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Turnover Warning: 13 Signs Someone Is Ready to Quit

The Turnover Ripple

When a team member quits it's like a rock landing in a pond. First, there's a big splash (the announcement), and then there's a ripple throughout your team and organization that may last a long time. Often the initial splash is a complete surprise, leaving people speculating about turnover warning signals that may have been missed or ignored.

More often than not, the splash creates a frenzy of activity to cover immediate needs. Managers, owners, and HR professionals scramble to recruit, hire, and onboard a replacement for (aka "the leaver"). Meanwhile, remaining team members (aka "the stayers") juggle and redistribute the work. If there's time, there may be a mad dash to capture the leaver's expertise or workflow strategies in an effort to retain critical knowledge.

Depending on the circumstances, turnover ripples can be turbulent and long-lasting. The leaver's departure shifts team dynamics and may impact stayers' views in addition to their responsibilities. If the actual or perceived story identifies the separating employee as an "enthusiastic leaver," turnover contagion is possible as stayers wrestle with questions like: Why did the leaver quit? What does it mean about me and us? Should I quit also? Is there something better out there I should start pursuing? Why didn't the leaver want to be a part of us? What's wrong with us?

The turnover ripple continues as the replacement team member comes on board. Successful onboarding and socialization is hard. It's disruptive to the team. There can be friction as a newcomer unknowingly violates norms and cultural values. Teams have to find new ways to integrate the newcomer's work style and quirks. The team has to update patterns of communication that may have been automatic.

Turnover Warning Signs

Wouldn't it be great to avoid the turmoil of the turnover ripple? Think about the talented, passionate team members who are the heart and soul of your team or organization. Truisms like "some turnover is inevitable" are little comfort when a key team member opts to leave. Beyond general retention strategies, is there anything you can do to see a splash coming and even influence whether or not it happens?

Recent research by Tim Gardner, Chad Van Iddekinge, & Peter Hom published in the highly respected Journal of Management provides great insights about how to stay alert for an impending turnover splash1. In a series of studies with 7 different employee and managerial samples, they discovered 13 clear signs that a person is getting ready to quit. A person who's getting ready to quit may:

  1. Show lower work productivity than usual
  2. Decrease team player behaviors
  3. Do just the minimum amount of work more often
  4. Show less interest in pleasing the manager than usual
  5. Be less willing to commit to long-term timelines than usual
  6. Exhibit a negative change in attitude
  7. Devote less effort and demonstrate lower work motivation than usual
  8. Focus less than usual on job related matters
  9. Express dissatisfaction with current job responsibilities more frequently than usual
  10. Voice dissatisfaction with their supervisor more frequently than usual
  11. Leave early more frequently than usual
  12. Display less enthusiasm for the mission of the organization
  13. Show less interest in working with customers than usual

Responding to Turnover Warning Signs

If you see some or all of these behaviors in a team member you wish to retain, it's time for immediate but careful action.

Since you may be noticing early warning signs, don't overreact. It's important to recognize that the person may not be aware of subtle changes in their behavior. They may not be actively seeking employment alternatives. In fact, they may not even be consciously aware that they're disengaging and entering early phases of making a change.

Make or find an opportunity to talk. Be direct but not accusatory. Ask how things are going. Gently raise some of your observations. Ask whether the person sees the same things in the same way.

Listen thoughtfully. What's different for this person now? Is the content of daily work fitting current talents and passions? Is burnout a risk? When was available time off last used? You may find that there is a source of dissatisfaction that you can remove or adjust. For strong performers, it's quite common that you'll need to reckon with needing to provide new challenges or expanded responsibilities to keep enthusiasm high.

Say what you mean. Thank the person for talking with you openly, and for their work. Be authentic. This is the time to voice your appreciation for what this unique person brings to the team. Give compliments. Express your desire to continue to make being part of the team and organization meaningful.

Heeding a Turnover Warning Doesn't Guarantee Retention

Recognize that when it comes to turnover warning signs, you don't have power, only influence. If you're alert to turnover warning signs, reaching out may shift the path. Minimally, it will demonstrate caring for the relationship people have with your organization and for factors that influence their decisions to stay or go.

Also accept that people make changes in their work life when they're unhappy with aspects of their non-work life. You might not be able to do anything about the root cause of a person's pre-quitting thoughts. But at least when the splash comes, you'll know you tried.

References

  1. Gardner, T. M., Van Iddekinge, C. H., & Hom, P. W. (2018). If you’ve got leavin’ on your mind: The identification and validation of pre-quitting behaviors. Journal of Management, 44(8), 3231–3257. https://doi.org/10.1177/0149206316665462