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Why Do Good Workers Leave?

March 5, 2013
Many workers cite a lack of faith in senior leadership, according to employee-engagement expert Leigh Branham.

When trying to understand what motivates good workers to jump ship, there's an "extremely dramatic disconnect" between reality and what managers believe, according to author and management consultant Leigh Branham.

Most managers, Branham has observed, blame employee turnover on the siren song of higher pay and better opportunities at other firms.

But in his analysis of thousands of third-party employee exit interviews, Branham has found that people are four times more likely to leave a job because of factors within the workplace — from excessive workloads to poor relationships with managers.

That disconnect inspired Branham to write "The Seven Hidden Reasons Employees Leave" in 2005.

For the book, Branham analyzed 20,000 employee exit interviews conducted by the Saratoga Institute, and determined that 88% of workers left their employees for reasons other than pay.

"The reason I think it was important to look at third-party data is because when you're doing exit interviews of you own employees, they won't tell you the real reason they're leaving," Branham explains, in a recent interview with New Equipment Digest.

 In the book, Branham identifies seven root-cause reasons for employee turnover:

  • The job or workplace not living up to expectations
  • A mismatch between job and employee
  • Too little coaching and feedback
  • Too few opportunities for growth and advancement
  • Feeling devalued and unrecognized
  • Stress from overwork and work-life imbalance
  • Loss of trust and confidence in senior leaders

Branham emphasizes that all of the reasons that good employees leave are preventable. To learn some of Branham's strategies for retaining valuable employees, read "Three Things Managers Can Do to Keep Their Talented Employees."

Senior Leaders Driving Employees Away?

Branham updated the book in 2012 with data from an employee exit survey on his website. In his analysis of more than 1,000 responses to the survey, Branham concluded that the seven reasons for employee turnover had not changed since the book was published in 2005.

"The basic themes were still there," Branham says.

However, there were shifts among the seven reasons. The biggest change: Lack of faith in senior leadership had become the most common reason for employee turnover.

The shift highlights the shared responsibility of middle managers and senior leaders to keep talented employees in the fold.

"The conventional wisdom is that people join companies and leave managers," Branham says. "Well I think that's not the whole truth. They leave managers, very often, in cultures that have been created by senior leaders who themselves are lacking in how much they care about employees. So a lot of managers are simply taking their cues from senior leaders."

In the exit survey on his website — which is open to anyone who has ever voluntarily left an employer — 26 percent of respondents cite senior leadership as their main reason for leaving, according to recent results.

Another 22 percent of respondents point to feeling devalued and unrecognized as their top motivation for leaving, while 15 percent cite stress from overwork and work-life imbalance.
Although Branham has boiled them down to seven, he notes that his survey lists 39 possible reasons for leaving an employer. Each of the seven reasons, he says, has a number of sub-reasons.

For example, Branham groups six sub-reasons into the "Stress" category: unsatisfactory benefits; lack of work-life balance; inflexible work arrangements; excessive workloads; excessive travel demands; and the desire to spend more time with family.

"And by the way, benefits has become more important to employees since the first book came out, because so many companies have taken away benefits," Branham says.