Can managers predict when employees plan to leave? | Crain's

Can managers predict when employees plan to leave?

Indiana University management professor Christopher O.L.H Porter said employers need to be more sensitive to signs that may indicate impending employee turnover.  | Photo courtesy of Indiana University

The negative effects of employee turnover don’t begin when a worker slaps down a resignation letter on the boss’ desk. Rather, they’re likely to manifest much earlier, when an employee first begins thinking of leaving.

That’s among findings of a study co-authored by Christopher O.L.H. Porter, a management professor at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, in Indianapolis.

The paper, published last week in the Journal of Applied Psychology, also says that by paying attention to certain signs, supervisors can mitigate unproductive behavior among those intending to leave, and perhaps even help organizations reduce turnover.

“It suggests that it’s important that employers try to manage those intentions quite early,” said Porter. “A lot of times employees will give you signals.”

Researchers studied employees at a U.S. retail pharmacy chain and those at a Chinese telecommunications company.

They wanted to find out whether the intention to leave a company could predict certain kinds of behavior at work.  Porter and his colleagues looked at two types of “psychological contracts” with employees: relational and transactional.  

Relational behavior is what you’d expect from an employee who is loyal and fully engaged with the employer and co-workers and willing to go the extra mile.

But a worker with a transactional relationship would be one who tends to perform job expectations, but not much more. Think of someone who has essentially “checked out” out of his job. Such behavior could include:

- Falsifying expense reports
- Showing up late for work
- Dragging out work to receive overtime
- Taking property from work
- Surfing non-work websites
- ​Taking drugs or consuming alcohol at work

Such a transactional mindset toward one’s work often is strongest when the employee perceives that the employer bears primary responsibility for his desire to leave. That desire could be triggered by such things as low pay or an abusive supervisor, the study says.  

“We believe that turnover intentions affect the strength of employees’ psychological contract orientation, or set of beliefs they hold regarding their relationship with their organizations,” the paper’s authors wrote.

Employees thinking of leaving can manifest either of these, but they often leaned toward transactional behavior when they believed the employer was mostly responsible for their decision to leave.

Porter argues that employers must work to ensure that those who plan to leave engage in positive behaviors. For those with strong intentions to leave, managers need to try to mitigate bad behavior that may result.

“Employers could take turnover intentions more seriously,” said Porter, who teaches leadership and ethics. “You’d be surprised how often or infrequently managers take time to sense the pulse of the organization. Sometimes it’s just a matter of putting an ear to the ground.”

Indianapolis-based leadership training consultant Darryl Warren, president of the D. Gene Alliance affiliate of Crestcom International, said there are three effective defenses for organizations trying to “manage” the negative effects that happen when employees exhibit turnover intentions.

One is to promote an open-door policy for employees to express issues, including discontentment.

 “Management are then more likely to be made aware of issues when open communication is not only expected but, encouraged. Once management is aware they can address and resolve problems,” Warren said.

Moreover, he said employers that train and develop their teams regularly have “a built-in, safe forum” for employees to communicate needs and reasons why they may leave. That helps gauge the pulse of an organization. Such a venue needs to be non-threatening for the team, he said.

Finally, there’s the old tenet: if you don’t know, ask.

“Forward-thinking, assertive organizations simply poll employees to uncover internal issues. Feedback is gathered anonymously,” Warren said.

It is “the old suggestion-box concept,” where successfully implemented programs provide an accurate measure of the organizational health of a company. “There is nothing more accurate than direct feedback from employees.”

IU’s Porter said that while employers need to take turnover intentions more seriously, they often only do so after turnover occurs. Although employers often conduct exit interviews, it’s best to investigate attitudes while employees are still embedded in an organization, he explained. 

That way, “you can get a sense of whether or not employees are planning to stick around, why or why not, and attempt to do something about it.”

Porter’s paper is titled Examining the Effects of Turnover Intentions on Organizational Citizenship Behaviors and Deviance Behaviors.

Other co-authors are Jessica Siegel Christian, of the University of North Carolina; Aleksander Ellis, of the University of Arizona and lead author Ke Michael Mai, of the National University of Singapore.

September 1, 2016 - 11:52am