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How Employees Disengage and Quit

By Leigh Branham

If we make it a point to know why they quit, then why do we care about how they quit? A good question deserves a good answer. Understanding the way employees gradually lose their enthusiasm and begin to disengage helps us read the signs sooner. The best news--everyone who is charged with leading people can interrupt the disengagement process NOW and salvage key talent at critical, predictable points along the decision path to departure..

Key point: employee turnover is not an event—it is really a process of progressive disengagement that can take days, weeks, months, or even years until the employee finally makes the actual decision to leave (which may never happen, and is not always good news when it does). 

Here’s what Dave, an accountant, told me three weeks after resigning:

 “The very first day I started thinking of leaving. I was given an assignment and I realized very quickly that I was not going to receive any mentoring or support.” It was all downhill from there. Even though it was several months before Dave resigned, that first day turns out to have been the turning point." 

There are actually several sequential and predictable steps that can unfold in the employee’s journey from disengagement to departure. Of course, many of our so-called “leaders” are so busy doing two jobs or so obliviously self-interested that they wouldn’t even notice if their employees walked around wearing sandwich boards saying “I Hate This Job!,” or “Becoming Less Engaged Every Day!”. 

Not that it’s only the manager’s responsibility to take the initiative in this process—all employees also need to understand they have a singular responsibility to find ways of addressing their concerns and re-engaging themselves in the workplace. But the truth is, many managers are too slow to observe the telltale signs of employee disengagement until it’s too late to do anything about it. 

The obvious early warning signs of disengagement are absenteeism, tardiness, or behavior that indicates withdrawal or increased negativity. These early signs of disengagement typically start showing up after a shocking or jarring event takes place that causes the employee to question his or her commitment. 

Some “shocking-event” turning points: 

·         Being passed over for promotion

·         Realizing the job was not as promised

·         Learning they may be transferred

·         Hiring boss replaced by new boss they don’t like

·         Learning the company is doing something unethical

·         Earning enough money (grubstake)

·         An incident of sexual harassment or racial discrimination

·         Realizing they are underpaid compared to others doing the same job

·         Being pressured to make an unreasonable family or personal sacrifice

·         Being asked to perform a menial duty (e.g., clean bathroom)

·         Petty and unreasonable enforcement of authority

·         Being denied a request for family leave

·         A close colleague quits or is terminated

·         Disagreement with the boss

·         Conflict with a coworker

·         An unexpectedly low performance rating

·         A lower-than-expected pay increase or no pay increase 

There are countless other possible precipitating events. Sometimes, departed employees use the term “last straw” in referring to these events. 

As a nurse named Karen told me,

“I was happy there two years ago, but my manager left and my new manager was not a good mentor or coach. She was just coasting to retirement, but she was moody and unprofessional…And then one day she yelled at me. I went to her manager about it, but she just excused her behavior, saying ‘that’s just the way she is.’ That was the last straw for me.” 

Here are more excerpts from 19.700 post-exit interviews from companies in 17 different industries.from       Saratoga Institute that illustrate the “turning-point” at work.:

From Dan, an engineer:

“The head of our department changed and I felt the new one didn’t seek my input or recognize my contributions. Then, the work started becoming more administrative than technical…I felt like I was just shuffling papers and not designing anything. That’s when I started looking elsewhere, and a co-worker referred me to the company I now work for.”  

From Janine, a business analyst:  

“My managers made it very clear they didn’t want my input. They could have made such good use of my foreign language ability, but I got the cold shoulder. They had an old boy network mindset…I went to a national company meeting because my manager couldn’t attend—it was 95 percent male, and no one even came up and introduced themselves. That did it for me. After that, I started looking and I had a new job in six weeks.”

From, John, a financial analyst: 

 “I wasn’t being challenged…And then I came across payroll information while doing some project costing and discovered that I was paid 15 percent less than everyone else in my group. That was the turning point.”

From Pamela, a technical writer:  

“I had a degree from a prestigious university, and my manager would take pot shots at me in front of others…Then he started giving me menial work to do, like taking things to mail and Fed-Ex. He would say, ‘it’s more cost-effective for you to do this than for me to do it.’ I started looking for a job after only three months on the job”

What An Expert Says: 

Dr. Thomas Lee, a business professor at The University of Washington, who has extensively researched what he calls “the unfolding model of employee turnover,” reports several interesting findings about how and why people disengage and leave:

  • The majority of voluntary turnover--63 percent, is precipitated by some kind of shocking event.
  • Relatively few “shocking events” are pay-related.
  • About 20 percent of departing employees leave without having another job in hand.
  • Temporary, part-time and marginal workers are more likely to quit suddenly or impulsively after a shock.
  • Many employees keep an eye out for other jobs while working, and decide to interview for outside opportunities just for practice, to create a “plan B”, or to test their marketability.
  • Exit surveying or interviewing that doesn’t uncover the shock (turning point) and get the employee to discuss the deliberation process, if there was one, will not reveal the root cause. 

The Two Distinct Phases of Employee Departure

Dr. Lee also points out that there are two distinct phases in an employee’s process of thinking about leaving and the actual decision to leave. 

Phase 1 is the time between an employee’s first thoughts of quitting and the decision to quit.  

As Doug, a high-potential retail manager, confided:

“After the merger I gave it a year to see what the company would be like, and I tried to keep my attitude positive, but things were no different, so I started looking.” 

A sales manager named Jim told me that when he was promoted, no letter went out announcing the promotion, which he took as a personal slight.

“I first started thinking seriously about leaving later, when I asked for more responsibility, but was turned     down. I knew I had proved myself in my current position. What made it even tougher to take was the fact I      had left my wife and family behind for a year to work abroad for the company. And I felt they owed me a new           opportunity. But, instead of getting the job I wanted, I was transferred to another department. That’s when I          made the decision to leave.” 

Phase 2 in the deliberation process is the time between the employee’s decision to leave and the     actual leaving

As you might expect, the chances of a manager re-recruiting and successful gaining renewed commitment from an employee are not as great during this second period. This is why it is important for managers to be alert to the signs that an employee is just starting to disengage when there is still time to do something about. 

All business leaders need to keep their antennae up for signals that a valued employee may have experienced a disappointing shock   Or better yet, because it is often hard to read the feelings of employees from the looks on their faces, managers should simply sit down with their direct reports on a regular basis and ask, “how are things with you?”

The employee departures described above might have been avoided if the managers had cared enough to sit down with the employees at some point in their disengagement & deliberation process and ask a simple question:“How are you feeling about things in general?” That simple question may open a discussion that could lead to a resolution of the precipitating issue. 

When we consider the gradual, unfolding nature of employee disengagement, reflect on Gallup’s research that reveals 75 percent of employees as disengaged, there can be but one conclusion—the need for managers to initiate discussions and actions to engage and reengage employees is urgent, and the daily opportunity to do so is ever-present.