Is turnover rate an acceptable measure of sustainability?

In my workplace, an employee brought up the question of whether our organization is sustainable, referring to our turnover rate. In an organization of 12 full time equivalents, we have had a turnover rate of about 30% in the past year.

I think the turnover rate by itself is not an accurate measure of sustainability. Often people leave because of a lack of fit between the employee and the role, or a conflict between the individual’s and the organization’s values. When these people leave, they are then freed to go on to do other things that they might enjoy more or for which they are better suited. Life circumstances sometimes cause people to change jobs or careers. When the employees leave under favorable circumstances, they spread knowledge about the organization’s mission to the world–which is especially relevant to the nonprofit sector. Turnover creates space for new employees who are fresh and interested to join the group.

To me, the organization is sustainable as long as the turnover is not so great that the group has trouble orienting new members and as long as organizational knowledge is not lost. Turnover of entry level employees and employees who have not been with the organization for a long time are less impactful than turnover amongst long-term employees who have considerable relevant knowledge or amongst leaders in the organization.

Sustainability could be advanced in organizations through valuing long-term relationships, documenting and otherwise capturing organizational knowledge, and improving hiring practices to screen for culture and role fit. Asking managers to look for lack of fit early on and take employees out of misfitting roles in the early weeks or months of employment rather than later would lead to less negative impact on the employee and the organization by reducing the duration of time when there is a lack of fit.