Why do people leave organisations?

19 December 2016 -


Why do people leave good jobs in good organisations? A deceptively simple, if paradoxical question. Of course it begs the question as to what is a good job… One man’s meat and all that…

Adrian Furnham

It is not too difficult to define a good job: good pay and conditions, low demands high control, a supportive boss and colleagues, opportunities for advancement and growth…blah blah.

But there are nearly always very serious trade-offs: money for stress.

What looks like an ideal job from the outside may be very different from the inside. The same is true of organisations: to the outsider they may seem ideal from every perspective but with insider knowledge tell a different story.

But there are very different approaches to jobs.Employment has changed and so have careers. The way people approached a career was characterized by many different strategies:

Drifters seemed rather directionless and unambitious. Some seemed not to be able to hold down a job for any period of time, but they had to be flexible and adaptable as they took on new jobs every so often.

Drifters could be seen by some people to be capricious, fickle, or even reckless.

More positively, they are adventurous and experimental. Life, they insist, is too short to remain in the same job. Time to move on, opportunistically grabbing at things that float by.

Lifers are the opposite of drifters – the lifer’s first job is their last. Although they might not have chosen their first job judiciously, or with foresight, they settled down for life.

Although this may be an excellent strategy if one is in a company on the move, it is more likely to be a trade-off of high risk/gain over security. Further, downsizing and restructuring has left them not very employable.

Lifers are loyal, but they are risk-averse, and liable to be alienated as performance management systems replace seniority-based or service ideologies.

In the old days you got rewarded by loyalty: now you are seen as rather sad.

Hoppers look like snakes and ladders experts. They seem to go up short ladders quite fast, perhaps in small companies or departments, but slide down slippery snakes as they change jobs in the search for betterment.

They lack the long-term vision of the planner, who has the whole journey mapped out. They may have made job move decisions too quickly, based on too little data.

Some whole industries encourage hopping: the only way you get up the ladder is to hop from one similar organisation to the next.

Planners have clear targets, sometimes over-ambitiously fantasised. They can articulate where they want to be at the big milestones of life (aged 40, 55 or 60). They may even cultivate head-hunters, apply (whimsically) for jobs on a regular basis, and update their CVs quarterly.

Planners are committed to their career development. They understand the modern world of portfolio management. They have a plan: five years here, two years there. There is a map, a destination and a travel plan.

Hobbyists are masters of this final strategy. Some are SOBOs – Shoved Out, but Better Off – but many, often in their 40s, become concerned with self-development. The hobbyist may take early retirement, turn to consultancy, or simply define quality of life as more important than the rat race.

This makes them interesting people, but not always deeply committed to the company’s interest. Work is a hobby for these people.

The career is dead

The career is dead – long live the career! Certainly, the long-service-in-one-organisation career is on the decline. The old career contract with the organisation is less relevant, the new contract is with oneself. The ability to have multiple careers, probably a better way of working than the temporary career, means that people will have to learn new skills and reinvent themselves.

We shall all need to be more feedback-seeking and more eager to learn from others. If you don’t know where you want to go, you will certainly end up somewhere you don’t want to be.

Chosen jobs need to fit ability and values, and a sense of identity. The use of support and affinity groups, networks and adult learning centres, is one of the best sources of help in personal career development. We shall all need to learn how to plan and develop our working careers in the future.

Paradoxically, learning from experience seems to be more critical than ever, yet past experience has less relevance to current experience, because of the speed of change.

In the new world of self-reliant careers, it will be essential for individuals to take an active role in steering their own ship and plotting their own course.

Compared with the past, there will need to be a higher degree of learning by oneself, of communicating with others, interdisciplinary work, working in groups and solving personal problems.

Personal initiative is more and more rewarded. Self-starters, the proactive and the persistent will inherit the earth.

All the shock headlines about ‘The end of the job’, ‘The age of downsizing’, ‘The outsourced manager’ do not mean that people are not interested in their careers. Organisational factors are becoming less important in determining individual career outcomes – personal identity and values, and interpersonal factors are becoming more important in shaping career directions and rewards.

Non-traditional careers will soon become traditional. The flexibility of opportunity structures and labour markets is growing. Organisations are preparing for the new and different needs of the new careerists.

Both the formal employment contract drawn up by companies and the psychological contract that temporary employees have with the organisation are being rethought and redrawn.

There is no going back. We are all careering in a new direction.

But when an organisation begins to feel that it is losing its best people, haemorrhaging its talent, or simply experiencing a sudden loss from particular departments or sections, questions have to be asked.

Most managers have their own theories as to why staff leave. These range from poor pay (which helps to explain why they can’t take the pressure) to a poor selection decision in the first place (no doubt made by someone else) or else the particular person refusing to fit in/adapt to the particular corporate climate.

But others are not so sure and try a bit of research. This usually involves little more than the increasingly popular interview given to those who voluntarily quit rather than those who are compulsorily fired or laid off.

