How to tell if an employee wants to leave and how you can keep them

People keep quitting their job at record levels. According to a report conducted by management consulting company McKinsey, 41% of Australian workers are considering leaving their job in the next three-to-six months. Despite this, companies aren’t looking out for the telltale signs of disillusionment and are still trying to attract and retain employees in the same old ways...

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Signs an employee is looking to quit 

creative man with computer working at night office

While you can never be sure, and it’s important not to jump to conclusions, the signs an employee is looking for a different job include:

  1. They appear more distracted than usual
    When an employee becomes distracted from their work more often than usual, this could be a sign that they’re losing interest and motivation to work. Chances are if they’re not invested in the work they’re doing, they’re going to start looking elsewhere for a new challenge in a new environment. If you notice that your employee is using their phone, taking calls and popping in and out of the office regularly, then this could be a sign that they’re talking to a recruiter or hiring manager at another company.
  2. They’re taking more days off
    Poor attendance is a common sign that an employee wants to leave. Most job applications need to take place during working hours, and the same goes for interviews, so if your employee is booking days off at short notice, it’s possible that they’re making arrangements to attend interviews. 
  3. Their appearance changes
    If you notice an employee turning up to work overdressed, it can indicate that they are having an interview elsewhere. On the flip side, an employee who is regularly underdressing can be a sign that they have lost interest in their role.
  4. They have asked for more and have been denied
    Whether an employee has been denied a pay rise, a promotion or a training course, if they have been let down by management, they are more likely to search for what they requested elsewhere. As we’ll go on to discuss, remuneration and good job growth are key drivers for a traditional worker. 
  5. They’re gossiping or arguing with staff
    When people decide that their current job is no longer for them because they’re unhappy with the culture, the pay, or the opportunities, they can quickly spread their feelings to other staff members. It’s not uncommon for people to encourage others to leave their jobs, just because the company isn’t right for them.

If you notice any of these signs, it’s important that their manager talks to them in private to see if the suspicions are correct. While you can’t stop an employee from leaving if they want to, talking to them before they hand in their notice can give you a chance to alleviate their concerns or negotiate their stay.  

Ideally, managers should be regularly checking in with their team to ensure it doesn’t get to this stage. It’s important to remember that, sometimes, employees don’t know how (or don’t have the confidence) to raise an issue with their line manager, so it’s imperative leadership open up lines of communication. 

What does the workforce value most in a job?

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Before we discuss how organisations can best retain and attract employees, it’s important to understand what this labour market craves the most. The research conducted by McKinsey outlined two key areas of evaluation. 

The first was the most common reasons why people choose a traditional work role:

  1. Career development and advancement 
  2. Adequate total compensation 
  3. Meaningful work
  4. Workplace flexibility 
  5. Reliable and supportive people at work 
  6. Support for health and wellbeing 
  7. Sustainable work expectations 
  8. Caring and inspiring leaders 
  9. Inclusive and welcoming community 
  10. Geographic ties and travel demands
  11. Safe workplace environment 
  12. Resource accessibility 

The second was the four main reasons why people chose to leave their roles in the last two years:

  1. Uncaring leaders
  2. Inadequate compensation
  3. Lack of career advancement
  4. The absence of meaningful work

How to attract and retain workers

Business team celebrating a good job in the office

On paper, the answer to retaining workers and attracting talent appears relatively simple:

  • To lower turnover: organisations need to address the four key issues that encourage people to leave their employer.
  • To attract more talent: organisations should focus their efforts on the aforementioned 12 points, paying particular attention to the top five issues.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the whole story. For traditional workers, these strategies would be effective. 

Traditional workers = people who care about work–life balance but are willing to make trade-offs for the sake of their jobs. They are motivated to work full-time for large companies in return for a competitive compensation package and perks, a good job title, status at the company, and career advancement. If they do leave their jobs, they are likely to be wooed into a return by a traditional value proposition such as higher pay.

However, for the non-traditional workers (such as students, temporary workers and on-call workers), their needs depend on their persona. These include:

1) The do-it-yourselfers: Anything for autonomy
This persona, comprising the largest share of the market, values workplace flexibility, meaningful work, and compensation as the top motivators for potentially returning to the traditional workforce. This group wants flexibility above all else. Attracting and retaining this cohort may be difficult, because organisations must show that what they offer is better than what these workers have created for themselves.

2) The caregivers and others: At home but wanting more
Members of this group consist of more women than men and are motivated by compensation but have other priorities too, including:
— workplace flexibility,
— support for employee health and wellbeing, and
— career development.
Organisations can attract this group by normalising and widening the use of parental leave and offering parents more flexibility around school holidays.

3) The idealists: Students and younger part-timers
Mostly unburdened by children, mortgages, and other responsibilities, this group emphasises flexibility, career development and advancement potential, meaningful work, and a community of reliable and supportive people, with compensation far lower on the list. To woo them, companies have to offer flexibility, of course, but also demonstrate a willingness to invest in this group’s development and create a strong organisational culture that emphasises meaning and purpose.

4) The relaxers: Career doesn’t come first anymore
The people in this group are a mix of retirees, those not looking for work, and those who might return to traditional work under the right circumstances. They have completed their traditional careers and might not need more money to live comfortably. So, they will want more than the traditional value proposition to be enticed back into the workforce — including the promise of meaningful work. Communication with them can sometimes be key here for organisations and employers who had positive relationships with previous employees should consider reaching out to them to see if they can find the right balance to win those people back.

To address the attrition/attraction problem in the long term, companies can take four actions.

  1. They can sharpen their traditional employee value proposition, which involves focusing on title, career paths, compensation, benefits, having a good boss, and the overall prestige of the company.
  2. They can build their non-traditional value proposition, which revolves around flexibility, mental- and behavioural health benefits, a strong company culture, and different forms of career progression.
  3. Companies can broaden their talent-sourcing approach, especially since some non-traditionalists are not actively looking but would come back for the right offer.
  4. Organisations can make jobs “sticky” by investing in more meaning, more belonging, and stronger team and other relational ties. Building these organisational attributes will also make it harder for traditionalists to go elsewhere for a bit more pay.

While organisations don’t necessarily need to reinvent their employee value proposition, they should concentrate on what their proposition is and better communicate their culture, purpose, and values to current and prospective employees. Most importantly, this offering needs to be authentic, because good employees know the difference! 

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