‘Subtle’ behavioural cues predict turnover: Study

Would-be quitters send out signals employers can pick up on — if they're paying attention
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/24/2014

Employees who are thinking of leaving their jobs may give off subtle cues others can pick up on — if they look closely enough. And these would-be quitters might not even know they’re displaying such behaviour, according to a study out of Utah State University in Logan.

“There’s been a ton of research on what factors cause employees to leave a company or stay with a company — in terms of their pay and benefits and how satisfied they are with their job and their supervisors — and this study takes a little bit of a different approach in trying to see: Are there behavioural cues that employees… give off that might be noticed by supervisors and co-workers?” said Chad Van Iddekinge, associate professor of management at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

“It’s similar to what’s been done in the past but it’s a different kind of approach to try to understand turnover and what leads up to it.”

One issue most employees have in common before they leave is disengagement from the workplace in the one or two months before they leave, found the study. The 18 consistent behavioural changes include:

•offering fewer constructive contributions in meetings

•being more reserved and quiet

•avoiding social interactions with their boss and other members of management

•suggesting fewer new ideas

•working less productively.

“There’s this idea that people quit before they quit and it’s this idea that once someone sort of makes up in their mind that they’re going to leave at some point in the future, they start to disengage from their organization,” said Van Iddekinge, who worked on the study.

If workers demonstrate at least six of these behaviours, the study’s statistical formula can predict, with 80 per cent accuracy, they are about to leave their employer, said Tim Gardner, associate professor at the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University.

“It’s not that every person that quits exhibits all of these disengagement items, but essentially the disengagement score is significantly higher for employees who have quit,” he said.

“To me, that’s the most exciting thing. Anyone with a data set can find something but to say, ‘I can take completely new data and make very accurate predictions about who’s a stayer and who’s a leaver’ really shows that we found something and it’s not just random association that a statistical software program would find.”

The study is largely based on the recollections of people who left their jobs, or managers who had employees who left. And factors such as age, gender, educational level, marital status or union status were controlled for in the study, said Gardner, who completed the study.

“Even with all these observable factors that do predict turnover, the disengagement cues were statistically significant,” he said. “So the takeaway is that the disengagement cues are empirically or scientifically or statistically better than the standard set of attributes that one might use to predict whether someone is quitting or not quitting.”

There are a couple of different factors that drive these subtle behaviours, said Gardner. Jobseekers are stressed and under strain from the extra work, and it’s like they’re living a double life, having to fake interest in their work while learning about new companies and networking. They are hiding a big part of their life, which manifests in the cues, he said.

And some of the behaviours that did not make the list are unexpected, said Gardner. These included people showing up to work late more often, failing to return phone calls or emails, or taking more sick days.

“Those weren’t unique behaviours that applied only to quitters,” he said. “What this means is, yes, jobseekers exhibit these behaviours — but so do stayers… The exciting or the counter-intuitive finding is that it’s really a small set of behavioural changes that distinguish a quitter from a stayer.”

Employees are always on the lookout, whether they’re thrilled or not thrilled to be at their job, according to Cissy Pau, principal consultant at Clear HR Consulting in Vancouver.

“I just assume that everybody’s got their ear to the ground and seeing what opportunities there are out there. That’s human nature, especially in this day and age of social media and LinkedIn,” she said. “On your LinkedIn profile, right there, it says, ‘Here are jobs you might be interested in’ so you can’t help but click on that.”

As a result, it’s up to employers to engage workers, said Pau.

“Whether they demonstrate these cues and these behaviours or not, if they’re not happy in their job, they’re going to leave. So you as an employer, as a manager, still have to review your company culture, your management talent, their ability to engage their staff — I don’t think that changes. Knowing this (study’s results) doesn’t change the fact that employers have to create an environment where employees want to work.”

Implications for managers

Managers won’t have an easy time picking up on these 18 cues, she said, and it’s easy to say, after the fact, “Oh yeah, they kind of stopped participating in our staff meetings and I gave them that opportunity to go to that conference and they didn’t want to go.”

You require a really self-aware and aware manager to pick up on these things,” said Pau.

“And if they’re picking up on these things, they’re likely already a pretty good manager and having ongoing communication (with their employees).”

Other contributors to turnover can include demographic changes, she said, such as the average duration of a job being three to five years — so a worker might be stagnating at the four-year mark.

“I would say that would be a bigger trigger,” said Pau.

But this study can help managers make better use of their time, particularly when it comes to stay interviews, said Gardner.

“Instead of managers using this to go on a witch hunt and fire people they think might be leaving, to look for disengagement cues and to use their time effectively for the stay interviews, that could tell them who they should be meeting with that might be thinking of leaving or after they’re looking, and find out what’s going on and making changes if necessary to try to retain them.”

All of this is based on the premise that a manager has some semblance of emotional intelligence (EQ) in assessing employees, said Neale Harrison, CEO of Talent Matters in Toronto. But if a manager does notice some of the behavioural cues on the checklist, it would be best to quickly talk to the employee, to see if anything’s wrong or if she’s misreading the signs, he said.

“The employee would see value in that you’ve checked in with them, you care,” said Harrison. “That allows you to at least plan, hopefully support them exiting and plan to replace them, so maybe work with a timetable versus be surprised by a timetable forced upon you.”

But there are no definite answers, he said.

“There’s benefits to (the study), absolutely, but the notion there is a formula which provides people-related answers and there’s one formula that can ascertain this outcome, you’ve really got to be careful because human beings are interesting and one size doesn’t fit all.”

And often there’s a difference when it comes to studies based in the United States because the working culture and environment there is really about squeezing everything out of an employee, said Harrison. It’s a tougher, less forgiving environment, whereas a place like Canada really taps into an employee’s discretionary effort through understanding what motivates her, what she aspires to.

“There’s a lot more focus, in my experience, around good organizations and effective managers focusing in on, ‘OK, what does my employee want?’” he said — and often employees are only meant to stay for a few years before it’s a good time for them to move on to their next opportunity.

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