Employee retention is top-of-mind for any organization looking to stay competitive in today’s market. Despite swaths of technological advances, in our knowledge-based, global economy an organization’s key assets are still its employees. Considering this, substantial amounts of research have been published about potential predictors and causes of employee turnover. Most of this research can be classified into two categories: individual-level explanations (e.g., job satisfaction, person-job fit, etc.) or external and organizational-level explanations (e.g., unemployment rates, job demand, etc.). However, only having these two types of explanations ignores team-level and the inherent social aspects of turnover. Specifically, do the behaviors and attitudes of coworker's influence employee’s intentions to quit their jobs?
Quitting is infectious.
People regularly “catch” the feelings of those they work with, particularly in group settings. We’ve all been around someone at work whose sour mood set the tone for the day; their negative emotions dampened the mood of everyone else around them. Employee mood isn’t all that is affected. Surprisingly, the emotions of others influence judgment and business decisions – and this all typically happens without anyone realizing.
In a study on the spread of emotions, groups were created to judge how to best allocate funds in hiring decisions. A confederate (actor) was planted in each group and instructed to display one of four emotions: cheerful enthusiasm, serene warmth, hostile irritability, or depressed sluggishness. Not only did the emotions of the confederates spread to each member of the group but each group’s resulting judgments and behaviors were affected. In groups with a pleasant confederate, members displayed more cooperation, less conflict, and allocated funds more equitably than in groups with unpleasant confederate emotions.
In a related study, researchers looked into the contagion of social contexts on job behaviors. As it turns out, evidence suggests an employee’s decisions to voluntarily leave an organization is influenced by the attitudes and behaviors of their coworkers. They found evidence suggesting job embeddedness (how well employees feel they fit in with their job and the community) and job search behaviors of coworkers predict individual voluntary turnover. An employee’s job embeddedness is the relative strength of their organizational network; weaker bonds or links are easier to break. That is, if a coworker is low on organizational connection (e.g., fewer and weaker relationships with other organizational members) or engages in noticeable job-seeking behaviors (e.g., talking about an application or interview, expressing a desire to leave, quitting, etc.) their colleagues are more likely to choose to exit the organization. As can be imagined, this relationship is amplified when a coworker has both low job embeddedness and visible job-searching behaviors.
People leave organizations all the time. There are several reasons why employees decide to leave organizations - whether it be for personal (relocation of family member), professional (more pay, promotion, career change), or organizational (job or organization redesign). In fact, healthy businesses want some amount of turnover. However, in the case of turnover contagion, your employees are leaving simply because their colleagues are leaving. When a group of employees leave an organization in rapid cycle, it may be due to the influence of their immediate peer group and this should be cause for concern as turnover contagion is likely occurring.
The interplay of social contexts within an organization along with individual and organizational-level predictors adds more to our understanding of the complexity of employee turnover decisions. This is just one piece of the pie – and an important one. Understandably, more research needs to be conducted until just how this phenomenon works is understood, however, based on the evidence, organizations and leaders shouldn’t wait to act.
For one, it’s a tight labor market and has been for some time now. Overall, many employees are looking and leaving. There has been a cultural shift among workers where they feel increasingly less loyalty than before and are even more likely to job hop. To add to this, unemployment is at an all-time low and job growth is climbing. Meaning there are more open jobs than there are workers to fill them. It’s an applicant’s market. These factors, coupled with the sheer cost of replacing skilled employees – speculated to be a whopping 1.5 to 2 times an employee’s salary – should give pause to leaders when they suspect employees have caught the turnover bug.
On the bright side, turnover contagion can be minimized, and companies stand to reap plenty of rewards through emotional contagion. Just like negative emotions create a spiral of negativity, so too can emotions with a more positive valence. For example, leaders can use the infectious qualities of emotions to spread feelings of happiness by expressing gratitude or complementing someone. In addition, increasing job embeddedness and strengthen the bonds your employees have by building more connection with their team, leaders, and other departments can go a long way to reducing turnover.