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Is quitting contagious? 5 ways to fight turnover contagion

April 6, 2022 - 17 min read

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What is turnover contagion?

What causes turnover contagion?

The impact of turnover contagion

How can employers prevent turnover contagion?

It’s called turnover contagion. (And, no, it’s not a new HBO special.)

You might’ve heard of this viral effect seeping into workplaces. Or, like me, you might’ve experienced it. 

At my previous company, I was the fifth person to leave the team in less than four months. Within six months' time, nearly half of my old team had moved onto new roles. One-by-one, my previous team had essentially disintegrated.

As of March 2022, 44% of employees are job seekers. The pandemic spurred a movement — the Great Resignation — of employees looking for their next big opportunity. And while people are quitting their jobs in search of purpose, meaning, and opportunity, it’s also possible something else is at play. 

Amid this mass exodus of employees quitting their jobs is it possible that quitting is contagious? What contributes to turnover in your organization? Are you seeing trends in your workforce?

Turnover contagion could be spreading like wildfire. Here’s what it is, how it impacts your company, and how you can prevent it.

What is turnover contagion? 

Before we get into how to solve turnover contagion, let’s understand the definition of turnover contagion. 

Much like an illness, turnover contagion spreads and negatively impacts a business. LinkedIn ran an online poll to test the science. The result? The poll reported that 59% of respondents have considered leaving their job as a result of a colleague’s resignation. 

So what causes turnover contagion? Let’s dig into why this phenomenon is happening. 

inclusive-leadership-report-cta

What causes turnover contagion?

Let’s take a closer look at the causes of turnover contagion. Here’s what we know. 

  •  Human beings tend to mimic behaviors 
  •  Employees are already leaving their jobs in masses 
  •  No one wants to be the last person standing 

Human beings tend to mimic behaviors 

Human beings are social, complex creatures. We crave connection. We pick up on social cues, behaviors, and feelings. We’re emotional and intuitive. 

So when it comes to the workplace, it’s no surprise that the same trends emerge. Science tells us that humans mimic behaviors in the workplace, even down to what you eat for lunch. These social situations — especially in the workplace — breed mimicry. 

So when it comes to turnover contagion, to some degree, it’s human nature. 

Employees are already leaving their jobs in masses

What happens when you pair human nature with the Great Resignation? Or, rather, the Great Reshuffle, or the Great Realignment. 

Regardless of what this movement is called, it’s because employees are pursuing their purpose. As a result of the pandemic, people have looked inward. They’ve realized what matters most to them and how they want to live their lives. They’ve reshuffled their priorities. They’ve found clarity and are in pursuit of their purpose. 

And on the heels of record numbers of employees quitting their jobs trails the contagion effect. 

turnover-contagion-woman-stressed

No one wants to be the last person standing 

I had a virtual goodbye party with friends and colleagues from my old company just prior to my departure. I was the fifth person to leave the team in the span of a few months. In this virtual Zoom room, my friends and colleagues all expressed the same sentiment.

“We don’t want to be the last people holding this team together.” 

And truthfully, I wouldn’t want to be the last person standing either. When employees leave, it has a negative ripple effect on the remaining teammates and the larger business.

For the business, it can be costly from a financial perspective and interfere with business continuity. When too many people leave a team in a short period of time, important work may not get done on schedule and strategic initiatives have to be deprioritized. It can be distracting or demoralizing and doesn’t help your employees’ mental fitness.

For the team, it can increase the workload for teammates, cause more uncertainty and stress, and spark insecurity and dissatisfaction. For the teammates who were perfectly happy in the job, suddenly everything has changed. And, they may feel a fear of missing out on better opportunities or a bump in salary.

Is turnover contagious? 

Short answer: yes. Turnover can catch like wildfire, spurring two-week notices from even the highest performers on your team. 

Research backs this up. A study by the Academy of Management Journal explored this idea of turnover contagion. In many ways, it's similar to emotional contagion. Science tells us that employees who are “embedded in their jobs” play a critical role in why they quit. In fact, it can introduce the option of quitting and make it more likely. 

Basically, this means that if you have a close relationship with your co-workers, you’re more like to be influenced by their behaviors. And when those co-workers decide to quit, it can influence your decision to also quit. 

Your human resource management team probably has a close pulse on what turnover looks like in your organization. With your HR team, you can help look for determinants of turnover contagion. 

The impact of turnover contagion

Turnover already comes at a cost for organizations.  

The average cost to replace one employee ranges from one-half to two times their annual salary. Pre-pandemic, Gallup reported that turnover costs US businesses one trillion dollars. (Yes, you read that number right.) 

So when employees leave en masse, it comes at a steep price. Financially speaking, organizations purge money every time an employee quits. 

But beyond the financials, turnover contagion can impact organizations in other ways. Turnover contagion can serve as a catalyst for low morale and employee engagement. When colleagues see other colleagues quitting in droves, it doesn’t make for a motivating work environment. 

