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Employee turnover: beware of bears.

The employee turnover problem in the apartment industry has its metaphors in nature. Imagine a fast-moving river in the mountains with thousands of salmon swimming upstream. The problem is that many of them never make it to their destination. They are plucked from the water by the bears inhabiting the banks of the rivers, The bear is the iconic representation of the toxic boss, jaws and all. The bear itself may not be a cruel creature, but the surrounding environment forces the behavior and salmon are lost by the thousands. So goes the workforce in the apartment industry: Thousands swim upstream; most never make it.

In an industry that relies on so few to do so many things, this is a problem of epidemic proportions. One contributing factor is the "toxic boss syndrome." In nature, it manifests itself as the bear; in apartment operations, it takes the form of a boss, supervisor or authority figure who effectively brings office morale to nil. When staff members have no motivation, they stop thinking and stop functioning, and if the toxicity isn't addressed early, employees "drop out" of the workforce like the salmon. This can cost companies tremendously. Recruiting, training and dealing with operational issues are skewed disproportionately when the toxic environment festers.

As the bear is a product of its environment, so, too, is the toxic boss. In the 1970s, the federal government created "superfund sites," locations so rampant with toxicity that they were fenced off and human habitation of any kind was prohibited without proper protective gear. Thirty years later, these sites are largely still uninhabitable and still lethally toxic. The government still sends professionals out to these sites in full protective gear or "moon suits." They haven't eradicated the agents of toxicity, and they haven't dealt with the core environmental issues and human imperfections that created the toxicity in the first place.

The apartment industry's structure and operating systems contribute to an environment conducive to toxicity. Too many times apartment owners and regional and senior-level managers do nothing more than visit their downfield sites wearing their version of moon suits.

As an industry, it is necessary to understand those environmental and systemic predispositions and change them. The goal is to not repeat the example of the "superfund sites" but to eradicate the toxicity from the environment and the operations. There are concrete ways to achieve this, and while apartment managers cannot change all facets of the industry that contribute to toxicity, they can mitigate the factors' abilities to "mix" into a lethal cocktail that renders a staff unproductive, unmotivated and short a few employees.

Join me at the 2006 NAA Education Conference & Exposition to explore the diagnosis and treatment of the toxic boss syndrome. I will provide concrete reasons as to why the industry is predisposed to this phenomenon and how the industry, companies and managers can control and remove the toxicity. Additionally, a panel of industry professionals will discuss this issue in a roundtable format following the presentation. To share thoughts on the subject prior to my presentation, please place comments on my Web site at

Mike Beirne is a NAA Region 2 Vice President and Executive Vice President of the Kamson Corp., Englewood Cliffs, N.J. He can be reached at 201-871-1055 or
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Author:Beirne, Mike
Date:May 1, 2006
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