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Shocking managers may hold key to why top workers leave

14 September 2009

Employers wondering why some of their good employees are leaving should look at the behaviour of their managers, a Deakin University researcher believes.

Dr John McWilliams from Deakin’s Business School interviewed 62 technology workers who had voluntarily left their jobs with their employers.

“The problem was that these were high performing employees, an asset to the company and their employer didn’t want them to leave. Their departure was classified as regrettable, yet could have been avoided had the company taken the time to evaluate the relationship between the person and their manager and developed the interpersonal competencies of their senior staff,” Dr McWilliams explained.

Dr McWilliams said, although estimates vary depending on industry, departures generally cost business 1.5 to 2.5 times the person’s annual salary.

Unusually, his exploratory study looked at the events which precipitated the person’s decision to quit and the final shock or jarring event which challenged the way they thought about work and which finally led to their resignation. Such shocks are a very good predictor of turnover.

“The first and largest source of shocks was the behaviour of managers,” Dr McWilliams said.

“This ranged from controlling behaviour to a lack of social awareness.

“One person, for instance, had been doing two jobs clocking up 350 hours of overtime. His request for overtime payment was declined, then he was torn to shreds at a hostile performance review and offered an unacceptably low pay-rise.

“Another person decided to leave after she attempted a conversation about overwork and was told by her manager to ‘either go or stay’, so she went.

“One described being in a health emergency with her child and was later chided by her manager, for having her mobile phone switched off during this time.”

Dr McWilliams said another source of ‘shock’ were calls from head hunters.

“Many people reported regular ‘testing’ approaches from competitors and customers as a matter of course. For many the approach by the head hunter was the final resolution of an accumulation of dissatisfaction.”

Dr McWilliams said sometimes people decided to leave after they had had a break which allowed them time to think.

“One call centre manager, a single parent of a high needs child, described leaving the office late and getting stuck, at the gate, by traffic gridlock. Sitting in his car this individual decided enough was enough.

“Another found herself sitting in the car park of a hospital in a country town while her father-in-law- was dying. She was on a conference call between Singapore and the US which was going through budgets. She just stopped and asked herself what the hell is going on.”

Dr McWilliams said stories like these went unnoticed in exit surveys. “It is so difficult to collect the data. No-one tells the truth in exit surveys. Companies pay lip service to these anyway. They should not be carried out by HR, or the manager, but an independent third party who can give you the bad or good news.”

News facts
  • Shock events may help to predict turnover
  • Behaviour of managers key to why top employees leave
  • Employees’ stories go unnoticed in exit surveys

Media contact

Dr John McWilliams
Deakin Business School
03 9244 5539
john.mcwilliams@deakin.edu.au

Dr John McWilliams speaks about the impact of management behaviour on staff turnover.

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10th November 2009