Study: Workers 'Leak' Turnover Cues

A significant number of behavioral changes might reveal an employee’s impending exit

By Kathy Gurchiek Mar 6, 2014
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Ted offers fewer constructive contributions in meetings. Mary has become less interested in advancing at her company. Paul has started doing only the minimum amount of work necessary.

By themselves, these behavioral changes are not significant, but employees who exhibit a number of these subtle, but consistent, cues probably are planning to leave their job within a month or two, according to a Utah State University (USU) study.

The findings are from research by Tim Gardner, associate professor at USU’s Jon Huntsman School of Business; Steve Hanks, USU associate professor of management; and Chad H. Van Iddekinge, associate professor of management at Florida State University.

Using three studies and seven survey samples that included undergraduate and graduate students, managers and other business leaders around the world, they identified nonverbal, measurable behavioral cues. If properly interpreted, these cues can tip off managers to potential turnover among their employees, Gardner said.

“You might think that someone who starts showing up to work late, failing to return phone calls and e-mails, and taking lots of sick days might be about to leave, but those weren’t unique behaviors that applied only to the quitters,” he said in a press statement.

“While we seem to associate those behavior cues with people who leave, it’s also exhibited by people who stay,” he told SHRM Online. For instance, a woman who suddenly seems less interested in advancing at her company may have a child or other family member who needs more of her attention than previously.

Someone who starts complaining about his co-workers or is more candid with the boss may not be planning to change jobs anytime soon, researchers found. But workers exhibiting eight or more of the 18 cues they identified do signal disengagement one or two months before leaving their job. Here are some of the warning signs:

  • Showing less interest in advancing in the organization.
  • Seeming less interested in pleasing their boss than before.
  • Acting more reluctant to commit to long-term projects.
  • Exhibiting less interest in training and development programs.
  • Offering fewer constructive contributions in meetings.
  • Avoiding social interactions with their boss and other members of management.
  • Suggesting fewer new ideas or innovative approaches.
  • Doing the minimum amount of work needed, no longer going “beyond the call of duty.”
  • Being less productive.

“It’s not that someone is participating in a meeting less than their peers but that there’s been a behavioral change,” Gardner explained. “It’s the pattern of a lot of these behaviors … and a lot of little changes. All of those add up.”

“Just because you see Susan become disengaged doesn’t mean Susan is about to quit. What you want to look for is … a pattern of behavioral changes.”

According to the report, the findings suggest that “every stage of turnover, from the earliest stirrings of a desire for organizational departure to the consideration of outside job offers, has the potential to cause individuals to ‘leak’ observable cues that signify future turnover.”

Stay Interviews

A manager who can identify these “cues of turnover” may be able to find ways to retain an unsatisfied employee, such as through a stay interview. Stay interviews also may shine a spotlight on a boss’s treatment of the employee.

However, Gardner pointed out that if a manager incorrectly concludes that someone is leaving, he may make a few mistakes, such as giving the employee an unnecessary stay interview (not necessarily a bad thing), or deciding to stop investing in the worker (e.g., not sending her to training) or terminating the employee.

“This could cause great harm in the life of a loyal, productive employee, result in loss of a great staff member and devastate morale in the department,” Gardner said in an e-mail to SHRM Online. “The turnover cues should be used to make better employee management decisions, not termination decisions."

The research is under review by an HR academic journal.

Kathy Gurchiek is the associate editor for HR News.

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