Jon M. Huntsman School of Business

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Monday, February 10, 2014

Thinking of Quitting Your Job? You May be Giving off Cues that, as the Patsy Cline Song Says, You’ve Got “Leaving on Your Mind”

By Steve Eaton

Those who are thinking about jumping ship and leaving their job may be giving off cues that others can pick up on, even if the would-be quitters think they are keeping their plans secret.

Dr. Tim Gardner
Timothy Gardner, a Utah State University associate professor at the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business, has completed a study on voluntary turnover and submitted a paper that is now under review with a top academic publication. The findings may surprise those who think they can easily identify an employee who is about to move on to a new job – he said they surprised him.

His research showed, for example, an employee who starts taking more vacation time, punching out at 5 p.m. every day, and looking at outside openings on company time, isn’t necessarily someone who is about to leave.

Dr. Gardner discovered, however, one thing most employees had in common before they left was that they began to “disengage” in the workplace. Here are a few examples of subtle but consistent behavioral changes that Dr. Gardner discovered people often make in the one to two months before they leave their job:

  • They offered fewer constructive contributions in meetings. 

  • They were more reluctant to commit to long-term projects.

  • They become more reserved and quiet.

  • They didn’t care anymore about being advanced in the organization.

  • They were slightly less interested in pleasing their boss than before.

  • They avoided social interactions with their boss and other members of management.

  • They suggested fewer new ideas or innovative approaches.

  • They began doing the minimum amount of work needed and no longer went beyond the call of duty.

  • They were less interested in participating in training and development programs.

  • Their work productivity went down.

Dr. Gardner said if employees were demonstrating at least six of these behaviors, his statistical formula could predict with 80 percent accuracy that they were about to leave the organization.

Dr. Gardner, who worked with Huntsman professor Steve Hanks and Chad H. Van Iddekinge, of Florida State University, on the study, said the list of indicators that might tip a boss that someone was thinking of leaving were not surprising. What was unexpected, however, were the behaviors that did not make the list.

“People having a lot of ‘doctor’s appointments,’ showing up to work in a suit, or leaving a resume on the printer were the kind of signs that dropped off the list,” he said. “You might think that someone who starts showing up to work late, failing to return phone calls and e-mails, and taking lots of sick days might be about to leave but those weren’t unique behaviors that applied only to the quitters.”

He said that in today’s competitive business environment where companies invest a lot in their top performers this information might help managers find ways to keep people on board. He said that the “dark side” of his research was that some employers may opt to let people go if they thought they were going to leave anyway. Dr. Gardner said research has shown that people who are contemplating a job change are more likely to share company secrets or do things to sabotage the organization’s goals.

He said the research they did went far beyond shipping out a simple survey asking employers for their best guesses on what signs might indicate an employee is unhappy. They used a complex statistical methodology as they conducted three different studies on seven samples that included undergraduate students, graduate students, managers and other business leaders from around the world.

Initial surveys helped them compile a list of 984 cues that employees might be leaving. They collapsed that list to 116 by eliminating duplicates or indicators that were similar to each other. After they used surveys to narrow the list to 58 behaviors that managers actually observe, they got a new sample of managers and asked them if recently departed subordinates had exhibited any of 58 turnover cues in the weeks and months prior to departure, he said.

They then tapped a matched sample of managers and asked them to describe if employees who still work for them exhibited any of the 58 turnover cues in the weeks and months prior to the survey. Some of the behaviors were exhibited by both departed and remaining employees such as arriving late and taking more vacation time.

Once they demonstrated that the 18 “disengagement” behaviors could differentiate between stayers and leavers, they took one final step to ensure their findings were scientifically valid. Using a completely different sample of managers and employees, they demonstrated that these same items could distinguish between remaining and quitting employees with nearly the same level of accuracy, Dr. Gardner said.

He isn’t sharing the final list of behavioral cues, at this point while the paper is still under review, but he said he hopes the research will help leaders identify ways to keep valued employees on board. In fact, he has already begun a study that focuses on what managers do to hold on to employees who might be considering defecting to a new job.

“It appears that a person’s attitude can create behaviors that are hard to disguise,” he said. “As the grass starts to look greener on the other side of the fence to you, chances are that others will soon notice that you’ve lost your focus.”

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