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Feb 21, 2014

There were a lot of short-sighted things done to workers by their employers during the Great Recession.

I thought that once the economy improved and the job situation returned to normal again, well, the tables would be turned and that large numbers of employees would remember how they had been treated and bolt at the first opportunity.

Well, that shows you what I know.

The Great Recession turned into the not-so-great jobless recovery, and despite the overblown talk about employee shortages and a skills gap, it’s still pretty much a buyer’s market when it comes to talent.

A study that helps predict when workers are ready to quit

But, that doesn’t mean that  workers won’t look for greener pastures if they get a chance, and that’s why this study from a professor at Utah State University is worth taking a good look at.

The underlying premise is simple: there are tell-tale signs that employees give off, and that others can pick up, when they are getting ready to quit.

Yes, this may be information that may be useful for HR pros and talent managers in the not-too-distant future.

Tim Gardner, a Utah State University associate professor at the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business, has completed a study on voluntary turnover, and one of the key findings is that employees who were getting ready to quit began to “disengage” in the workplace a month or two before their actual departure.

Some of the tell-tale signs

He also came up with some examples of subtle but consistent behavioral changes people often make in the one to two months before they leave their job. These include:

  • They offered fewer constructive contributions in meetings.
  • They were more reluctant to commit to long-term projects.
  • They become more reserved and quiet.
  • They became less interested in advancing in the organization.
  • They were less interested in pleasing their boss than before.
  • They avoided social interactions with their boss and other members of management.
  • They suggested fewer new ideas or innovative approaches.
  • They began doing the minimum amount of work needed and no longer went beyond the call of duty.
  • They were less interested in participating in training and development programs.
  • Their work productivity went down.

I didn’t find any of these characteristics all that surprising, but Gardner said he found that if employees were demonstrating at least six of these behaviors, his statistical formula could predict with 80 percent accuracy that they were about to leave the organization.

Not all behaviors you might expect made the list

Gardner, who worked with Huntsman professor Steve Hanks and Chad H. Van Iddekinge, of Florida State University on the study, also said the list of indicators that might tip a boss that someone was thinking of leaving were not surprising. What was unexpected, he added, were the behaviors that did not make the list.

“People having a lot of ‘doctor’s appointments,’ showing up to work in a suit, or leaving a resume on the printer were the kind of signs that dropped off the list,” Gardner said in a press release about the survey. “You might think that someone who starts showing up to work late, failing to return phone calls and emails, and taking lots of sick days might be about to leave, but those weren’t unique behaviors that applied only to the quitters.”

Gardner said that in today’s competitive business environment, where companies invest a lot in their top performers, this information might help managers find ways to keep people on board.

He said the “dark side” of his research was that some employers may opt to let people go if they thought they were going to leave anyway. Gardner said research has shown that people who are contemplating a job change are more likely to share company secrets or do things to sabotage the organization’s goals.

I haven’t seen the actual study, but reportedly, the research done by Gardner and his team went far beyond shipping out a simple survey asking employers for their best guesses on what signs might indicate an employee is unhappy. They used a complex statistical methodology as they conducted three different studies, using seven different samples, that included undergraduate students, graduate students, managers and other business leaders from around the world.

Some behaviors “are hard to disguise”

And, Gardner added this point that is well worth remembering: “It appears that a person’s attitude can create behaviors that are hard to disguise. As the grass starts to look greener on the other side of the fence to you, chances are that others will soon notice that you’ve lost your focus.”

The research isn’t publicly available just yet, but I will make it available here on TLNT when it is. What it does do, however, is show again that managers need to really spend time with their team and look for subtle signs of unhappiness and disengagement.

Figuring out who might be at risk to leave is the first big step in helping to keep them on board. And, and a solid employee you can keep in the fold is one less employee you need to recruit, hire, and train again. That’s a costly proposition you want to avoid at all costs.

Of course, there’s more than the tell-tale signs an employee is getting ready to quit in the news this week. Here are some HR and workplace-related items you may have missed. This is TLNT’s weekly round-up of news, trends, and insights from the world of talent management. I do it so you don’t have to.

  • How jerk bosses can make people worse at their jobs. Fast Company always seems to have intriguing stories, and this one — Why Jerk Bosses Make People Worse at Their Jobs — seems to be particularly timely. Here’s the gist of it: “Cultures replicate themselves because senior people model behavior to junior people: “I went through this, so you should to” is a suiting refrain. As The New Yorker has reported, one reason so many of us work insane hours is because our bosses do the same. Same goes for the entrenchment of jerkiness; to not be cruel to your employee is to be “soft,” and soft is bad. To put it in marketing speak, jerkiness needs a rebranding. It should be acknowledged by leadership as idea-stifling rather than as a badge of honor, as sociologist Brené Brown is always reminding us. But it’s not that the jerks and bullies are evil; they just have low emotional intelligence, which can be corrected for — given the right kind of conversation.”
  • LA City Council studying a minimum wage hike to $15.37. What would happen if your community mandated an out-of-this-world minimum wage increase for just one single industry? So it is goes in Los Angeles, where labor groups are targeting the hotel and lodging industry for a hike to $15.37. As the Los Angeles Times reports, “City Council members opted Tuesday to seek an economic study before moving to enact one of the highest minimum wages in the country — $15.37 for workers at big hotels — a review that opponents hoped would slow or stop the proposal. … If the council members’ recommendation goes ahead, the city’s chief legislative analyst would hire an outside consultant to review the “citywide economic impact” of a wage nearly double the California minimum of $8.”
  • Is there a war for talent when it comes to circus clowns? There seem to be a lot of jobs available if you happen to have the skills to be a circus clown. As the New York Daily News reports, “As the “Greatest Show on Earth” returns to Brooklyn Thursday, circus folk fear a national clown shortage is on the horizon. Membership at the country’s largest trade organizations for the jokesters has plunged over the past decade as declining interest, old age and higher standards among employers align against Krusty, Bozo and their crimson-nosed colleagues. “What’s happening is attrition,” said Clowns of America International President Glen Kohlberger, who added that membership at the Florida-based organization has plummeted since 2006. “The older clowns are passing away.”
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