By Dale S. Rose, Ph.D.
The “great resignation” is a fantastical phrase that turns out to be little more than a clickbait. Much has been written about the sudden spike in “quits” data reported by the Bureau of labor Statistics, but too few authors have bothered to look at the data in context, let alone drill into the details. So, what is really going on with trends in employees quitting? And, more importantly, what can leaders do about this when it happens on their team?
1. Employee mobility has been on the rise for 10 years. As the chart below illustrates, employees quitting has been increasing consistently for the last 10 years. The pandemic caused a quick drop in this trend and then a sharp upward correction, but mobility is nothing new in the workforce. This pattern illustrates the often-discussed shift in the employment relationship where careers are much more fluid than in the past. Employees are more like free agents than ever before, as the notion of a one-company career has all but evaporated. The pandemic threw some fuel on this fire, but the embers have been there for a long time.
So, what’s a leader to do?
First and foremost, leaders should actively engage with their employees about their growth and their careers. High potential early career employees what to learn new skills. They want to be challenged. Employees want their manager to help make work meaningful. So, get to know your employees. Why are they in their roles? What makes them happy and motivated to do great work? What is a great day at work for them and how can you contribute to more of those? Second, get regular anonymous feedback from your employees. Employees leave jobs for two main reasons: 1) they have stagnated in their job, or 2) their boss is a poor leader. The best leaders get regular honest feedback from their direct reports, and they use that feedback to improve. There is nothing like hearing your boss say “I blew that one. Thanks for letting me know. I will do better.”… and then actually doing better. Lastly, don’t try to trap your employees in their job. If they feel stagnant or want more challenge than you or your organization can give them, use your network to find them work that is a better fit. Wish them well as they leave and know that it is a small world and not only will you find another person to fill the opening, but they might even come from a former employee who will sing your praises.
2. Employees are not quitting work – they are shifting jobs. Even as employee mobility spikes, overall employment is on the rise. The great resignation could be more aptly named the “great job hop.” 2020 opened all our eyes to what mattered most – it forced every one of us to prioritize on an existential level. Some employees took a hard look at themselves and realized they weren’t finding enough meaning in their work – so they sought more meaning elsewhere. Meaning that someone hired them. They didn’t stop working, they just shifted where they work.
So, what’s a leader to do?
When an employee leaves it can be hard for any team and certainly for the team leader. The organization has come to rely on that person and work patterns have adjusted to depend on their skills, abilities, and knowledge. When they leave a hole remains – which provides opportunity. Use this moment to give junior staff a look and promote them if you can. If you must reach outside the organization, it’s a chance to find someone who is better aligned with the mission of the organization and will find more meaning in the work. This isn’t a loss, it’s a chance for a gain. Approach the moment of employee mobility more as a realignment than a resignation – it is an opportunity to get stronger, not a loss that weakens the team.
3. Small numbers of isolated permanent workforce changes do exist. While some of the workforce is playing musical chairs in their jobs, one group is likely happy to simply step aside when the music stops: Seniors. Particularly with the elevated health risks for elders, many of them saw this as an obvious moment to leave the workforce. But, clearly a group of 70+ year old employees leaving the workforce would be better described as the ‘great retirement’ than the ‘great resignation’. These folks are not job hopping. Instead, they are likely looking forward to working at their hobbies instead of doing the 9 to 5 in a workplace full of people who could get them fatally sick. But we didn’t expect these folks to work forever, so let’s not be surprised by their prudent choice to enjoy their later years in life without clocking in and out of a job.
So, what’s a leader to do?
Throw them a party (safely)! While losing the wisdom and work ethic that long tenured employees bring to a team is indeed a loss, it also presents an opportunity for mid-career employees to step up. The best leaders know who can take on stretch assignments and have already identified those employees who have the potential to elevate their game.
4. “Leisure and Hospitality” plus “Food and Accommodations” quits did increase, by about 50%. These are typically the two most mobile subsections of the workforce (by factors of two or three times compared to other industries), and they got hit hard by the pandemic. Scores of restaurants disappeared. Movie theaters are hardly back to 2019 capacity. The cruise industry has been hobbled for nearly 2 years. So, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the most mobile parts of the workforce got a lot more mobile. To be fair, these are the two largest industries in the U.S. by employee count, so these changes are not trivial. Economists have much to consider regarding the impact of these shifts on the economy – but again, the insight here is not that there is a mass resignation occurring so much as two large industries are struggling to attract customers, and because compensation in these jobs is built on tips people can’t afford to stay.
So, what’s a leader to do?
The hard truth is these industries are likely to struggle for some time. Until enough employees and customers get comfortable with behaviors that prevent spreading disease in these workplaces, revenues and employment figures will likely not increase. The best companies will find ways to recruit employees by emphasizing their strengths: Fun workplaces, fast paced work with flexible schedules, jobs that are easy to learn and available anywhere. Aspiring artists and poets will still need a way to pay the rent until their art is discovered. The real winners of this talent war will hone their employment brands and find ways to appeal to (mostly) younger employees who tend to make up the bulk of this workforce. This will almost certainly involve creative incentives, increased salaries, and more opportunities to ‘make a difference’ in the world which is be increasingly important to young folks.
When you look under the hood, the great resignation isn’t much different than all the hype about generational differences in the workplace or emotional intelligence as a measurable construct. The catch phrase and descriptions sound so compelling, but the data just don’t back up the conclusions. Nonetheless, resignations do happen. And leaders are well advised to be prepared for employee mobility: It’s a fact of the modern workplace and it has been on the rise for a long time. The best leaders have been doing this for years, and so they already have regular career conversations with staff; they are ready with identified successors; they strive to support employees and make work meaningful; and they understand that doing right by their employees will encourage those who do quit to return the favor.
Dale S. Rose, Ph.D., is the President and Co-founder of 3D Group. He is an expert in leadership development and assessment-based human resources solutions. He recently co-edited The Handbook of Strategic 360 Feedback and authored the 2020 study, Current Practices in 360 Feedback, 6th Edition.