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Learn How to Handle the Unexpected Events that Trigger Turnover

Many employees leave their jobs due to unforeseen events at work or home that affect their relationships with their employers.

A man is looking at his reflection in a window.

​Why did you leave your last job? Did you come to the decision gradually, or did an abrupt personal or work-related event trigger you to act? At companies struggling to keep good workers, HR professionals must be able to respond to these sudden “shocks.”  

On average, 12 percent of workers leave their jobs voluntarily each year, according to the 2016 Human Capital Benchmarking study from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). Dissatisfaction with the position or organization has traditionally been seen as the primary reason people quit. Thus, in the past, retention plans were often broad and focused on the factors thought to be most closely related to job satisfaction, such as rewards, recognition and upward mobility.

In recent years, however, some business leaders have developed methods for predicting which workers will depart based on the employees’ profiles—a fundamental shift away from the strategy of homing in on the traditional drivers of turnover. Taking this tack can help employers foster greater retention of key talent and decrease turnover costs.


This approach can also help organizations capture some of the sudden changes that cause workers to depart—whether it be the arrival of a new boss or the announcement of a salary freeze. Such work-related shocks can change the way employees feel about their companies or roles and can lead them to reconsider their attachment to their employers.

Shocks can come from individuals’ personal lives as well—such as when a worker requires immediate flexibility due to a steep decline in the health of a loved one.

Unforeseen events, regardless of the type, have a stronger impact on turnover than do similar happenings that were expected, and personal shocks can spur an employee to quit regardless of job satisfaction, according to a study by Georgetown University business professor Brooks Holtom and colleagues.

While shocks are, by nature, unexpected, HR leaders can work to get a better understanding of the different types of surprises that might be contributing to unwanted turnover.

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Start by collecting data from employee surveys and HR information system records to help identify patterns related to shocks. Also pay attention to what workers say in exit interviews and to their bosses when they quit. Relationships between managers and their direct reports can be very telling.

If you are able to identify patterns, you can then try to develop strategic interventions. For example, if employees aren’t returning to work after taking time off for caregiving, consider increasing their access to flexible work arrangements; restructuring your leave policy; developing dependent-care assistance programs; or offering coaching, mentoring or phased re-entry to work. When a merger occurs, give people opportunities to connect with leaders and co-workers, involve them in aspects of the change, and talk with them about their career paths.

Of course, not all shocks can be predicted and not all turnover is avoidable, but you will be well-served by dedicating time, attention and resources to addressing the major work and life events that could throw employees off balance. Your workers might just stick around to thank you.  

Shonna Waters is vice president of research at SHRM.

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