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Quit happens: Why employees leave
Organizational Cultures

Quit happens: Why employees leave

Leigh Branham
January 25, 2024

It hurts when good people break the news that they are quitting. It doesn't just take an emotional toll, but a financial one as well--customer service is disrupted, sales and customers may be lost, other employees are shocked and distracted, and now we have to take on the work of finding a replacement and getting the new person up to speed.

We ask employees why they are leaving and, as we listen to their answers, as we see their lips moving, and we hear the words, "Better opportunity" and "More pay," we can't help but wonder if they are telling us the whole story. Or, are they just trying not to burn a bridge? How do we know? How can we find out? Who knows for sure? Do leaders and managers in your organization really care?

When I started Keeping the People, Inc., I sought to find out what people say when a third-party asks the question, "Why did you leave?" I had seen a Harvard Management Update report that 89% of managers believed that pay was the primary reason employees leave.

I was shocked by that statistic, and contacted the Saratoga Institute, which had completed third-party exit surveys with 19,700 employees in 17 industries. Saratoga was gracious enough to let me analyze their data. It revealed that 88 percent of voluntarily-departed employees had left for reasons other than pay.

As a way of continuing to track why employees leave, I invited visitors to describe in a post-exit survey the reasons they left a previous job and invited them to complete it--anonymously, of course.

A total of 256 people completed the survey. I believe that to be a significant enough number from which to draw some additional conclusions and share them with you.

First of all, a few words about those of you who responded:

  • Respondents represented a wide spectrum of ages, job levels, functions and industries.
  • Human resource staff were well represented, comprising 19% of respondents.

The need to keep in mind that these findings represent the perceptions of those who went to the trouble to find the website and complete the survey (supposedly because they were inherently interested in why employees leave and stay). So, what follows may or may not represent the views of your workforce. That said, here are the findings.

Root Causes of Your Decisions to Quit:

Respondents were asked to check from a list of 39 possible reasons for leaving (or write in) as many as five factors that first caused them to start thinking about leaving a previous job they eventually left voluntarily.

The contributing reasons for leaving that received the most "votes" are reported in another article (“Why You Left”) on the Home page of this website

Besides the reasons for leaving, there were a few additional compelling observations:

1. First of all, it was worth noting that the triggers that caused respondents to start thinking of leaving were all "push" factors

--burrs under the saddle, so to speak, that the organization could have addressed and removed before it was too late. In fact, only 21 respondents cited "decision to change career" and only 16 cited "unexpected job/career opportunity"--both "pull" factors--as the initial motivation to consider leaving. Other "pull" factors listed on the checklist--decision to relocate, return to school, retire, start a family, start a business, spend more time with family, relocate with spouse/partner, receiving an inheritance or financial windfall, and taking care of a family emergency or illness--received only 45 checks combined.

The lesson here for all managers: pay attention to the "warning signs" of employee disengagement now. Talk with your valued employees to see what can be done to reengage them and improve the situation before they resign.

2. Pay is important

Many employees are underpaid and feel devalued because of it. Although they were not in the top 10 receiving votes, "pay not based on performance" received 27 votes and "unfair pay practices" received 23 votes. Although we could lump these two reasons in with "insufficient pay" and label it as one bucket called "pay" (which would have led the voting with 111 votes), I believe it is important to recognize the subtle differences among these three pay-related reasons. ("Insufficient benefits," by the way, received only eight votes.)

Despite the importance of pay as a factor in employee's decision to leave, the 111 votes represented only 11% of the 1,032 votes cast for the wide range of factors listed on the survey. This figure is roughly equal to the 12% of those who cited pay on the Saratoga survey as their main reason for leaving.

3. Despite the claims of many consulting firms that employee engagement and retention is all about the direct manager or supervisor, it is high time we recognize how strong an influence senior leaders play.

Senior leaders was the number one single factor as the reason for leaving cited, and senior leaders' decisions and mindsets either determine or influence most of the remaining factors, especially "insufficient pay", "lack of work/life balance," "unhealthy/undesirable culture," "excessive workload," "uncertainty about the future of the company," "lack of open communication," and "pay not based on performance."

4. Most survey participants experienced a "turning point" or "last straw" in their final decision to leave.

Almost 60% said they experienced such a "triggering event." Some of their verbatim comments:

"Being told that my best skills were the ones I needed to work on"
"Seeing an unethical manager be promoted"
"Company owner swearing at a customer in an open internet forum, there was no chance of changes"
"Promotion denied; found out that boss did not even show up to promotion meeting"
"The arbitrary termination of half of the employees within one week"
"Obvious favoritism to co-worker"
"Berated by SVP who made me feel incompetent for making a small mistake"
"Incidents in which good people were fired and destructive people were promoted"
"Directed to break federal law and commit crimes"

Was it Preventable?

We also asked, "What could your employer have done differently to cause you to change your mind and stay?"

The conclusion: In retrospect, 66% saw a realistic chance that the situation could have been salvaged.

Did you try to improve things?

The survey asked how employees "How did you chose to handle the situation before deciding to leave?" Here were those responses:

One survey comment worth noting:

"Any disagreement with management causes a defensive reaction and retaliation; viewed as damaged goods."

