Despite a century of speculation by managers and scholars, we know very little about whether certain cues or signs exhibited by employees can predict whether they’re about to quit. To help managers and companies identify employees at risk of quitting, they investigated this very question and uncovered a set of behavioral changes exhibited by employees—what we dub pre-quitting behaviors—that are strong predictors of voluntary quits in the 12 months after they are observed by managers.
The pre-quitting behaviors that made the cut are below:
Their work productivity has decreased more than usual.
They have acted less like a team player than usual.
They have been doing the minimum amount of work more frequently than usual.
They have been less interested in pleasing their manager than usual.
They have been less willing to commit to long-term timelines than usual.
They have exhibited a negative change in attitude.
They have exhibited less effort and work motivation than usual.
They have exhibited less focus on job related matters than usual.
They have expressed dissatisfaction with their current job more frequently than usual.
They have expressed dissatisfaction with their supervisor more frequently than usual.
They have left early from work more frequently than usual.
They have lost enthusiasm for the mission of the organization.
They have shown less interest in working with customers than usual.
The most interesting takeaway from this second phase of their research were the behaviors that did not survive our screening process. Note that the 13 key behaviors do not include “wearing dressier clothes to work,” “leaving a resume on the printer,” or “missing work for doctors’ appointments more frequently than usual.” These and many similar behaviors, which have entered into managers’ folklore of key signs of impending departure, were rarely observed or did not statistically hang together with the core behaviors representing a general predilection to quit. Such behaviors may predict future turnover, but not as consistently as the 13 core pre-quitting behaviors across a wide range of jobs, industries, and geographies.
For managers, their advice is to focus on retaining star employees in the short-term. Typically, organizations handle a turnover problem with large scale interventions to improve departmental or firm-level commitment, job satisfaction, and job engagement. These strategies may work, but they take time to design and implement. Thinking in terms of the turnover risk of specific employees allows you to invest your time and resources into those employees who create the most value and are actually at risk of leaving.
There are many ways to invest in employees you fear may be looking: pay increases, promotions, special projects, etc. One technique is to use what are called “stay interviews.” Instead of conducting only exit interviews to learn what caused good employees to quit, hold regular one-on-one interviews with current high-performing employees to learn what keeps them working in your organization and what could be changed to keep them from straying.
The basic tenet of managing turnover is that everyone eventually leaves. But the “when” can feel like a mystery. While our research shouldn’t be considered the only way to identify an employee on the verge of quitting, it does point to a set of behaviors that, taken together, can provide a clue—and it discounts behaviors that have mistakenly been seen as tells. So the next time you have an inkling about whether someone is about to leave, know that you may be onto something when you take the right indicators into account. As Dolly Parton sang, “Though you haven’t left me yet, I know you’re just as good as gone.”