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August 12, 2019

What's the real reason your employees quit? Here's how to find out.

Daily Briefing
    Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on Oct. 4, 2021.

    Writing in Harvard Business Review, Anthony Klotz and Mark Bolino outline three ways to find out the real reasons why employees leave your company—because exit interviews may not provide the full story.

    Why your top performers leave (and how to retain them)

    Klotz is an associate professor of management at Texas A&M University's Mays Business School, and Bolino is the David L. Boren a professor and chair in international business at the University of Oklahoma's Price College of Business.

    More than ever, employees are quitting

    "More employees are voluntarily leaving their jobs than at almost any other time this millennium," Klotz and Bolino write. And while company leaders might think they're doing enough to investigate why employees leave, Klotz and Bolino argue that the standard efforts don't always cut it.

    Namely, Klotz and Bolino point to "serious shortcomings" with the exit interview process. For one, sometimes employees quit with little notice, making it impossible for the employer to conduct an exit interview Klotz and Bolino write. But even when employers can conduct the interviews, "research suggests that a large percentage of employees are not candid," Klotz and Bolino write.

    Given these limitations, Klotz and Bolino draw on their own research on to offer three alternative ways to find out the real reason why your employee left.

    The 3 ways to find out why your employee left

    1. Investigate what happened

      When an employee quits, Klotz and Bolino recommend that managers try to determine the "style" the employee used to quit and then, overtime, track patterns in the resignation styles of employees who quit. According to Klotz and Bolino, resignations generally fall into one of seven styles:

      1. Grateful goodbye: employees express gratitude before they leave;
      2. In the loop: employees tell their supervisor they plan to quit;
      3. By the book: employees provide standard notice and an explanation for why they're leaving;
      4. Perfunctory: employees resign by the book but do not share why they're leaving;
      5. Avoidant: employees indirectly tell their boss or let news of their resignation spread by word of mouth;  
      6. Bridge burning: employees engage in harmful dysfunctional behavior as they leave; and
      7. Impulsive quitting: employees walk out without prior notice.

      "These styles often reflect how departing employees feel they were treated by their organization," Klotz and Bolino write. So, to get a better understanding of what's happening at your workplace, "code [resignations] based on style and review them periodically," Klotz and Bolino explain.

    2. Follow up with their coworkers

      While the person who's quitting won't always disclose their "true reasons," employers can gain information by "having informal discussions with colleagues close to the employee who resigned," Klotz and Bolino note. This carries the "added benefit of … giv[ing] remaining employees, who may be disappointed and confused by their coworker's resignation, an outlet to discuss their thoughts and opinions, which may reduce any feelings of distress."

      At the same time, "some colleagues may feel that the company is asking them to be disloyal to their friend," Klotz and Bolino warn. To avoid conflict in situations like this, Klotz and Bolino suggest "acknowledging the tension that this line of inquiry could create."

    3. Look at the employee's next steps—and learn from them

      Much can be gained by having HR professionals track what employees do after they leave, Klotz and Bolino assert. For instance, "If a large proportion of quitters return to school to pursue graduate degrees, for example, there may be an opportunity for the company to improve retention by offering discounted or free education," Klotz and Bolino write. Meanwhile, "If there is a trend of employees' leaving to work for a particular competitor, then it is certainly worth looking into" what that firm does differently "to determine why your organization is losing talent to a rival," Klotz and Bolino add (Klotz/Bolino, Harvard Business Review, 7/31).

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