The lesson here for managers: as many 35% of employees you may want to keep may be keeping silent about their concerns. It is up to you to initiate a dialogue with them.

Did you stop working as hard?

Branham Final Conf Bd Turnover NY 110311.007.jpeg

The survey asked "To what extent did your thoughts of leaving your employer cause you to give less effort in your job?" Here were the answers:

The implication for managers from this statistic is that 71% of employees who have disengaged and are thinking of leaving are also likely to withhold effort in their jobs.

How long before you finally left?

Branham Final Conf Bd Turnover NY 110311.002.jpeg

In response to the question "How long was it from the time you first started thinking about leaving until the time you actually left your employer?" the vast majority--78%, were gone within a year, and 93% had moved on within two years.

Were you looking while working?

Branham Final Conf Bd Turnover NY 110311.006.jpeg

We asked "Did you actively seek employment while still employed?"

Observation: Most of us would probably agree that employees who are actively seeking employment are giving less effort and enthusiasm in their current jobs. Were there subtle signals that their managers could have picked up on?

Did you already have a job?

We also asked "When you left your employer, had you already accepted a job with another employer?" Two-thirds had already accepted another job, which no doubt meant they had been taking their eye off the ball in their final days. Was anyone caring enough to notice? And think about this--how unhappy the other third of respondents had to be to quit without having another job.

Of that third who said "no" we asked "Did you have other sources of income to fall back on?"

Over half of those who left without jobs also were willing to risk doing so without having income to fall back on--revealing and even greater degree of desperation to escape whatever may have been "pushing" them out.

Did you tell the whole truth?

In response to the question, "When you announced you were leaving, did you tell the truth about why?" Although 64% in the affirmative was somewhat more than I would have expected, I wonder what the percentage would have been if we had asked "Did you tell the whole truth?"

Some of the respondents comments were revealing:

"They would have given me a bad reference."
"Mostly, but not completely"
"Partial truth"
"Not the whole truth"
"My manager was not interested in an
exit interview, so I wrote a formal letter outlining my reasons.”

How did your employer react?

The survey also asked respondents "When you announced you were leaving, how did your employer respond (check all that apply)?

When valued employees leave, many smart managers make it a point to say, "We'll be keeping a seat warm for you if you find out the grass isn't greener." And yet, only 8% of our respondents got this response from their managers. It pays to remember that one of our best future recruiting sources is our former employees.

There were a couple of interesting comments:

"Treated it like a betrayal. When an employee left (due to spouse moving) they refused to rehire them."
"Told me that things would be worse at my next employer…he was wrong"

Did they try to keep you?

We asked, "What specifically, if anything, did your employer offer to do to keep you?" It is generally not advisable to offer more pay as a last-ditch effort to keep a departing employee, yet almost 20% reported receiving such an offer. The better alternative: offer instead to change some other "push factor" that caused the employee to consider leaving in the first place.

Noteworthy verbatims:

"New future opportunities in Operations... 'carrot'"
"Offered more responsibility and
possible promotion"
"Did not try to keep me, although I was highest
sales producer"

What attracted you to your new employer?

We asked respondents to write in their answers to this question: "What was the main thing that attracted you to your new employer?"

These were several noteworthy comments:

"Reputation, which deemed false and I ended up by leaving the new employer as well. Salary and potential opportunities which deemed non-existent."
"More money and bonus, but the challenges were primary attraction."

Not surprisingly, better opportunity (#1) and more pay (#4) figured prominently as attractions to new employers. These are the two reasons most departing employees give when companies conduct their own exit interviews. In these data we find at least partial support for the conventional wisdom that "people come for the pay and the opportunity, but they leave managers," except it seems that our respondents were just as likely to leave senior leaders as direct managers, if not more so.

Finally, the fact that desire for "new challenge and learning" beat out "pay" and "company reputation/culture" is significant. The lessons for managers--think twice before cutting training budgets, and never underestimate the power of learning and new skill acquisition to Generations X, Y, and Z. In these days when "long-term employment" no longer appears to be a realistic expectation, "long-term employability" via continuous learning and new challenge, has taken its place.

Did you make the right decision?

The final question was: "Looking back, do you feel you made the right decision?"

Among the final comments, these stood out:

"I loved the work, it was hard to leave but the atmosphere was toxic."
"No company is better than the ones I left. The problem is the same everywhere: those who survive and are promoted are those who work for their boss's happiness."
"I waited too long to leave."

An important conclusion:

It is clear that most decisions-to-leave are a two-step proposition--first comes discontent (the "push factor"), then comes the outside opportunity (the "pull factor"). The degree of push and pull varies with each person, and I believe most managers are at least dimly aware of this phenomenon. What too many managers would be surprised to know, however, is how few employees leave for purely "pull" reasons and how many decisions to leave are sparked by preventable "push factors."

The failure to recognize these realities and care enough to address them not only increases turnover, it also contributes to the large-scale disengagement many employees and their employers are now experiencing.

About the author

Leigh Branham helps organizations analyze the root causes of employee disengagement and turnover, and develop and implement strategies to become "employers-of-choice." He is also a frequent speaker to national and international audiences on "The 7 Reasons Employees Disengage", "Managing Four Generations in the Workforce", and "Beating the Bear Market through Engaged Employees." He is the Founder of Keeping the People, Inc.

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