The Turnover Plague


By Kyla Nicholson, CHRP

As indicated by the HR Metrics Service, voluntary turnover is on the rise; in fact, something of a ‘turnover contagion’ appears to be in season.

Have you ever noticed that once one wedding invitation arrives, several others quickly follow? Before you know it, you have an enormous amount of points on your VISA courtesy of wedding gifts, and not a single weekend to yourself between May and September. It’s commonly called “wedding fever”, and once one couple puts their wedding invite in the mail, the contagion spreads like wild fire.

If you’ve had the opportunity to be in the workforce for a substantial period of time, you may have also noticed something similar happens in your office social circle. When one person starts to pull away from the office community, search for job alternatives and eventually leave, others follow. This isn’t because they realize it’s nice to have other people to go for lunch with when they’re unemployed, it’s because, like wedding fever, turnover is also influenced by the social behaviours of those around you.

Research into turnover has most commonly focused on the individual factors (e.g., how satisfied you are at work or committed you are to work, etc.), or economic and organizational factors (e.g., job supply and demand, institutional changes within industries, etc.). In the 2009 study Turnover Contagion: How Coworkers’ Job Embeddedness and Job Search Behaviours Influence Quitting, Felps et al studied the impact of social influences on decisions to quit. When you think back to “wedding fever”, what they find might not be so surprising.

Felps et al conducted two studies with large samples in very different work settings. The first looked at the impact of job embeddedness on predicting turnover. Job embeddedness is distinct from engagement. It looks at how people fit and their interpersonal connections to their jobs and community, and what leaving their job would mean (e.g., what they would have to sacrifice). They found that a significant relationship exists between coworkers’ job embeddedness and individual voluntary turnover. In other words, if coworkers were not embedded, individuals were more likely to quit. In fact, this was the case even when coworkers’ job satisfaction and organizational commitment were controlled. Thus it seems like the struggle to connect with those who are disconnected, ultimately prevents individuals from embedding in their organizations.

In the second study, Felps et al sought to replicate the results from the first study and enhance understanding of coworker behaviours that explain the effect of coworkers’ job embeddedness on individual turnover. The study found that low coworker job embeddedness results in increased job search behaviours (e.g., updating resumes, looking at job postings, applying for new positions, etc.), which then leads to increased individual turnover.

People look to those around them to help them embed in their job, and for cues as to how to behave and value their job. As a result of the research, we are able to see that turnover propensity spreads from coworkers to individuals, and we can draw the analogy of a turnover contagion here.

The results of the study have a number of implications for human Rrsources and managers. First and foremost, to be aware of the potential for turnover to “spread”, and take steps to mediate this probability. Organizations can seek to maintain a healthy level of turnover by creating a culture in which job embeddedness is fostered, both in the workplace (e.g., fostering collaboration, mentoring programs, etc.) and in the community (e.g., supporting community volunteerism, recruiting from markets connected to the community, etc.). Further, organizations should have a strategy for addressing job search behaviours in the workplace in such a way that job embeddedness is not compromised. Consider the strategies and solutions that your organization can use to combat the social environment that stimulates turnover.

Kyla Nicholson, CHRP, is the manager of Professional Development at BC HRMA. Kyla is committed to providing high-quality learning opportunities that build the capabilities and the organizational impact of HR practitioners. She also sits on the editorial committee and writes for PeopleTalk Magazine.

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