The theory is that such interviews can fulfil simultaneously a number of functions.

They supposedly help an organisation modify causes of attrition and other festering corporate problems. They may help job-leavers by giving them a chance to ventilate anger or disappointment and lessen these emotions because the employer is seen to listen and care.

In this sense the exit interview is more about damage control and prevention. Psychologists call it catharsis.

At the most mundane level, exit interviews are about ‘leaving protocol’ including the orderly and sensible recovery of employer property (passes, badges) and ensuring that buildings and accounts remain secure.

How do they work? The exit interviewer is usually chosen from the HR function deliberately so as not to have been the “exitees” line manager. Ideally, they are benevolent, avuncular, “good listeners” who take the departing employee’s side.

They are trained to be like clinicians and counsellors: non-judgmental, focused entirely on the employee and his/her experience. They have a set of standard open-ended questions the very last of which is “what are the main motives for you leaving?” They are trained to ask questions like:

  • How did you feel you were managed during your time with us? 
  • In general, how do you feel this organisation is run? 
  • What could have persuaded you to stay with us another five years? 
  • Looking back, what are the worst decisions you/your boss/the management made? 
  • What did you enjoy most/least about your time with us? 
  • Who/what will you miss most/least in the organisation? 
  • How would you rate the work climate/corporate culture? 
  • What did you think about your performance and salary reviews? 
  • What are the fundamental things we need to change to avoid losing other good employees like you?

What is interesting about these questions is that should all have been asked earlier…probably by the boss at progress review. The fact that no one asked the questions (save the last) is no doubt a partial indicator of why the person chose to leave in the first place!

Interviewers should expect the unexpected emotional outburst: rage, tears, shouting. They should take rough notes, including whether they would rehire the person if they applied; or, more poignantly, what lessons there are to be learnt for hiring others in the future.

Part of their agenda is to understand the exitees’ view of their compensation and benefits package and to influence it where appropriate.

The factors influencing departure are well known. They are both push and pull factors: unhappiness at the place of work combined with the attraction of other jobs (grass being greener). Factors cited include quality of supervision; relations with co-workers and subordinates; work load; job security; flexibility of working hours; salary and benefits; location/commuting distance; personal family matters.

From the employer’s point of view, the idea of the exit interview is eminently sensible. In fact, it benefits the employer most. It can gather useful information, soothe psychological wounds and prevent people turning into whistle-blowers and terrorists, subverting the organisation’s reputation after they have left.

But from the point of view of the job-leaver, it has few benefits.

It is tempting when faced by a sympathetic senior person in the organisation, to unload one’s frustration and fury built up over the years. The data-dump of emotions may feel cathartic but is probably ill advised.

It is unwise to burn your bridges if you are in a small world – small town, small sector, senior levels. What goes around comes around. Remember the organisation takes notes on what you say at the exit interview. It still goes in your file.

The best pieces of advice are two fold: dissimulate or remain stumm.

You should not say, even if true, that your boss was a dim, irascible, egocentric psychopath. The line to take is that he/she was competent and professional but that you two had a “personality clash”…an excellent “catch-all” but meaningless term to cover all disagreements.

Don’t say your work was humdrum, stressful or tedious…talk of moving on to new challenges to upgrade your portfolio and extend your horizons. Don’t bad-mouth your colleagues, even if they were backstabbing, unsupportive, weirdos. Say (persuasively) that you will miss the companionship and helpfulness of your work group and the friendly atmosphere you experienced.

Be warm and regretful or act like a prisoner of war giving name, rank and serial number …and that’s all. Hand over the keys and bric-a-brac and leave. Never apologise and never explain. And, do not sign anything.

They may want you to sign the interviewers’ notes or some other prepared statement by the HR function. If pressed to sign a document, say something about sending it to your lawyer for a quick verification. Chances are you won’t hear a thing ever again.

Paranoia may be healthy. HR practitioners are told that a good exit interview may help limit costly legal action and other bad publicity by a disgruntled employee. Remember the notes of the exit interviewer could always be Exhibit A in some file somewhere.

One of the main problems of the interview, however, is timing. People in the grieving business talk of a wet and dry ceremony. The burial/cremation is full of shock and tears; the gathering to celebrate someone’s life held six months later is altogether more measured; more balanced.

The emotional stress of leaving (even in the most happy of circumstances) can lead to inaccurate, unreliable exchanges from both parties. Resentment overcomes reason, emotion overcomes evaluation.

The grief process takes time and people can reflect more accurately on what they miss, have lost and feel. Thus it may be best to have an exit interview 6-9 months after the person has left. They may be invited out to or back to lunch to discuss, on reflection, the issues the company wants to know about.

The advice for the existing employee remains the same… but from the company point of view it means they may gather some really useful intelligence from the delayed exit interview if they know what they are doing.

Adrian Furnham is a business psychologist and author of 80 books and 1,000 scientific papers. He is an adjunct professor at the Norwegian Business School. Find his website here: www.adrianfurnham.com

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