Quitting Is Contagious
Most days at work I wish I had spent more time studying social psychology. Long ago when I was an undergraduate psychology major, social psychology didn’t have nearly the clout and influence that it does today. You likely have read business articles grounded in the work of social scientists like Adam Grant, Jamil Zaki, Carol Dweck, Brene Brown and Heidi Grant. Their perspectives on how social interactions directly impact business performance have reshaped both individual and organizational behaviors.
A recent body of research by my frequent collaborator Andrea Derler and her team at Visier focuses on how turnover can become contagious. Said differently, when one person quits, does it increase the likelihood that others will quit as well? The short answer is yes. The research can help us predict how the turnover contagion spreads.
When I read the research, I was struck by how influential the role of the manager is. They compared the likelihood of subsequent resignations across different groups and found that quitting was far more contagious with coworkers who reported to the same manager. So here we are again … right back to the critical nature of the direct supervisor.
Two more significant trends are worth noting. First, the likelihood of turnover contagion was two to three times higher in groups smaller than 10 people. These smaller groups allow us to experience what others are experiencing far more directly. Second, the contagion period lasted for roughly 4.5 months, peaking at ~70 days after the initial resignation. This means managers will feel the effects of resignation over an extended period with no quick fixes. Given the regularity of resignations in today’s labor market, we could be kept in a perpetual state of vigilance.
What Can Managers Do to Minimize Turnover Contagion?
Strengthen the Sense of In-Group Across the Team
Let’s take a page from the playbooks on inclusion. There’s nothing quite like that sense of belonging to make someone want to stay. The ability to identify with others and see oneself as genuinely fitting is the real glue of in-groups.
Create Psychological Safety
It’s virtually impossible to build bonds with colleagues once they’ve already decided to leave. Instead, managers should be explicit with their teams about being open to conversations about career moves, including discussions about exiting the company. Colleagues leave for all kinds of reasons, even if we’d like them to stay. In the long run, knowing about exit plans helps minimize disruption for the team and allows for better messaging to reduce the risk of turnover contagion.
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All of us can become too insular within our own work groups and even our own teams. Connect your team to others outside your intact manager team for special projects, rotational assignments or simply to explore future opportunities.
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Foster Social Aspects of Work
Be that in-person, virtual or hybrid, enabling colleagues to spend social time together deepens their bonds and sense of commitment to one another. It’s not frivolous, quite the contrary. When managers participate in these events, it becomes all the more compelling for forming lasting relationships.
Proactively Discuss Career Growth
Colleagues certainly leave for compensation reasons, but they also leave for career growth. The worst time to discuss either of these areas is when you are reacting to another employer’s offer. Being proactive about career conversations demonstrates that colleagues matter to you and that your role as a manager is as much about supporting them as it is driving company results.
Andrea Derler, PhD, is Visier's principal of research and value. Her contributions have appeared in the Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Chief Learning Officer, Wall Street Journal, Fast Company and more.
Humans are hardwired to imitate — or compare themselves with — the people around them. Our experimental research study of the ‘turnover contagion’ phenomenon supports this theory about people in the workplace: employees sometimes quit their jobs because their teammates have resigned. Our findings are based on up to 30 million resignation events tracked in our community data, which reveal that turnover contagion is real.
During this research, however, we made an extra finding: while turnover contagion is triggered by one employee who leaves a job voluntarily — as measured through resignations — we found that terminations can also have an impact on the team member’s decision to stay at an organization. Once an employee has been let go, their peers are 7.7% more likely to resign from their jobs as well. This is especially true for teams with fewer than 10 team members, and the effect lasts about 3.5 months (see chart). While the effect is slightly lower than with voluntary turnover, it is still significant.
Even though there may be a plethora of reasons for both resignations and terminations, our findings caution against looking at them as singular events. After all, humans are social beings who are influenced by what is happening to their peers. HR and business leaders who are pondering layoffs and terminations of employees are advised not to underestimate the impact one person’s leaving can have on their team member’s decision to stay.
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About the Author
Mary Slaughter is the Global Head of Employee Experience at Morningstar, an investment research and management firm headquartered in Chicago, IL. Prior to joining Morningstar, she served as a managing director, People Advisory Services at EY.