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Departure: Why Do People Leave Jobs?

By Tom Warneke

I was reading Jay Withee’s article this morning, Costs Of Losing Long-Term Employees: Walking Knowledge and it got me to thinking just how much of an issue employee departure can be – not simply because of the impact that person has by leaving and the knowledge, that Jay so rightly points out, but more so, the underlying reasons of why often point to something much larger.

I work often in a change management capacity. It’s something I plan to write more about in the weeks to come but people often stare at me blankly as though I’m from outer space when I mention change management because most people don’t quite know what that is.

Change Management is actually really simple. You, your team, your show, your company are at point A – maybe something has happened (A critical incident), maybe something is about to happen or worse still, maybe nothing is happening. All in all, you simply want to be somewhere else, so I help that process. If you know what Point B is, then great – I help navigate the way to there. If you don’t, that’s okay too, we can chart the course together. Either way, managing this process and how it’s done to best effect, to achieve its aims and perhaps most importantly, to support the people involved is what Change Management is all about. I digress.

In all this time in Change Management or perhaps more importantly, just generally in the workforce, I’ve seen people leave jobs and hell, I’ve left jobs myself.

Whenever someone changes a job, this should serve as a wake-up call. Sometimes even the most innocuous or beneficial reasons signal something deeper. I would say people’s reasons for changing jobs sit in three emotional categories: the happy, the sad, and the indifferent.

The Sad

Let’s start with the sad reasons. These are actually pretty straight forward. Someone hates their job, their boss, their environment, the people they work with, they aren’t progressing, they’re bored and vocally so. Ironically, while these are the most unfortunate reasons, they’re sometimes the easiest to fix (if caught early). These are straightforward because they’re clearly signposted. If people don’t like things, they’ll make it clear. No, they may not come out and say so directly but you can usually tell that these are people who aren’t present in meetings, they’re the first ones out the door, they’re the ones who just don’t engage with others but when things go wrong, they’re the lead of the conversation.

How do you fix these ones? Get in early! Every situation is different but if you can attune yourself to spot these issues before they become big issues, you’ll be able to fix things. Not only that, but you’ll gain valuable points in being an ally when/if things go bad again meaning reoccurrence of these sorts of issues tends to be low.

The Happy

Turning to the happy end of the spectrum, maybe someone is off to have a baby, maybe someone is getting a promotion, maybe they’ve won the lottery, or maybe they’re returning to study. These are all optimistic reasons for people to leave but they shouldn’t be left unanalysed. Baby aside, I like to believe that in the right job, people would stay for anything.

Let’s say you’re an automation operator for a show and you love that show, you love those people, you love the environment and the culture, your friends are there, you’re paid well and you’re happy. Let’s say you win the lottery, what happens? It goes one of two ways, people leave or people stay. If things are actually that great, people will stay. Sure, with the new-found millions, you might negotiate more unpaid leave so you can buy a second house in the Maldives or you might arrive to work in a Maybach or maybe the crew office is now plated in solid gold but the point is, you don’t go to work for money so why should a giant pile of money change things? If you chose to leave, the lottery isn’t the problem, it’s just an excuse to finally pull the pin. Likewise, promotions or job changes or returning to study; try and analyze when people make these changes what is their ‘excuse to pull the pin’? This will often be something quite poignant and useful.

The Indifferent

Quite possibly the hardest and most complex sections are in the indifferent category. People who leave who you just don’t notice. They come in every day, not happy but not sad, they just do their thing. These are the hardest ones to assist because outwardly, there’s nothing to grab onto, there are no signposts which you can say “Let me help you fix that”. Put simply, you don’t want employees in this category. There’s an old saying that goes, “One of the most dangerous things for an organisation is when your most passionate people go “quiet”. I try to live this every day, actively watching for it. If I see this, I work on fixing that immediately, it’s a most dangerous thing and it terrifies me. So if you start to suspect people are coasting along and at risk of apathy – cast off the rescue lines and see who catches what. Offer people challenges, organise regular catch ups with people, encourage people in what they do well and probe what they don’t and see what sticks. You may well find something much deeper below the surface.

Departing employees are the organisational iceberg – there’s the reason they give you and there’s the 90% under the surface.

If you’re active in supporting employee welfare and communicating with your teams consistently (constant, honest, and transparent communication solves 99% of any organisation’s problem) then you have the best radar system imaginable. If you can create an environment where people can’t wait to come to work every day and you listen to people, you’ve created something that nobody wants to leave and that’s what all managers should be striving for.

Read Costs Of Losing Long-Term Employees: Walking Knowledge by Jay Withee

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