The myth about employee departures (Guest commentary)

Popular belief is ‘people leave managers, not companies’ — but it’s not that simple
By Beth N. Carvin
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/18/2009

Raise your hand if you’ve heard or repeated the saying “People leave managers, not companies” when discussing employee retention. For nearly a decade, this pithy bit of business advice has been passed from HR department to HR department and become the mantra for retention experts everywhere. The only problem is it’s simply not true.

There’s no question bad managers drive employees away. The problem with the statement is it implies bad managers are the only reason for employee turnover. If only employee retention was that simple.

A more accurate statement would be “Employees leave irritations.” Irritations are the daily annoyances that each employee deals with. For one employee, it might be his mean and rotten co-workers. For another, it could be a seemingly nonsensical company policy. Irritations, like plaque on arteries, build until an employee can no longer tolerate it. Like Howard Beale, the character played by Peter Finch in the movie Network, the employee opens the window and shouts, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.”

Reasons people leave

In our analysis of more than three million exit interview responses between January 2001 and May 2009, we uncovered more than 20 irritations that lead to turnover. Here are some of the most common:

• limited growth or advancement opportunities

• inadequate training

• unreasonable workload

• dislike of the type of work

• perception of unfairness

• unreasonable procedures

• sexual harassment

• perceived discrimination

• difficult colleagues or co-worker issues

• lack of quality products and services

• discomfort or incompatability with an organization’s ethics

• future prospects of the organization

• lack of communication about what’s happening in the organization.

Employee turnover occurs when frustration with irritations intersects with opportunity elsewhere.

No one-size-fits-all solution

The challenging part of employee retention management is the irritations differ from company to company. There is no single irritation at the root of all turnover. If an HR manager reads an article that says employees leave call centres because of X, that doesn’t mean she can assume the employees in her call centre are leaving for that same reason. If she does, she might spend a lot of time, effort and money on minimizing an irritation that doesn’t exist in her organization. It’s up to each organization to identify specific irritations and then work to reduce them.

Complicating matters further is irritations vary within organizations. The things that irritate employees in an accounting department might differ from those that irritate employees in an IT department. Irritations experienced by new hires are likely to differ from those that rub long-service employees the wrong way.

For that reason, a successful attrition analysis will seek to identify the irritations among different groups of employees. Some of the groups might be the following:

• department

• division

• job classification

• tenure

• performance rating

• gender

• race

• age range.

Irritations can be uncovered through traditional exit interviews, focus groups, employee surveys, internal talent networking programs, suggestion boxes or an online exit-interview management system that automates both the data capture and the reporting processes.

Once a company begins to identify irritations, it has solid information it can use to craft a retention strategy. If one irritation is lack of advancement opportunities, a company can work to develop career paths with appropriate training and mentoring to provide more opportunity for growth. If an irritation is employees are overworked and can’t complete all their work without long hours of overtime, staffing levels can be examined to determine whether to add positions or borrow employees from a slower department to assist.

To further address the irritation problem, hire for those with high irritation tolerance. Recruiters should be on the lookout for applicants who have a higher boiling point and, at a minimum, avoid those who run away the first time they encounter an irritation.

Irritations are not completely avoidable. Some things are the way they are for a reason. Most of the time, however, organizations can identify and subsequently reduce irritations to a manageable level. Once you stop assuming managers are solely at fault for employee turnover, you can begin to effectively deal with the challenges and stop driving the best employees out the door.

Beth N. Carvin is the CEO and president of Nobscot, a Kailua, Hawaii-based global technology firm that focuses on key aspects of employee retention and development. She can be reached at

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