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Heading Off 'Regrettable Resignations'

Know the warning signs a valued employee is about to quit, and what to do about them

A woman in glasses sitting at a desk with a tablet.

​After getting approval to hire a new operations manager at a large Chicago-based social service agency, the agency's transportation director decided to bypass a dedicated current staffer to bring in an experienced middle manager with a background in private industry. Shortly after the operations manager started the job, the disillusioned dedicated staffer left the agency, leaving resentment in her wake.

Though the new hire prided himself on being a team player, he immediately encountered a wall of resistance from his direct reports, as well as from other managers throughout the agency, who seemed to be immensely loyal to the departed staffer and not particularly enamored of him.

"They made it crystal clear to me that they weren't going to accept me and that they didn't want to work with me," he said. "Being new to the industry and the organization, I wasn't that committed to the agency mission or the work. To be honest, I just wasn't up for the fight."

After reading the operations manager's resignation letter, the transportation director reamed him out in front of the entire staff, saying that she'd gone out on a limb for him and he'd made her look like a fool. Then she told him to pack up his desk and leave by the end of the day.

Looking back, he questions whether he should have been more open with her about his difficulties but doubts it would have made a difference.

"She had her own frustrations with the management team, and most of my direct reports were intimidated by her," he said. "She had a very bombastic style."

Both the dedicated staffer's resentful resignation and the operations manager's hasty departure fall under the rubric of what experts call "regrettable resignations." Regrettable resignations are voluntary employee resignations that have a negative impact on the team and the organization. They are more likely to occur in organizations that are not responsive to employee needs and do not encourage transparency.

Instead of getting mad at two employees for leaving, the director would have been better served by developing stronger leadership skills that may have helped avoid these departures. 

"It's easy to get mad at employees who leave us," said Liz Ryan, founder and CEO of Human Workplace, a consulting firm in Boulder, Colo., and author of Reinvention Roadmap: Break the Rules to Get the Job You Want and Career You Deserve (BenBella Books, 2016). "It's harder to ask ourselves what we can learn from this painful experience."

Ryan believes that, when employees prefer to conduct under-the-radar job searches rather than tell their manager they're unhappy, it's a signal to the manager to "look in the mirror" and ask some difficult questions.

"Resignations should never be a surprise, and they should always be agreeable," said John Hudson, regional HR business partner at Slalom LLC management consulting firm's office in Chicago. "You can't always prevent people from leaving if they feel like it's necessary, but a good leader doesn't need to treat the departure like a personal insult."

Hudson recommends that managers talk with workers often to recognize and address concerns.

"We're firm believers in regular quarterly feedback sessions between managers and their direct reports," said Wendy Giuffre, president and principal consultant at Wendy Ellen Inc., an HR consulting firm in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. "If a manager doesn't sit down and have those conversations with employees, they miss the whole opportunity to find out if [workers are] getting what they need from the organization."

Recognizing the Warning Signs

While a certain amount of turnover is inevitable and may even be desirable, no manager wants to be blindsided by a valued employee's decision to leave. You can minimize the surprise factor by learning to read and respond to the warning signs.

Research conducted by Timothy Gardner, an associate management professor at Utah State University, and Peter Hom, professor of management at Arizona State University, identified 13 "prequitting behaviors" that often predict whether an employee will leave within the next year. While no single behavior was determined to be definitive, a pattern of behavioral changes is likely to be predictive. These include: 

  1. Their work productivity has decreased more than usual.
  2. They have acted less like a team player than usual.
  3. They have been doing the minimum amount of work more frequently than usual.
  4. They have been less interested in pleasing their manager than usual.
  5. They have been less willing to commit to long-term timelines than usual.
  6. They have exhibited a negative change in attitude.
  7. They have exhibited less effort and work motivation than usual.
  8. They have exhibited less focus on job related matters than usual.
  9. They have expressed dissatisfaction with their current job more frequently than usual.
  10. They have expressed dissatisfaction with their supervisor more frequently than usual.
  11. They have left early from work more frequently than usual.
  12. They have lost enthusiasm for the mission of the organization.
  13. They have shown less interest in working with customers than usual.

