone.

If you begin to feel termination is necessary, ensure you’ve had direct conversations with the employee leading up to your decision and that your reasons are well documented.

The different needs of long-term employees

Retaining employees for long periods of time is not always a good thing.

That’s why it’s important to proactively manage your most tenured employees with the goal of finding the right balance between productivity and loyalty.

For more ways to keep your people moving toward your business goals through better human resources strategies, download our free magazine: The Insperity guide to succession planning.