Why Employees Leave

9 min. read

It's not simple -- and it's not what you think

In a 2022 survey, Human Resource professionals listed what they thought were the top three reasons for employee turnover. They chose inadequate pay (74%), lack of career advancement and development (61%), and lack of workplace flexibility (43%). In short, they thought that turnover was mainly caused by not paying enough, not creating opportunities for bigger roles and more skills, and not providing the right options for remote or hybrid work.

It's tempting to point to one main reason — or even three big reasons — why employees leave. The surveyed HR professionals responded based on their experiences in their own workplaces, and they responded with the limited answers they were allowed to choose. A deeper look shows how many factors go into employees decisions to stay or go.

As far back as 2000, workplace research has shown that turnover is driven by employees' feelings toward their job, their workplace, and the people they work with. These feelings can be broken down to dozens of measures: whether employees like their job duties, whether they feel support from their workplace, whether they feel a relationship a relationship with leadership, whether they like and have a connection to coworkers, whether they feel motivated by a sense of purpose, whether they think they have an ability to grow professionally, whether they like their overall compensation, and many others. In other words, the causes of turnover are "complex" meaning "a whole made up of many complicated or related parts."

Considered as a whole, this complex group of feelings could answer the question "are employees happy to be working here?" At Amazing Workplace, we call the whole group of feelings "Employee Happiness."

Employee feelings in each area of Employee Happiness contribute to the likelihood that employees will choose to stay. Of course, each workplace has its own strengths and challenges, so the major causes of turnover will vary significantly from one workplace to another. Still, some causes are commonly seen and have a larger share of the impact on turnover. There are some simple and powerful strategies for addressing these major causes.

Feeling Safe and Respected

One of the most fundamental aspects of developing long term commitment to a workplace is feeling safe and respected. Employees in workplaces that focus on leading with safety and respect show a 27% advantage in retention over those that don't. Employees who feel safe and respected are more receptive to guidance from leadership and more interested in helping the workplace improve. Employees who do not feel this way are operating based on fear that they could lose their job or be punished. Fear does not promote employees staying a long time; it actually causes employees to look around for a different, safer job.

  • Don't allow making fun of each other. Workplaces are places we go to work together, share ideas, and get things done. “Making fun” happens when employees and leaders mock, dismiss, or deride people for the things they say, the feelings they have, or because of who they are. When making fun is allowed in the workplace, employees get disconnected from each other, upsetting emotions bubble up, and communication breaks down. This destroys employees basic ability to contribute to the workplace and follow guidance from leadership.
  • Have regular check-in meetings. Don’t wait for employees to get stressed, overwhelmed, or fed-up before problems are identified. Providing employees a regular check-in meeting with their manager creates an opportunity to communicate about their needs or to vent about an upsetting experience. Depending on the team, check in meetings could be as often as weekly, but should be available at least monthly. Make sure that check-in meetings are a time to provide help and support—not a performance review.
  • Accept, acknowledge, and act on feedback. When you get feedback — whether from one-on-one communication or from an anonymous survey — acknowledge it. Approach positive feedback with celebration, and approach challenging or negative feedback with an open mind. Employees are bringing you information about their experience "on the ground." This is experience you may not be able to see, and it is a gift that may help the workplace make positive changes. When you act to improve or fix something in response to feedback, let employees know. They feel heard and respected when they know the workplace acted on their concerns.

Having Clear Expectations

Setting clear expectations at work is a quiet but essential piece of keeping employees. Employees feelings are motivated in large part by whether the workplace, the work, and the culture fit what they have been told to expect. When any of these things do not meet their expectations, they feel a sense of unfairness or even betrayal.

  • Share the culture and purpose before hiring. Devote time in the hiring and interview process to familiarize candidates with the culture in the company. Discuss how the company's mission and purpose shows up day-to-day, and ask employees for their thoughts to see if they relate. Consider team interviews, where a candidate's prospective team gets some time for an unstructured interview over lunch or coffee. This helps the employee see what kind of people and culture they can expect should they join.
  • Have a clear process for pay raises, assigned job duties, and promotion paths. A basic challenge of making employees happy is that workplaces do not have the resources to give every employee the pay, duties, and roles they would most prefer. The solution to this challenge is that workplaces can give employees the pay raises, duties, and roles that they they are told to expect.
  • For pay, this is done by setting out a detailed pay raise process that communicates the reasoning used and the comparison of their pay to similar positions elsewhere.
  • For job duties, this is done with a detailed, clear, and simply-written job description that leaders walk through with employees when they accept a role.
  • For role advancement, this is done by providing in advance the various roles that their position can advance to. Include a summary of the skills, level of achievement, and other objectives that employees must meet to be ready for promotion.

Experiencing Low Job Stress

Job stress is a top contributor to employees deciding to leave, and it can also cause prolonged periods of distracted work, burnout, or quiet-quitting (intentionally working less). In some workplaces, job stress can become the top driver of turnover. This happens when the workplace ignores the causes of stress, thinking that stress is the price of high productivity or the norm for the industry they work in. These are misconceptions, and there are always ways to improve work stress.

  • Celebrate achievements. Recognize teams and individuals for big wins. Use email, messaging, or live meetings to celebrate and encourage people for their accomplishments.
  • Work hard, play hard. Stress is lower in employees with a healthy work-life balance. No matter how intense the culture or the workload, make it normal and encouraged for employees to use the time off that they are awarded. Managers can help by touching base when employees haven't taken time off in a while. They can also assist by coordinating and covering in real time to make sure their teams can handle their personal, day-to-day needs without getting overwhelmed.
  • Adopt a more self-managed culture. Some workplaces closely monitor when employees are working and when they are not. This leads to employees worrying that they need to hide when they are taking time to do something fun or relaxing, like checking the news or sending personal messages. Offices like this have people suddenly minimizing windows on their computers when others walk by. Better to let employees know that they are expected to get all of their work done properly, on time, and meet the objectives in front of them. Then also assure them it’s okay to take time for personal interests and to take a break because they can manage their own workload.

Having Co-worker Connections

One reason employees choose to stay is because they feel sincerely connected to their coworkers and teammates. Similarly, employees are much more likely to think about leaving if they feel unconnected or distant from others at work. Nearly any workplace can drive down turnover by strengthening team bonds.

  • Give teams time to bond. Set aside daily or weekly time each for teams to spend time together. Let them set the tone and use it to show appreciation for each other, socialize, play games, or tell corny (work-appropriate) jokes.
  • Create opportunities for new employees to connect from the beginning. Ensure that onboarding processes expose new employees to lots of coworkers and teammates. Pair new employees with friendly, experienced employees who know lots of other people they'll be working with. These "orientation buddies" can introduce them to people and start things off on the right foot. Have orientation include a team lunch or a fun group activity, and consider doing something off-site together.
  • Provide spaces that encourage casual communication. In physical workspaces, make sure there is ample and comfortable space for employees to meet up (preferably not the same place they eat). Unscheduled chats and spur-of-the moment games are the bread and butter of employee relationships, and it's much easier if they don't have to do it in their offices. In remote and hybrid workplaces, consider providing remote meeting rooms that are open during specified hours just for employees to chat or work alongside each other.

Amazing Workplace provides the world's first Employee Happiness Survey and a platform designed and built to help workplaces improve turnover, productivity, and company performance. If you'd like to learn more about us, or just trade happy workplace stories, start here or email us at info@amazingworkplace.com.