Reasons Employees Leave: It’s More Complex Than You Think
We’ve all had jobs that we’ve had to leave at one point, either by choice or because we were forced. Sometimes they were jobs we disliked for one reason or another, and other times they were jobs we loved. In the case of one of my own past jobs, there was nothing that anybody could have done to make me stay – I was accepted into graduate school and that would require me to relocate, so quitting was inevitable. I had accepted the position with the full intention of attending graduate school at some point during my employment with the company. It was a topic that was thoroughly discussed during the interview process and again with my supervisor upon hiring. When I left the company, it was bittersweet. I had enjoyed my job and was on track for turning it into a career, but I enjoyed my field of study even more and wanted to pursue it further.
My job before that, however, was a different story entirely. I had finally reached my limit after yet another disagreement with my supervisor over ethical issues, and I decided it was time for me to move on. I began searching for employment in an entirely different industry and as soon as I got an offer, I handed in my two weeks notice.
People often assume that the most common reason employees leave a job is because they have become dissatisfied (Mitchell, Holtom, & Lee, 2001), as I had in the example above. Through dissatisfaction, the employee becomes motivated to search for something new and once that is found, he or she leaves. Although this is one reason people leave, it is actually not the most prevalent. Most of the time, people leave their jobs in response to some sort of shock or trigger, which may be a positive or negative event. Though each reason for leaving a past job may seem to follow its own unique circumstance, it’s possible to break the reasons down into four common categories: 1) following a plan, 2) leaving without a plan, 3) leaving for something better, or 4) leaving a dissatisfying job (Mitchell et al, 2001). Now that we’ve established the four common reasons people leave their jobs, let’s look deeper into what they each look like and why they occur.
- Following a Plan: Some people may have specific events in mind that, if realized, will cause them to leave their job no matter what. It can be a good or a bad event, but the person leaving the organization isn’t leaving out of dissatisfaction with their job. When the event occurs, the person thinks about leaving, remembers the plan, and then leaves. Referring back to the first scenario above, I left my perfectly good job for graduate school without a job lined up, but there was nothing that could have made me stay.
- Leaving Without a Plan: Generally, people who leave without a plan do so in response to a significant event. Typically, the event is not at all positive, and it shakes them up so badly that they feel compelled to leave without a second thought. Some examples include the death of a loved one, being passed over for a promotion, or a friend within the organization being laid off. Again, the employee may have been perfectly satisfied with his or her job, but the event was severe enough to make job satisfaction irrelevant.
- Leaving for Something Better: People who leave for something better may be dissatisfied with their job, but they also may not be. Most of the time, people who identify with this reason leave in response to an unsolicited job offer (a trigger) that appears to be better than the position they had. This process is very complex and requires a lot of thought on the part of the person involved. It requires weighing options and then deciding what the better choice is. While job satisfaction is one factor, people also take into account pay, commute, and work hours among other things.
- Leaving an Unsatisfying Job: As stated earlier, most people think that this is the number one reason why employees leave, but in fact it is not. It tends to occur over a much longer period of time than the other reasons, and unlike the other reasons it is not triggered by a particular event. When people leave due to dissatisfaction, sometimes they do have another job lined up, but other times they do not. Generally, there is a cascade of negative events that accumulate over time until the employee has decided they have had enough and need to leave. Going back to my past experience, this was my reasoning for leaving the job in the second scenario. Although the disagreement I had with my employer appears to be the spark that sent me off to search for greener pastures, it really wasn't a single event that acted as a catalyst for me to make a change. I had worked for the organization for over five years and although I found my job to be quite rewarding, there were several things that added up over the years until I decided it was time to leave. Other factors that may lead to dissatisfaction include a failure to make friends at work, or boredom with the job.
The reasons why employees leave are varied and not always predictable. At the organizational level, turnover can be quite expensive (Campbell, Ganco, Franco, & Agarwal, 2012). Not only are valuable employees taking knowledge and expertise that may be difficult to transfer to a new employee, it is also very costly to hire and train someone new. However, it’s important for managers to understand the various reasons why employees leave in order to be proactive in reducing turnover in instances where it's possible to intervene. Similarly, it’s important for managers not to be tricked by the common fallacy that all turnover is due to dissatisfaction, and accordingly invest precious resources into a lost cause. Addressing the topic of what management can do to reduce turnover after having a better understanding of these reasons calls for a blog post all on its own, but having a basic understanding of why employees leave can assist managers in identifying themes in employee turnover, and perhaps make organizational changes accordingly.
Campbell, B. A., Ganco, M., Franco, A. M., & Agarwal, R. (2012). Who leaves, where to, and why worry? Employee mobility, entrepreneurship and effects on source firm performance. Strategic Management Journal, 33(1), 65-87. doi:10.1002/smj.943.
Mitchell, T. R., Holtom, B. C., & Lee, T. W. (2001). How to keep your best employees: Developing an effective retention policy. The Academy of Management Executive, 15(4), 96-108.