Leadership   //   September 12, 2022  ■  7 min read

Bad bosses drive more employees to quit their jobs

From better work-life balance to more opportunity for advancement to the desire for a fatter paycheck, employees are unhappy with their jobs for all kinds of reasons.

And one more thing: They’ve had it up to here with bad bosses.

A recent Harvard Business Review report, which considered 13,000 employees’ feedback about 2,800 managers, determined that the trend of “quiet quitting” isn’t so much about bad employees as it is bad management.

Researchers found that the least effective managers supervise three to four times as many employees in the quiet quitting category versus the most effective leaders.

“Our data indicates that quiet quitting is usually less about an employee’s willingness to work harder and more creatively, and more about a manager’s ability to build a relationship with their employees where they are not counting the minutes until quitting time,” the authors explained.

In another study, the consulting firm McKinsey underscored the effect poor managers are having on retaining talent.

“While in the past an attractive salary could help keep people in a job despite a bad boss, that is much less true now than it was before the pandemic,” the report said. The survey, based on data from more than 13,000 respondents, found that “uncaring and uninspiring” leaders are a major reason people continue to quit their jobs, along with a lack of career development. Flexibility, meanwhile, is a primary motivation for people staying at their jobs.

Subpar bosses are also a driving force in employees working from home, according to a study by Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business of some 70,000 remote workers, published in January 2022.

“We find that folks that seem to be more satisfied working from home are also folks who report that they don’t have a good relationship with their direct supervisor, whereas those folks that have a more favorable impression of their relationship with their direct supervisor report enjoying being in the office more often,” said associate professor Jason Schloetzer, one of the authors of the report. Schloetzer said the results were “remarkably consistent” among factors such as age, gender, work experience and industry.

What makes a bad manager exactly? From employers like Netflix and Goldman Sachs demanding that their people return to the office full-time regardless of their WFH preferences to those like Shopify reportedly monitoring its people’s Slack conversations, it runs the gamut. Consider what one software engineer at Google told The Financial Times: “It’s common for my manager to blame some of my team’s problems on the fact that we’ve been working remotely for the last couple of years, when in reality it could also just be because of poor management.”

Or, maybe the bad boss routine is intentional in some cases — where a manager makes an employee so miserable in his job that they quit, something that’s being called “quiet firing.”

What seems clear is that, despite all that’s been written about it, many bosses continue to undervalue their employees’ desire for work-life balance. 

A report by the performance management platform 15Five, based on a survey of more than 1,000 employees and 500 HR leaders, found, for example, that employee downtime is summarily ignored. The survey revealed that work-life balance is a top concern for employees, behind only pay and health benefits. When HR leaders were asked what was most important to their employees, work-life balance jumped to the top spot, followed by health benefits and opportunities for growth.

HR and employees agree they want employee downtime to be honored. Asked if they could change one thing about today’s work environment, the leading response among employees as well as HR managers was to have personal downtime respected, according to the report.

HR leaders continue to explore creative options to resolve the work-life balance and disappearing downtime conundrum, according to the report. One option picking up steam is the four-day workweek, with about 60% of HR professionals reporting they will likely shift to a shorter week, 15Five found.

Regardless of the threat of a recession and the rise of layoffs, management that continues to be unresponsive to employees’ needs is likely in for a rude awakening.

Noting that American workers are “fed up,” USA Today singled out Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg for telling his employees this summer that he was “turning up the heat” and expected less dedicated workers to quit. “Maybe he wanted to inspire his best employees to work even harder,” the paper reckoned, “but he probably just made enemies.”

Three questions with Kareem Bakr, managing director at recruiting firm Phaidon International

Will we start to see more companies helping employees pay off their student loans as part of a benefits package?

That’s going to be a hot topic over the next 12 months. In full transparency, we’re not seeing any knee-jerk reactions from companies since President Joe Biden’s student loan forgiveness announcement. I expect we’ll see some of our larger clients start to allocate sign-on bonuses or one-time, sign-on bonuses as an incentive for people to join. While that’s something that has traditionally been around, they may allocate that towards student debt just to stay competitive, versus saying, here’s a sign-on bonus to buy out a previous bonus you’re walking away from or here’s a signing bonus to help with relocation — this will be specifically focused on paying back student debt. 

There will probably also be some competitive matching programs offered by companies for their more junior staff — similar to how employers match 401K contributions to a certain percentage. That’s already happening in some businesses.

Could this become a tool to attract and retain employees, specifically Gen Z?

Historically, most places would either look at a work-life balance and perk perspective in that sense, or they’d look at total compensation in the form of first year base and bonus. Now, this would add a third layer of benefits. And I think it will definitely help with retention because people will want to go towards the employer that’s looking out for them in more ways than one. Is it going to be the silver bullet that solves every staffing issue? Absolutely not. I think it’s really targeted towards attracting new, fresh grad talent versus going after a mid-to-senior level hire. I would imagine that this is probably for individuals that are in the $80,000 to $150,000 total comp range, that are newly out of their undergrad and are looking for some assistance in paying off some of those debts.

What are the potential downsides to a company assisting with paying off student loans?

A lot of companies understand how this [assisting] is important. But it also raises the question of, does this become a slippery slope? Where you first started helping out with $5,000, $10,000, $20,000 increments of assistance to a new employee, does that then turn into something bigger over the next two, five, 10 years, where companies essentially end up paying for an entire person’s undergrad to secure them to their business. Does the undergrad hiring scheme look like a traditional internship and an offer into the business? Or does it look like an internship with compensation to pay back some of their student loans into a full time offer? — Cloey Callahan.

By the numbers:

  • 51% of 2,300 U.S. workers polled, think the office is the best place for advancing their careers, compared to 31% who think remote locations are best.
    [Source of data: Owl Labs State of Remote report.]
  • 40% of 1,000 U.S. employees polled, admitted they struggle with “imposter syndrome.”
    [Source of data: isolved’s Voice of the Workforce report.]

Quote of the week

What else we’ve covered

  • A large proportion of employees are concerned about rising inflation how that is increasing the cost of getting to the office.
  • Employees are gratefully embracing their companies’ adoption of four-day weeks in order to save money either on child care, food or gas needed for getting to work.
  • Employers like Hearst are adding benefits for employees undergoing a divorce to help alleviate their stress and also reduce absenteeism.
  • Poor management and bullying leadership are toxifying cultures and leading to resignations in the hybrid-working era.
  • Some employees say they’re willing to take a pay cut for remote work.
  • The scandal around Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin’s partying raises questions about what is expected of modern leaders and hints at the challenges of socializing with colleagues in a hybrid-working world.

What we’re reading

  • Bank bosses in particular are clamping down on people returning to the office in September, but how realistic is that strategy? [The New York Times]
  • Amazon’s CEO Andy Jassy has pledged he no plans to force employees back to the office. [CNBC]