Report

The 9-Month Warning: Identifying Quitters before It's Too Late

By Heartbeat

The 9-month warning

When an employee gives notice, it often comes as a surprise to managers and peers. But a closer look at new data from Peakon indicates it doesn’t have to be. As it turns out, there are a number of clear, measurable warning signs that show up exactly 9 months before the employee decides to leave.

Drawn from 32+ million employee survey responses across 125 countries, this report contains an in-depth look at the data behind that critical 9-month mark.

01.

Falling engagement and loyalty give you 9 months’ notice before an employee leaves

The study found that both employee engagement and employee loyalty scores are strong indicators of an upcoming employee departure. Nine months before quitting, an employee’s overall engagement score begins to drop significantly.

What is employee engagement, exactly? Coined by Boston University professor William Kahn in 1990, employee engagement refers to the level of personal investment an employee has in their work. Highly engaged employees are enthusiastic about their jobs and strongly value their company’s mission and goals.

For the last 30 years, employee engagement has been one of the most deliberated concepts in human capital management.

Understanding employee engagement

The most widely accepted way to measure employee engagement is via the Employee Net Promoter Score, or eNPS. Based on the NPS®️ methodology devised by Bain & Company, and used by hundreds of companies around the world to measure customer loyalty and satisfaction, the score is calculated based on employee responses to a strategic question:

“How likely is it you would recommend [company name] as a place to work?”

What makes this question work is that it encourages people to reflect on all aspects of their workplace experience at once—from company culture to work environment to career prospects.

Also, a recommendation is a form of identity capital. Similar to when someone recommends a brand or product to a friend, an employee’s willingness to recommend their company suggests they’re aligned with their work on a deeper, more personal level.

When engagement scores start to drop, employees are at risk of leaving. This score begins to dip at the 9-month mark, and continues to fall steadily until the employee departs.

At the same time, an employee’s loyalty—a natural outcome of engagement, and a measure of intent to stay with a company—starts to dip as well.

Spotting the warning signs

Engagement and loyalty scores are slipping, and it’s obvious something has gone wrong. During this nine month period, organisations have the opportunity to spot the warning signs and act on them to prevent employee departures. What’s happening beneath the surface?

Let’s take a closer look at the broader workplace data behind employee engagement.

02.

People leave unchallenging work, not a challenging workload

To begin unpacking why employees quit, let’s start with the concept of accomplishment. A sense of accomplishment is a key driver of employee engagement—and essential to a healthy, rewarding work experience.

Professor Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer explored this need for accomplishment in their 2011 book The Progress Principle. After analysing 12,000 diary entries from 238 employees across seven major organisations, they found that when people consistently make progress on meaningful projects, they become more creative, productive, and engaged as employees.

However, nine months before quitting, that sense of accomplishment starts to drop for employees. Further evidence suggests that they’re at greater risk of quitting when they feel they aren’t being sufficiently challenged.

Interestingly, it’s not the amount of work that’s the problem. At-risk employees find their workload manageable, virtually up until the day they leave.

03.

People leave when they can’t discuss pay, not because they feel they’re under-rewarded

In addition to a sense of accomplishment, employees need to feel appropriately rewarded for their work to remain engaged. That means their inputs—efforts, knowledge, skills—need to be reflected in tangible things like pay, bonuses, benefits, and recognition.

And it means they need to be rewarded fairly. In 1963, behavioral psychologist John Stacy Adams introduced his Equity Theory of employee motivation, which corroborated the desire employees have to feel that their rewards both reflect the effort they’ve put in—and are in line with what their peers receive.

But the data here reveals yet a third facet to how reward impacts engagement. Because even when employees feel they’re appropriately rewarded, the inability to talk openly about pay with their managers can cause employees to disengage, and become more likely to quit.

This suggests that the ability to have discussions with a manager about rewards ties into an employees’ sense of self-worth—and supports their sense that the company respects them. This echoes the volumes of research showing that employees need to feel their managers care about them as people, and are willing to support them emotionally, in addition to financially.

04.

People leave managers, not colleagues, culture or the company

Not surprisingly, the inability to communicate about pay is an indicator of deeper problems between individuals and their managers—who have a huge impact on our overall experience in the workplace.

More than just taskmasters concerned with execution and efficiency, great managers empower employees to do more, without relying on the outdated methods of reward and punishment.

One leading thinker in this area is Kathy Kram, now Professor Emeritus of Organizational Behavior at Questrom School of Business. In 1985, she proposed the concept of “developmental relationships” as a model for supportive management. Instead of lecturing or simply handing down instructions, Kram encouraged leaders to embrace a two-way exchange based on expertise, equality and empathy. Her research showed these kinds of relationships could last almost 30 years.

Lacking this kind of mutually beneficial relationship, employees begin to disengage quickly. Nine months before quitting, employees report a steady decline in management support.

While peer relationships are a crucial part of a positive and engaging work experience, when compared to management support, they don’t seem to have as much of an impact on an employee’s likelihood of quitting. And neither does organisational fit or strategy—essentially a company’s culture and mission, respectively.

05.

People leave when they don’t see a path for personal development

We all want to do work that helps us grow as people and professionals. But just how powerful is this thirst for ongoing development?

A great body of research suggests that the desire to overcome challenges in the quest to become our “best selves” is an integral part of human nature. From mythologist Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey to psychologist Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, time and again we see that deep in the psyche of mankind is a need to travel the upward path.

Since our jobs form a large part of our identity in the modern age, it’s especially important that our organisation is able to support us on this path. When we feel our role is helping us develop into our best self, it can have an incredibly powerful impact on employee engagement.

Lacking those opportunities, an employee starts to disengage. The data shows that nine months before quitting, employees begin to show a decline when asked questions related to their ongoing development—in effect, all aspects of growth are stalled.

Elevating employee engagement through big data

Back in 1990, Kahn’s landmark paper, “Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work,” broke new ground, introducing the powerful concept of employee engagement to the world of work. Like the majority of research conducted at the time, Kahn’s paper was based on qualitative data drawn from relatively small sample size—in this case, the workforces of a summer camp and architecture firm.

This report is one attempt at building on the wealth of psychological research that preceded it. Advances in technology and analytics have enabled us to bring together millions of data points from multiple countries, industries, and workplaces to better understand and quantify employee engagement and its impact on our working lives.

Wondering how we got this data?

Find out more about what we measured, why it matters, and how it’s calculated.

About Heartbeat

Brought to you by Peakon, the leading employee engagement platform. Heartbeat provides data-driven insights into the world of work, to help people and companies reach their full potential.
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