Talent   //   November 30, 2022  ■  6 min read

Why employee turnover is more contagious than ever

In the hybrid-working era, job departures are more contagious than ever.

When a teammate goes — whether pushed or pulled — it leaves colleagues reflecting on their positions while having to pick up the extra slack. And it means they are 9.1% more likely to head for the exit, too, according to a new report published in mid-November by global employee analytics and workforce platform Visier. As the Great Resignation shows no sign of breaking stride, this statistic could become a thornier issue for business leaders and HR professionals.

“Employee turnover can be contagious because humans tend to imitate other people,” said Andrea Derler, principal of research and value at Visier. “This means that when a fellow employee’s intentions to quit become clear, it can trigger others to evaluate their situation.”

A cluster of departures is also incredibly destabilizing for any organization and could lead to a recruitment scramble. This desperate-but-necessary tactic might plug the gaps before more employees leave, but the rush to hire could be a misstep if they turn out to be a bad fit for the company.

“I was taught that teams ‘form, norm, perform, and storm,’ so one resignation can lead to many,” said Simon Roderick, managing director of Fram Search, a U.K.-based financial recruitment organization. “Firms, managers, and teams often lose their way, and sometimes whole change is the only way to gain stability again.”

The Visier report found that smaller teams have a higher probability of experiencing higher resignations due to turnover contagion. “This is because of stronger interdependencies between team members’ tasks and their stronger personal relationships,” said Derler.

Smaller teams but bigger problems

Piers Hudson, senior director of Gartner’s HR functional strategy and management research team, agreed with this insight. “Smaller teams have micro-cultures, so when someone goes, it is worse as a trigger point,” he said.

As such, Hudson was not shocked by the 9.1% figure. “If anything, I was surprised it wasn’t higher,” he said. “Any departure would lead you to reconsider your role. It might raise things like your compensation and whether the person who has left is being paid more elsewhere.”

Gartner delved into causes for considering one’s position should a teammate leave. “It often creates more work for the rest of the team, and 56% of people told us that the number of tasks went up when a colleague left,” said Hudson. Also, 28% reported that if a favorite colleague had departed, then work was “less pleasurable.”

Lesley Cooper, a well-being consultant and founder of London-headquartered mental health service WorkingWell, believes that having best friends at work develops a mutually reinforcing attitude to stick at a job, whatever the challenges. So when that workplace buddy goes, the person left feels isolated and exposed.

“Some people stay in jobs or inside a toxic team because they have one or more work relationships that they value enough to compensate for the aspects of their job or the team culture that they find uncomfortable,” Cooper said. “We often hear: ‘I don’t like the job or the company, but I love my colleagues.’”

Therefore, when a favored colleague leaves, the balance is disturbed, and “the ‘protective’ effect of the co-worker companionship” is removed, meaning there are fewer reasons to stay, she added.

Hybrid headache

Ironically, despite not being in-person with teammates as often as in early 2020, workers are in many cases creating firmer bonds with their fellow hybrid workers, Hudson said. So when a close colleague leaves the company — if not the building — they’re likely to feel it more keenly. “We have seen that people have stronger ties with their immediate hybrid team as they have more interactions with those members,” he said. For instance, more conscious effort has to be made when working remotely or in hybrid setups, to check in with direct reports more regularly, or give project updates, there are more virtual than in-person meetings, and there is also more coordination necessary for determining when teams will be in the office. Whereas, bonds between people from different departments have weakened in hybrid and remote setups, who they’d have previously run into more often when in an office together, he added.

This situation means hybrid workers are impacted more when a close colleague departs, stated Hudson. Additionally, this reality and a lack of intra-team communication or poor awareness of people leaving and vacancies have extended blindspots regarding internal opportunities. “You’re less aware of other careers and what else is going on within the company, so there is a magnified impact both ways,” he added.

The increased prevalence of hybrid and remote positions in desk-based jobs has altered recruitment and retention in other ways. “In many cases, it has lowered the switching costs, and there is less risk,” said U.K.-based Hudson. “For example, you don’t have to move your whole family to take up a new job. The barrier is lower, and when someone moves on, others see how simple it is to leave.”

How, then, can employers elevate the barrier — or lower the motivation — for workers to move away? “For businesses to get ahead of this trend, it’s important to implement mitigation strategies for talent retention in a more targeted manner,” said Visier’s Derler. She argued that “data is key here” and stressed the importance of anonymous and regular pulse surveys and frequent line-manager check-ins.

Spotting pre-quitting behavior

“Effective workforce planning and analysis is a business’s key to forecasting when an employee is likely to leave, factoring in turnover contagion as an added risk factor,” said Derler. “If you can start to notice pre-quitting behavior, such as decreased productivity, less time spent in the office, or an employee seeming disengaged, more can be done to understand why an employee might feel like this and therefore get ahead of the curve.”

Hudson concurred that “proactive stay conversations” drastically reduce the likelihood of departures. “Instead of waiting for somebody to come and tell you they are thinking of leaving and then making a counteroffer, use this as an opportunity to sit down with each of the team members and see what’s motivating and what’s not motivating,” he said.

Last year, Zoë Ogden, people director at digital marketing agency Impression, introduced a “continuous performance management guide” — in addition to quarterly reviews and objective settings already in place — to better listen to and learn from employee sentiment, and reduce resignations. “This provides transparent frameworks with visible pay bands across the company and clear steps to progress between levels,” she said.

Ensuring everyone is well informed in this way helps reduce the risk of talent churn. “This goes a long way for people when deciding if the grass is greener, as this level of consistency and fairness isn’t the norm at most companies,” she added.

Hudson said that employers that recognize — and celebrate — essential points in an employee’s life and career would likely reduce thoughts of leaving. “Any work anniversaries or life events are natural points when someone might consider how they are doing, so those are moments when you should have those stay conversations,” he added.