Book Review: The Deadly Sins of Employee Retention: New Edition to Solve the Great Resignation, Quiet Quitting, Burnout, and More

This article is part of NASFAA's occasional book review series, where members share their reflections on books, published within the past five years, on higher education themes of interest to financial aid professionals. The opinions offered and statements made do not imply endorsement by NASFAA or the authors' employers and do not guarantee the accuracy of information presented. Would you like to suggest a book for a future review? Email us at [email protected] with your recommendation.

Steve McDowellReviewed by Steve J. McDowell FAAC®, Associate Vice President for Financial Aid Services and Title IV Compliance, Connecticut State Community College.

Have you ever seen the 1995 film Seven?  In short, Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt star as two homicide detectives hunting a serial killer whose crimes are based on the “seven deadly sins.” Spoiler alert! Those seven deadly sins of gluttony, greed, sloth, envy, wrath, pride, or lust are not the focus of “The Deadly Sins of Employee Retention.” In fact, the only real similarity is that the book also provides us with seven deadly sins, just in a very different context. Honestly, this book isn’t about higher education. It is a book for managers about retaining and motivating your best employees and the steps you can take to avoid seven common mistakes that perpetuate employee turnover.

Updated from the authors’ 2006 work, this edition is especially relevant now, as employers are reeling from pandemic-driven voluntary employment departures that we have all experienced so intensely over the past few years. As financial aid administrators, we have not been immune to this mass exodus of employees “caused at least in part by burnout amid the pandemic, an aging workforce, and several other factors leaving schools struggling to compete for skilled workers in a highly competitive job market.” This is supported by the 2022 report from the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources (CUPA-HR) that found supervisors throughout higher education are struggling with filling positions and maintaining morale while working longer hours and job hunting for themselves.

Organizations inherently deal with staff leaving their positions for one reason or another, and financial aid offices are no different. Managers of any number of staff know this often comes with a public job search, current staff absorbing extra duties for a period of time, training a new staff member, and the fear of some significant compliance matter falling through the cracks when a talented individual leaves. Just in time for this cycle to end, another employee may leave and the cycle must begin again. Or, multiple staff may leave at the same time, really putting a manager’s back against the wall.

It’s frustrating, to say the least, especially when your administration might drag its feet or decide you could do without that position so the institution can save a few dollars. This of course all plays into recognizing when our employees become overworked and burned out, and are just doing the minimum required until they walk out the door for good. The authors go as far as to define the latter as “quiet quitting,” where an employee performs their duties as required and nothing more.

I should note that both authors come into this publication with a high degree of credibility.  Mark Murphy is a senior contributor to Forbes, and Andrea Burgio-Murphy is a clinical psychologist. But this is not an academic book by any means. Rather, it is a quick and easy read where the authors waste no time pitching their hook very early in the introduction: “We’re going to point out 7 simple mistakes that most leaders and organizations make, and we’re going to give you instantly actionable techniques for correcting them” (p. xii). The book characterizes these mistakes as deadly sins, and it certainly offers readers a number of actionable techniques to take away. This book is also loaded with real and relevant examples, including those from business, industry, and professional sports, to pique your interest and illustrate the seven deadly sins of employee retention. Unlike the sins in Seven, these are the deadly sins in this book and how to counter them:

  1. Treating everyone equally – Understanding that organizations intrinsically have people and/or positions that are more important than others, and identifying the high and low performers within your organization as a means of focusing retention efforts.
  2. One size fits all – Recognizing that you cannot treat all employees at varying levels and with varying abilities the same in the context of organizational needs. The concept of “shoves and tugs” is addressed with great value, where shoves are factors that demotivate employees while tugs are motivating factors.
  3. Not listening deeply – Asking employees to describe what demotivates them and really listening to internalize their responses and be empathetic to their situation.
  4. Overcomplicating your solutions – Understanding the shoves and tugs of your employees and learning how to not overthink addressing them.
  5. Neglecting the first 90 days – Learning the critical role of the first 90 days of employment in reaching a longer period of employee retention.
  6. Letting them leave – Taking steps to keep your employees when they tell you they want to quit.
  7. Turning your back – When employees do leave, learning not to close the door on them to feel better in the short term so we do not compromise future opportunities.

The Deadly Sins is a great book for managers to help understand how to identify and cultivate employees’ motivational attributes, focus on retaining a cohesive staff, and mitigate the disruption caused by losing a staff member. While environmental factors in today’s world certainly make this ever so challenging, this guide can help us leverage techniques on both a broad and focused basis, depending on the situation and employee, to retain the valuable human capital within our institutions. By the time you finish this book, what you will have learned is not nearly as frightful as the grisly climax of Seven, but instead is of much greater value: the ability to navigate and solve the employment challenges for you and your staff to help reduce the frequency of staff turnover in your office.

Steven J. McDowell, FAAC®, is the associate vice president for financial aid services and Title IV compliance at Connecticut State Community College, an independent consultant with Blue Icon Advisors, and the author of Basic Guide to Financial Aid. McDowell earned his Master of Business Administration degree from the University of Hartford, and his Bachelor of Science degree in finance from Bentley University. He is a graduate of AACRAO’s Strategic Enrollment Management Endorsement Program.


Publication Date: 7/21/2023

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