How to Identify Who Is About to Quit

Dr. John Sullivan

Few things are more shocking to a manager then having a top-performing employee suddenly quit on them. Some managers have described it as a “kick in the gut”. It is a shock, not only because losing a key employee damages business results, but also because managers hate surprises; and as a result, they frequently wonder how they missed the signals that this person was going to leave.

Employee turnover is always an important issue, but most managers are unaware that overall turnover rates went up 45% in the US last year, and I predict that they will go up at least 50% this year. Therefore, individual managers should be aware of the precursors or warning signs that can indicate an employee is considering looking for a job, so they can act before it’s too late.

After more than 20 years of research on predicting turnover, I have found that if you approach the problem systematically, you can successfully identify which individual employees are likely to quit with an accuracy rate of over 80%.

Firms like Google, Xerox, and Sprint, as well as several vendors, have developed processes for identifying who might quit, but you will have to develop your own identification process. So if you know any managers who are worried about turnover, pass this list of turnover predictors to them so they won’t be surprised when their next employee announces that they are quitting.

Even though every employee is different, you can identify most individuals who have or are about to enter job-search mode by using one of these ten proven actionable approaches, listed in order of impact the majority of managers have found.


1.Conduct individual stay interviews

Many firms use exit interviews to find out why an individual employee is leaving. Unfortunately, asking on their last day “Why are you leaving?” doesn’t provide useful information in time to prevent this turnover. A superior approach is to be proactive and conduct a “stay interview”. This helps you understand why an individual employee stays in their job by simply asking them in an informal one-on-one meeting to identify the principal reasons why they stay, so that these important factors can be reinforced. As part of the interview, you can also ask the employee to identify any major frustrators that have in the past made them, even for a moment, consider leaving. As part of the interview process, ask your key employees to have the courtesy to provide you with a heads-up whenever they find themselves returning a recruiter’s call. Holding a stay interview with an employee has the highest predictive value because it is customized to the employee and it occurs before a decision to leave has been made.


2. Proactively search the Internet for indications

The best way to find out if an employee is searching or is about to search for a job begins with looking at their LinkedIn profile to see if it has been significantly updated recently. You can also search niche and large job boards to see if they have posted their résumé, or you can do a simple Google search on this employee to find if they have recently updated their résumé. You can even ask an Internet-savvy person to create a “spider” that will continually search the Internet for LinkedIn profile and résumé updates that are made by your key employees.


3. Look at previous job tenure

One of the most accurate predictors of when someone will leave a job is their average tenure in the last few jobs. If an employee has a pattern of leaving a job after a certain number of months or years, it makes sense to examine their résumé to get a good indication of when they are likely to leave again. It’s better to underestimate their departure date, so that the worst that will happen will be that you will begin “too early” to try to retain them.


4. Identify past reasons for quitting

Most employees are consistent — the same factors that made them leave previous jobs will also make them consider leaving their current one. That is why it is a good idea to specifically ask new hires during interviews, or as part of onboarding, which specific factors caused them to leave your last jobs. Managers need to be vigilant to spot whether those past reasons for quitting may be reoccurring in their current job.


5. Identify those in high-turnover jobs

Employees frequently get the idea to leave simply because other employees in their same job family are leaving for what they consider to be better jobs. Managers should work with HR to develop a “heat map”, which indicates which jobs, teams, and business units are currently experiencing a high rate of turnover. Managers should then target their own most desirable employees — innovators and top-performing employees — who are in those high turnover jobs for retention efforts. Research has shown that 50% of new hires are unhappy with their job decision and 46% of new hires fail within 18 months, so it makes sense for managers to target all recent hires in any job as high probability turnover risks.


6. Note is someone close to them leaves the team

Having a manager, a close colleague, or even a close friend leave the team can provide a powerful impetus for an employee to also leave. In many cases, the exiting employee may actively encourage them to follow as a referral (as many as three to five employees will follow an influential employee). But the thought of not being able to work alongside a great friend, having to work under a new manager, or having to train a new hire may be enough to drive them into considering a new job.


7. Be aware of any career-damaging event

For most employees, having a weak manager or an uninteresting job isn’t by itself enough to cause them to look for a new job. Instead, the employee requires an additional catalyst or negative event, or “career trauma”, serious enough that it actually damages their future career. These negative events might include having a major project cancelled, a project proposal rejected, major layoffs or a re-organization, being rejected for a promotion, being assigned a new manager, or a major resource reduction or staff cut in their job area.


8. Recognize when an employee’s career stage is ending

Most people go through predictable stages or steps as they progress through their career. Many employees change jobs when they reach the end of a stage or phase. Career stages include entry-level, becoming a journeyman/professional, becoming a team lead, promotion to a higher level, and eventually complacency and preparing for retirement. By paying attention to and plotting those career stages, a manager can often predict approximately when an employee is likely to enter job-search mode. Important outside-of-work life events can also cause an employee to move into their next career stage, including marriages and divorces, new births, children reaching school age, the last child finishing school, deaths, health issues, and certain landmark ages (turning 30, 40, 50, or 60), as well as a large amount of their company stock vesting and an extremely negative performance review. There is no precise formula, but a manager who pays close attention to where an employee is in their career cycle and to their major life events can get an indication of when an employee is likely to begin looking.


9. Identify employees who are “overdue” for important things

A key frustration for employees is perceiving that they are unjustly overdue for something important. It’s partially an equity issue, in which they see others unfairly getting things before them. But it is also an internal desire to keep moving, growing, and learning, as well getting new tools, opportunities, and challenges. When they feel overdue, they become frustrated and begin looking for a new opportunity. Common overdue factors include too long a period since their last pay raise, promotion, training opportunity, a chance to lead, but also (especially among techies) upgrades in their tools, equipment, computers, and mobile phones.


10. Recognize when a top performer feels underused

Top performers and innovative employees will begin considering a new job simply if they feel underused. Almost all top performers want to be continually challenged and to make a major contribution. As a result, managers must be aware that once a top employee feels that their skills are either eroding or that their talents are being underused, they will likely begin considering leaving. (Google research indicates that the feeling of being underused is their No.1 reason.) You can find out if an employee feels underused by simply asking them or by talking to their close coworkers. Of all turnover issues, this is the easiest one to solve because the employee simply wants to do more challenging work.


Final Thoughts

I’ve never seen a manager’s job description that specifically outlines their responsibility for identifying key employees who are likely to quit. As a result, I have found that nearly 95% of managers make no formal attempt to periodically sit down and systematically identify key team members who are likely to leave.

As turnover rates increase and the economy continues to improve, managers need to realize that top employees not only have the choice of going to a competitive firm but now have expanded opportunities to create a start-up (known as the garage factor). Failing to be proactive has high costs — once an employee announces they are leaving, it’s extremely difficult and expensive to get them to change their mind.

And be aware that the No.1 cause for employee turnover is often a bad manager, so be aware that you may be the greatest reason why your employees leave.


Used with the permission of Dr. John Sullivan, Professor of Management, San Francisco State University, author, public speaker, and a thought leader on strategic talent management and human resource practice. For more information, email [email protected] or visit www.drjohnsullivan.com

Why not manage your turnover in advance? Stay and Exit Interviews facilitated by an expert third party give you deeper and more accurate information than interviews conducted in-house. They generate the data you need to understand why employees stay and why they are leaving, which helps end unnecessary turnover and improve operations.

To learn more, contact the Talent Management Solutions team. Canada: 416 216-1074. [email protected]


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