Despite a century of speculation by managers and scholars, we know very little about whether certain cues or signs exhibited by employees can predict whether they're about to quit.
To help managers and companies identify employees at risk of quitting, we investigated this very question and uncovered a set of behavioral changes exhibited by employees—what we dub pre-quitting behaviors—that are strong predictors of voluntary quits in the 12 months after they are observed by managers. Our inquiry was inspired by a study by evolutionary psychologists David Buss and Todd Shackelford showing that romantic partners give off cues that indicate whether they are committing infidelity. A series of classic studies by psychologist John Gottman supports this, identifying how certain verbal and nonverbal cues expressed by married couples during brief videotaped interactions can forecast their eventual divorce.
But the romantic realm isn't the only place where cues can take place. Poker players give off "tells" that reveal the strength of their hands, while American football players read their rivals' behaviors to decide how they will act after the ball is snapped. And research shows that criminals have become savvy at identifying informants or undercover officers in their midst.
To understand how tells might play out in the workplace, we first sought to identify a large set of behavioral changes employees exhibit that signal their future turnover. We asked nearly 100 managers to answer the following question: Think for a moment of the peers and subordinates who have voluntarily quit your organization in the last two years. How was their behavior different in the months prior quitting that might have told you they were on their way out? We also asked 100 employees to describe their own changes in behavior before leaving a previous job. These inquiries yielded over 900 different pre-quitting behaviors. The survey respondents reported…
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