Do You Really Know Why Employees Leave Your Company?

By Anthony C. Klotz and Mark C. BolinoAugust 7, 2019
More employees are voluntarily leaving their jobs than at almost any other time this millennium. When an employee quits, it can feel like a gut punch, leaving managers scrambling both emotionally and operationally. The loss can be particularly acute when employees "ghost" their organization, simply not showing up to work, sometimes only days after starting the job.
Too often, though, managers and HR professionals are so busy doing damage control that they fail to conduct a thorough autopsy to help them understand what happened and what corrective action is needed to prevent similar episodes from occurring in the future.
Based on research studying the experiences of hundreds of resigning employees and the managers of recently resigned employees, we offer three recommendations:
Investigate how the employee resigned. People typically resign using one of seven styles, which range from positive and constructive to negative and harmful:
Grateful goodbye: employees show appreciation and provide assistance as they depart
In the loop: employees keep their supervisor apprised of their intention to leave
By the book: employees give standard notice and an explanation for their departure
Perfunctory: employees resign by the book but do not explain why they are leaving
Avoidant: employees indirectly inform their manager or let word of their resignation filter back to them
Bridge burning: employees engage in harmful dysfunctional behavior on their way out
Impulsive quitting: employees walk out without giving any prior notice
These styles often reflect how departing employees feel they were treated by their organization and their manager prior to leaving. Therefore, if many employees within a firm resign by expressing gratitude and giving reasonable notice, this may signal that the organization is a healthy place to work. On the other hand, if bridges tend to get burned during employee resignations, leaders should take this as a signal that they should investigate the cause of these destructive departures. See what the co-workers closest to the employee have to say. Although people will not always be open to divulging their true reasons for quitting, in many cases their peers may have insights and be motivated to share that information in order to help the organization improve. Thus, by having informal discussions with colleagues close to the employee who resigned, companies may be able to ascertain the motives behind their departure.
Examine and learn from what the employee does after they leave. HR professionals can do this by tracking where their alumni go. If a large proportion of quitters return to school to pursue graduate degrees, for example, there may be an opportunity for the company to improve retention by offering discounted or free education. If several employees leave to become stay-at-home parents, perhaps more expansive work-family programs would provide employees with healthier work-life balance. If there is a trend of employees' leaving to work for a particular competitor, then it is certainly worth looking into that firm's culture, development programs, compensation and benefits to determine why your organization is losing talent to a rival.
Hearing the words "I quit" is rarely pleasant, but by pushing through the discomfort and using an evidence-based approach to determine the cause and nature of the loss, managers and HR professionals can gain valuable knowledge for their firms. The next time an employee discloses their plans to leave, instead of focusing your efforts on replacing this lost human capital and minimizing the disruption caused by the departure, take the time to reflect on the nature of the resignation, collect data to understand the cause of the departure and consider its broader organizational implications. Over time, by taking advantage of the learning opportunity presented by even the most painful resignations, voluntary turnover can be a source of continuous improvement for managers and for firms.