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7 Ways People Quit Their Jobs

Resignation styles could tell HR something about managers, company culture

A woman with her arms raised in the air in an office.

​There are seven ways people quit their jobs, and there are two key factors that determine whether a person resigns in a positive way or in a manner that could have damaging consequences for an employer, according to recent research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

The two key factors are whether employees feel they're being treated fairly at work and whether they feel their boss respects them, said Anthony C. Klotz, an assistant professor in the College of Business at Oregon State University and lead researcher of the study. Workers who feel they are respected and treated fairly are more likely to resign in a positive manner.

This research was funded, in part, by a dissertation grant awarded to Klotz from the HR division of the Academy of Management and the SHRM Foundation.

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Considerable research has been done on why and when employees resign, but studies about how employees resign are relatively new.

Klotz conducted a series of studies with co-author Mark C. Bolino, professor at the Price College of Business at the University of Oklahoma, which included interviews with employees and employers. The researchers found that, generally, employees choose one of these seven resignations:

  1. By the book (31 percent): These resignations involve a face-to-face meeting with one's manager to announce the resignation, a standard notice period and an explanation of the reason for quitting.

  2. Perfunctory (23.5 percent): These resignations are similar to by the book resignations except that the meeting with the manager tends to be shorter and the reason for quitting is not provided.

  3. Avoidant (12.7 percent): These occur when employees tell co-workers, such as peers, mentors or human resources representatives, that they plan to leave rather than giving notice to their immediate boss.

  4. Grateful goodbye (10 percent): Employees express gratitude toward their employer and often offer to help with the transition period.

  5. Bridge burning (8.6 percent): In this resignation style, employees seek to harm the organization or colleagues on their way out the door, often through verbal assaults.

  6. In the loop (7.9 percent): In these resignations, employees typically confide in their manager that they are contemplating quitting or that they are looking for another job before formally resigning.

  7. Impulsive quitting (6.3): Some employees simply walk off the job, never to return or communicate with their employer again. This can leave the organization in the lurch, given that this is the only style in which no notice is provided.

Employers view the by the book, grateful goodbye and in the loop resignations as positive resignation methods, the research found.

They view the avoidant, bridge burning and impulsive quitting as negative resignation styles and potentially harmful to the organization.

Managers also view the perfunctory resignation—in which the resigning employee does not state a reason for quitting—as negative, although not necessarily harmful to the organization.

When employees quit without providing a reason, employers may "feel like they are being treated unfairly," Bolino said.

Employees' sense of self-interest may be the rationale for not providing a reason for a resignation.

"I suspect that employees … have made a determination that it is unwise for them to be forthcoming about the reason they are departing," said Bolino. "In the U.S. and other countries, we have been moving toward more-transactional relationships in organizations, where employees and employers both tend to focus on their own interests."

What do negative resignation styles say about the departing employees who use them?

"Our research suggests that employees often resign in negative ways not because they are 'bad apples,' but instead they are responding to unfair treatment from their organization or disrespectful behavior from their manager," said Klotz. "As such, negative resignations could reveal the presence of unjust company practices or abusive supervisors within the organization."

Resignations aren't only hard on employees—they are hard on managers, too.

"When an employee quits, it is quite emotional, akin to a romantic breakup," said Klotz. "So, most resignations are met with some degree of sadness on the part of managers."

The study's findings suggest that when employees resign using negative styles, managers "react with a good deal of anger and frustration along with sadness," Klotz said.

"So, similar to being on the receiving end of a romantic breakup, resignations are rarely easy on managers, but they are easier to cope with when the leaver resigns in a positive manner," said Klotz. "Our results suggest that to the extent that supervisors treat their employees well and organizations are fair to their employees, workers will be more likely to reciprocate this positive treatment and resign in constructive and respectful ways."

Tracking how employees resign could be helpful for employers, Klotz said.

"By tracking the manner in which employees resign, HR practitioners may be able to spot areas within the company in which particularly harmful resignations are common and take action to address the problem," said Klotz. "On the brighter side, collecting resignation data may also reveal that most employees resign using positive styles, which would be a sign of a just and respectful organizational climate."

Mark Schmit, executive director of the SHRM Foundation, called the research "important"—especially now.

"We have a skills gap where there are particular skills where we don't have people to fill those roles in many organizations," said Schmit. "Whenever someone leaves an organization, there is a potential that it will leave a substantial gap, plus the [rehiring and training] associated with someone leaving … cost an organization both in monetary terms and in time."

Employee turnover is on the rise in the United States. Last year, employee turnover rose for the fifth consecutive year, reaching 58.9 million, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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. However, recent research indicates that there may be 13 signs that someone is about to quit.

Elaina Loveland is a freelance writer based in Natick, Mass.

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