"An engaged HR person who has built good relationships with employees can often observe patterns of behavior that signal that an employee might be thinking about leaving," said Y'vonne McGhee, HR director at CARE of Southeastern Michigan in the Detroit area. "An HR practitioner who has a good rapport with an employee can have an off-the-record conversation to see if they can find out what's really going on."

McGhee recalls talking to a valued employee who was thinking about leaving because the employee, who had a small child at home, needed more flexibility and work/life balance. After reviewing company policies and talking to the woman's supervisor, McGhee and the manager were able to adjust the employee's schedule so that she could work remotely more often. The employee was happy with that arrangement and subsequently decided to keep her job.

HR practitioners can teach supervisors and managers to recognize possible warning signs and then coach them on the best ways to address the situation.

Stay Interviews

Unlike exit interviews where employees are asked to explain to HR why they want to leave, stay interviews are designed for HR to learn more about what motivates employees to stay, along with why they may not be happy with their situation. They can also identify employees on the verge of leaving who might require more individualized attention. 

[SHRM members-only HR form: Stay Interview Questions]

Hudson likes to keep these interviews simple by asking employees two open-ended questions: What do you love about your job? What sucks your soul?

"When you know the answer to those two questions, you also know whether the problem can be fixed or whether the employee needs to move on to a job that is a better fit for their needs," Hudson said.

Giuffre recommends that HR professionals conduct stay interviews in a way that allows employees to remain anonymous, so that employees will feel more comfortable opening up about their problems and frustrations. And she encourages her clients to use the information gleaned from these interviews to recommend and drive HR strategy.

Crunching the Numbers

Hudson reviews quarterly attrition reports to determine whether there are any unusual turnover patterns or problems. Tracking this information recently alerted him to an unusual spike in consultants leaving before their first-year anniversary. He wanted to pinpoint the cause to make sure these early departures were an aberration rather than a regular occurrence.

Hudson traced the problem back to a period of hyper growth when Slalom was hiring and onboarding consultants more quickly than usual. 

"We sped through the interview process and may have hurried things up too much," he said. "We need to make sure that we set expectations right from the beginning, even if that means slowing down the hiring process."

John Sullivan, Ph.D., a thought leader in talent management based in Pacifica, Calif., recommends that HR professionals create color-coded "heat maps" that highlight the most severe turnover areas, and then quantify the impact in dollars and cents so that decision-makers fully understand the turnover picture.

These maps can be segmented to reveal clusters of turnover that are occurring in specific interest areas, including by:

  • Geographic region.
  • Individual managers.
  • Cause of the turnover.
  • Performance level or those designated as "regrettable turnover."
  • Job or job family.
  • Salary grade or level.
  • Experience level or years of tenure.
  • Diversity of employees.

"The most impactful turnover heat maps are predictive," Sullivan said. "A predictive heat map can alert managers to changing trends in the causes or the location of upcoming turnover."

After identifying underlying causes of turnover, managers can take corrective actions. Though there may be a need for systemic changes, Sullivan has discovered that the best solutions often involve personalized retention approaches rather than across-the-board initiatives.

Staying Connected

Of course, it's not uncommon these days for people to change jobs and even careers every few years. They may end up working for the same company more than once, thus becoming "boomerang" employees.

Some leave organizations for personal reasons: They want to take time off to travel, stay home with their kids or care for an ailing relative. Many leave to gain new skills and perspectives.

"Our organization is happy to rehire people who were good employees and who left on good terms," McGhee said. "Once they come back, we can usually count on them to stay with us for a long time."

Former employees can be valuable public relations and recruitment resources. On the flip side, angry ex-employees can create problems for their former employers by posting negative reviews on sites like Glassdoor.

"Leaving should be a natural part of an employee relationship and lifecycle," Hudson said. "If we can't offer them what they need, we try to help them move on and find a better fit somewhere else. There's no reason for anyone to sneak around or leave with bad feelings."

Arlene S. Hirsch is a career counselor and author with a private practice in Chicago.