“Canaries are called sentinel species. Sometimes they are referred to as indicator species or sentinel organisms.”

Sentinel Employees. Do you have them? Do you use them?


“First to fall over when the atmosphere is less than perfect
Your sensibilities are shaken by the slightest defect
You live your life like a canary in a coalmine
You get so dizzy even walking in a straight line.”

The immortal words of Sting when he was still a lad in the Police. Canaries in coal mines.

For those with no internet, no desire to do a quick search, or who live in Rio Linda, canaries were used in coal mines to act as environmental early warning systems for the coal miners. Canaries were more sensitive to changes in the environment in the mine – specifically levels of carbon monoxide – and would get sick long before the levels of toxin would be harmful to the human miners. When the miners saw the canary drop off the perch, they knew it was time to get to the elevators and get out of the mine before the atmosphere was too toxic for them.

Canaries are called sentinel species. Sometimes they are referred to as indicator species or sentinel organisms. These organisms can, and are, used to provide insight and information into an environment. Mussels and oysters are used to understand changes in an ocean environment because they are well understood by the scientists, they are pretty much stationary, they exist on one of the first rungs of the ecosystem, and they are a key element of the overall environment. What happens to oysters and mussels can be a pretty good indicator of what is happening in general in the environment – and maybe more importantly – what WILL happen in that environment. Like the canaries in the coal mines, if the oysters start exhibiting problems like an increase in toxins in their systems there is a good probability that same problem will start to affect other species.

Current and Future Problems

Your organization is an ecosystem as well. And you too have sentinel species. You may not know it. You may not have identified them yet. But they are there. I know it because I’ve worked with them in the past and have been extremely envious of them. So have you.

Photo of author Paul Hebert, founding member HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board

Paul Hebert, HRExaminer.com Editorial Advisory Board Contributor.

All of us know a person who seems to always leave a company just before the layoffs, or at just the right time to take advantage a new economic wave at a competitor. Friends leave companies for greener pastures while we sit an scratch our heads wondering what made that person leave? We ask ourselves why they would give up a great job at a great company with few worries?

Then a few months (or in some cases years) later, the bottom drops out of your company. You’re RIFFed. You’re now calling your friend asking if there are openings where they work.

Your friend was a sentinel employee. Through natural or unnatural means they knew something wasn’t right and they needed to move on. They were attuned to changes in the organization that gave them the heads up it was time to look for the exit sign.

But how do you find sentinel employees in order to check their vitals and see if they are picking up any toxins in the corporate environment?

It may not be easy, but it is possible.

Finding Your Sentinel Employees

First of all – sentinel employees are rarely your top (or bottom) performers. Sentinel employees are in many respects average performers. They are not the people you wish would leave – or the employees you hope don’t leave. That is one reason they are difficult to find. Sentinel employees are not holding on to their job for dear life because they know they suck, nor are they staying because they are currently top performers on the highest rung of the pay and prestige ladder within the company.

Sentinel employees are the core. They are the people that make the trains run on time and get little notice for it. So don’t immediately go to the list of top performers who left and assume those are the sentinel employees. History is your best teacher when identifying sentinel employees. Turnover records juxtaposed with major changes in your company or the overall business model/environment is the place to start.

First you have to identify problems your company had in the past. The best ones to look for are the problems no one really saw coming but were easy to spot in hindsight – the Black Swan event. It doesn’t do any good to check turnover after it was announced you just had the worst year in recorded history. Even the dumbest employee will leave then (maybe.) But the employee that left before the event that “everybody” seemed to know about in hindsight – those are the people who you’re interested in. They saw something no one else saw coming. Check more than one event.

Start looking for patterns.

Was it a department that seemed to always have higher turnover right before a negative change?

Was it a group of employees who social networks intersected (some social network analysis could go a long way to helping here)?

Were the employees who left before the problem associated with the problem? (#Protip: That may be a whole ‘nother issue you need to address.)

From that information, craft a persona based on profile of those that left the company within a reasonable time frame before, or right at, those points in the company history. Apply that persona to your current employee roster. Does anyone fit the bill? If so now is the time to reach out and have a discussion with them. Find out what they are thinking. Probe. Ask. Dig deep. Many times they won’t really know why they feel the way they do. They just do.

A good manager, a good HR department, will find the sentinels and do the work to avoid the possible disaster that these sentinels are signaling.


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