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Why are your employees leaving?

Why are your employees leaving and how can you effectively react to stop the cycle? 

Let’s try a little experiment: write down the names of the last ten employees who left your company. Doesn’t matter what the context was or what level they were, or even how long they had been with you. Now, next to each name write down the main reason that this particular person chose to leave. (Aha, that’s the first test – do you know the reason? It should be in their exit interview if of course you did one and kept notes? If you didn’t then that speaks volumes about your company’s investment in employee engagement and willingness to take feedback on board and adapt). 

Let’s assume for now that you have solid exit interview data to look back on. So, now you should have ten clear reasons why you lost someone’s commitment, motivation and ultimately loyalty. We’ll call those ten main reasons (of course some may be duplicates, but we’ll come on to that later), the ‘primary drivers’ for employees leaving.  

Next, go back to the exit interviews and look at if there were any other seemingly less obvious reasons that were referenced. This may have been just gripes or disappointments, but they would have helped to reinforce the primary drivers, so let’s group them together in a list and call them ‘secondary drivers.’ 

It’s worth noting here that if you find your data is incomplete or there is no evidence of either primary or secondary drivers in the notes, then the short answer is that your exit interview process is weak and not designed to really dig into why people are unhappy. And if you’re not even asking those questions at this final stage of communication, then I’m willing to bet you’re not asking them during all the usual employee touchpoints like appraisals, reviews, promotions, and PDRs. 

The power of indirect data 

As well as the exit interviews and employee touchpoints detailed above, a very strong way to understand why employees leave is by using indirect data. By that, I mean asking their colleagues, bosses, team – and even clients and suppliers if you can – why they think this person may have left. Perhaps there was an underlying and toxic build up of unhappiness or resentment that they didn’t mention directly in a formal setting such as an exit interview. Office bullying or any form of harassment would be intimidating for someone to bring up, and often employees are just glad to be leaving, so don’t want to get dragged into something serious at this final stage of employment. They may even fear it will harm their future career in some way.  

Asking these other people indirectly, in confidence of course, may give you a clue as to what may have been going on, and that could help you better understand the context of why the employee left, and would certainly give you the opportunity to address these factors to stop them being potential drivers for future resignations.  

Common primary drivers 

Historically, money has come out as the most common primary driver for someone leaving a job. The second most common has been unhappiness with a particular boss or line manager. Over the years other factors have become much more prevalent and money is no longer the main cited reason. Those other drivers have been around areas of flexible working, lack of bespoke and relevant benefits, work-life balance, career progression and general career development. Interestingly, feeling like they are working for a bad boss has stayed as one of the highest reasons given for resignations. Of course, this causes further issues around mental health and general unhappiness at work, but those are more secondary drivers that stem from something bigger, so always probe the reasons why on those topics. Left unchecked they can quickly escalate into a wider collapse in company culture and the emergence of a toxic working environment for all. Then there are the force majeure reasons that you really can’t predict or counter: divorces, bereavements, sudden illnesses, relocations etc. 

Common secondary drivers 

As I mentioned before, none of the main drivers – except the force majeure category – will happen overnight. They can all be traced back to have their roots in the more intangible, often non-disclosed, secondary drivers. Understanding these will be your best weapon against the emergence of insurmountable and negative primary drivers.  

Common secondary drivers are often emotional in their origin and based around a general theme of wellbeing. They can include someone feeling demotivated and uninspired, feeling like they are overworked and under resourced (people support and/or tech), feeling ignored, and feeling like their mental and possibly physical health is suffering as a result of their job. The important common thread to note in all of them is the word ‘feeling’. 

 Turning the tide and stopping the cycle 

Employees will always leave and there is a strong case for company turnover being positive as a way to attract fresh perspectives and ideas into the workplace. And of course, some employees leave simply because they have been approached by something that they genuinely want to take on. And that’s all okay, that’s the natural evolution and migration of a national workforce over a 40+ year career. 

That aside, it is all the other negative reasons for employees leaving that, as an employer, you need to be aware of and be actively combatting. Go back to your lists of primary and secondary drivers, analyse the trends and common themes, and use these are your main priorities when looking at ways to minimise turnover. In isolation, they may seem like individual grievances or grudges, but looked at collectively, along with the addition of insightful indirect data, they will paint the real picture of what it is like to work at your company, across the pay grades, departments, and levels. Ignore it at your peril.