The Science Behind Voluntary Turnover


 By Helen Luketic, CHRP

 There’s a science behind Human Resources that is part psychology and part sociology with some economics thrown in. As such, there is significant research behind employee behaviour. The latest article in the Academy of Management Journal[1]provides some convincing evidence as to why your employees are leaving and what you can do about it.

Voluntary Turnover 101
There are two general reasons why an employee quits their job:

Micro-level: In this case, the employee is dissatisfied with their job or lacks commitment to the organization. The terms “job satisfaction” and “employee satisfaction” have so many different interpretations but for academic researchers, they describe this individual-level dissatisfaction as job embeddedness:

  •  How well people fit in their jobs (e.g. skills are well suited to the work assigned) and fit in their community (e.g. they like the amenities a community provides)
  •  The interpersonal links they have on and off the job (e.g. the number of ties to coworkers and the community)
  • What they would have to give up or sacrifice in leaving their place of employment or community (e.g. what opportunities would they forgo if they left the organization)

Job embeddedness has been widely proven to be a significant cause of voluntary turnover.

Macro-level: the economy and labour supply/demand impacts how easy it is for an employee to go work elsewhere.

The Micro and Macro Go Together like Peanut Butter and Jelly
If an employee is not embedded in their current job and if at the macro-level several other job opportunities exist, the employee is more likely to resign.

Dissatisfied Employee + Right Economic Conditions
= Increase in Voluntary Turnover


Understand Psychology and You’ll Understand Turnover
Now researchers have discovered a third level, called the meso-level, to explain what’s so far been difficult to explain. Ultimately, what role do coworkers play in voluntary turnover rates? A previous article discussed the link between layoffs and voluntary turnover. In sum, when there are layoffs in an organization, other (sometimes valuable) employees choose to leave, too. When an employee is no longer embedded in their job and see coworkers are leaving, they are more likely to resign.

This research confirms the psychological phenomenon that “people rely on others to help define reality in ambiguous circumstances”.[2] When at the micro-level, employees have low job embeddedness, they start looking at their coworkers for clues on whether or not they should leave. If their coworker is searching for a job, so they will likely start searching, too. “Withdrawal behaviours carried out at the group level… influence the probability that individuals do the same.” If an employee gets the social cue that others are frequently late for work or calling in “sick”, they are more likely to do so too.

Dissatisfied Employee + Right Economic Conditions + Coworkers Talking About Leaving
= Increase in Voluntary Turnover

Voluntary Turnover is Essentially Caused by One Thing
The reason that employees leave an organization all stem down to one key factor: job embeddedness. If you fail to increase job embeddedness, all you need is a good economy and you’ll get hit with more turnover.

As employees discuss applying for jobs with coworkers, voluntary turnover will increase yet again.

The only real way to manage voluntary turnover is to manage job embeddedness. After all, you can’t force your employees to stop talking to each other and you can’t control the economy.

Tips for the HR Pro or Manager
Here’s what researchers have discovered works best to prevent turnover:

  • Recruit for cultural fit.
  • Ensure that your selection techniques appropriately assess the candidate (job fit) and that the job description accurately reflects the job.
  • Make it hard for employees to leave their jobs and give them a lot to sacrifice if they do. Provide your employees with career opportunities. Offer customized benefits where you can to meet their needs, such as through a flexible benefits program.
  • Establish links to their coworkers and community. Give employees a social life at work. Provide avenues for social engagement. Give them a chance to become a part of the community by providing volunteer opportunities during work time.
  • When you need to hire, hire from within the community. There is a higher likelihood of turnover if the employee has to relocate.
  • Orient new employees and create a standard onboarding program. “Collective socialization tactics – where newcomers experience common learning experiences with a group or cohort – increase embeddedness in an organization. Such socialization tactics provide a common message about the organization, roles, and appropriate responses”.[3]

These tips are intuitive to an HR pro. However, you can now move forward knowing that research has proven that these are best practices.

Apply the Research a Step Further
Tracking voluntary turnover as one number for the entire organization is not the best tactic to gain information. This research describes turnover in its social context and how it spreads through an employee’s network. As such, measure voluntary turnover in the same way their social networks are mapped:

  • Job role (if there are several people in one type of job, e.g. customer service rep)
  • Job level (e.g. entry-level job)
  • Age-group (e.g. between 25-29 years old)
  • Department or Location (e.g. Downtown store)

Go forth and prosper, grasshopper.

[1] Felps, W., Mitchell, T., Hekman, D.R., Lee, T.W., Holtom, B.C., Harman, W.S. 2009. Turnover contagion: How coworkers’ job embeddedness and job search behaviours influence quitting. Academy of Management Journal, 52: 545-561.
[2]Ibid, page 547
[3]Ibid, page 557


Helen Luketic, CHRP brings more than nine years of HR experience to her current role as HRIS Analyst at Vancity, where she’s assisting the organization implement new HR systems and processes. For her innovative achievements at Vancity, Helen was the recipient of BC HRMA’s 2008 Rising Star Award. In her previous role as Manager, HR Metrics & Research at BC HRMA, she combined her CHRP, B.A. in Economics, HR information systems knowledge and experience in HR metrics to develop the HR Metrics Service and related workshops, presentations and webinars to teach HR professionals about HR metrics and benchmarking.

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