Turnover contagion can also negatively impact company culture. Employees start freaking out, managers are stressed and short-staffed. Psychological safety can take a hit. And with it, so can the sense of belonging

Re-distributed work to the remaining employees can lead to an intrusion on work-life balance. As the workload increases, burnout rates can rise at a high cost to individuals and the organization. And, for employees who are already juggling personal responsibilities and perhaps feeling caregiver fatigue, it can push people to their edge.

turnover-contagion-employees-at-coffee

How can employers prevent turnover contagion?

While it’s not possible to bulletproof your organization against turnover, there are measures you can take to prevent turnover contagion. Here are five ways employers can prevent turnover contagion. 

1. Provide career and learning opportunities 

Employees are hungry for growth opportunities. Does your organization promote career mobility internally? How are you supporting learning pathways? Is there an opportunity for upskilling? Can your employees learn new things and challenge themselves? Are there new learning programs or perks you can implement? What new opportunities are you providing to your employees? 

Take a look at how you’re supporting your employees’ learning and professional development. By doing so, you might be able to encourage growth from within instead of losing employees to outside roles. 

2. Provide access to personalized coaching 

Turnover contagion has real impacts on any business, no matter how prepared you may feel to weather resignations.

Remember that direct managers have the biggest influence over the employee experience. When you’re up against the Great Resignation, investing in managers and building their skills for inclusive leadership in a hybrid environment becomes even more important. If employees aren’t feeling connected to their manager or team, they won’t hesitate to leave. 

Turnover contagion has real impacts on any business, no matter how prepared you may feel to weather resignations. With BetterUp, your organization can be well-equipped to handle the uncertainty and change that comes your way. And by investing in coaching, your leaders can build mental fitness, even on the shakiest of grounds. 

Our research found that managers who are thriving lead teams that are 31% more productive. These same managers have direct reports who are 78% less likely to leave voluntarily. They’re also able to recover from setbacks stronger and are 22% more satisfied with their jobs. 

3. Create spaces for feedback 

Feedback — positive and negative — is critical to any organization. Without a platform for feedback, employees don’t have a way to be heard. It’s especially important to gather feedback from peer groups, like ERGs

Do you have a safe place for employees to provide feedback? How often are your managers asking for upward feedback? Do you reinforce constructive feedback with positive feedback? Are you conducting exit interviews? Do you know what job satisfaction looks like in your organization?

Listen to your employees' feedback attentively. You might be able to adjust accordingly before they start looking elsewhere. 

4. Practice future-mindedness 

Ambiguous situations are inherently stressful. And the same goes for when employees are facing change and uncertainty. That’s where future-mindedness comes in. 

A future-minded leader is a person who is pragmatic and optimistic. It’s also a leader who realistically explores what the future looks like — the good and the bad. 

A future-minded leader plans for the worst-case scenario, even if it’s unlikely to happen. The benefits of an organization practicing future-mindedness? It can actually help your workforce planning. Teams are more resilient, more engaged, and perform better than teams without a future-minded leader.

But in order to do so, your leaders need to be prepared. Let’s say your company is planning a major reorganization. Different teams are moving to different parts of the business. Roles are changing, new leaders are taking on new employees, and uncertainty is at an all-time high. 

Consider how virtual coaching can help your leaders practice future-mindedness. In what ways can you equip your workforce to be better prepared to navigate uncertainty? How can your leaders help quell concerns in their teams? 

turnover-contagion-coworkers-collaborating

5. Understand the root cause 

This last and final recommendation comes with a footnote. Only you and your company leaders can understand your organization’s predictors of turnover contagion. 

People are leaving their jobs for many reasons. While it’d be easier to have a simple solution to the problem, it’s simply not the case.

Consider leveraging feedback tools to help understand why employees are leaving. You might send out an employee engagement survey to gather data and feedback. Or you could conduct focus groups, listening tours with managers, or even an open Q&A in a company town hall. 

Whatever it is, get to the root of the cause at your company. Work with your HR leaders to help put together a plan. And take some time for self-reflection and analysis. It’s important that companies look at the feedback with a lens of seeking to understand. 

It might seem counterintuitive, but learn to let go.

In a time of such unprecedented change and headlines screaming about the opportunities to be found in quitting, some employees will leave. Make sure their exit is designed to be as amicable as possible — happy leavers bring happy returns and quality referrals. Company alumni and boomerang hires will likely be a rich source of talent for the foreseeable future. 

Stop the turnover spread 

Employee turnover and employee retention are top of mind for organizations everywhere. We know that job search behaviors influence quitting, which means turnover contagion is real. 

It’s proven how coworkers’ job embeddedness has an impact on an employee’s decision to pursue a new job. But it’s important that organizations understand they can help curb turnover contagion. 

With BetterUp, your organization can be better equipped to navigate change and uncertainty. By providing your employees with personalized coaching, you’re investing in their well-being. But you’re also investing in your business. 

Start retaining your talent. Help unlock the potential of your workforce with some help from BetterUp. Together, we can help your employees live with greater purpose, clarity, and passion

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Published April 6, 2022

Madeline Miles

Madeline is a writer, communicator, and storyteller who is passionate about using words to help drive positive change. She holds a bachelor's in English Creative Writing and Communication Studies and lives in Denver, Colorado. In her spare time, she's usually somewhere outside (preferably in the mountains) — and enjoys poetry and fiction.

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