by Paul Heltzel

10 signs top talent may soon leave

Dec 03, 2018
CareersIT LeadershipStaff Management

In a tight tech talent market, employee retention is key. These tell-tale signs that highly valued team members may be considering moving on will help you get in front of turnover before it’s too late.

Exiting the computing business
Credit: Thinkstock

Tech workers are changing jobs more frequently than ever. A 2018 report from LinkedIn found that amid all sectors surveyed, technology had the highest turnover rate. And a majority of workers from all industries increasingly see job hopping as a positive move with benefits that include higher salaries, reports a survey by staffing firm Robert Half. According to the report, about 64 percent of workers think changing careers every few years was beneficial, a spike of 22 percent over the last four years. And job-hopping especially appeals to younger younger workers, with about 75 percent seeing good reasons to change jobs frequently.

Needless to say, executives feel differently. Organizations are advised to boost retention by offering clear opportunities for advancement and creating a workplace that attracts top talent rather than sending them packing, often to their competitors.

Executives and recruiters say there are telltale signs that a highly valued team member is considering moving on. Here’s how to tell if your star IT staffers are looking for a change and what, if anything, you can do about it.

They’re on the retreat

The classic sign of an essential yet unsatisfied employee is a lack of engagement. If your employee looks like they’re about to become a turnover statistic, it’s time to have a one-to-one and see where things stand.

“Have an open conversation with them on how they’re doing,” says Paula Toliver, corporate vice president and CIO of Intel. “If you’ve established a trusting relationship about their career plans, remind them of those discussions and what progress you are both making on those plans. Invite them to share their concerns and aspirations again and figure out how best to help them grow in their current role and in their career at the company.”

Carlos Castelán, managing partner and founder of HR consulting firm The Navio Group, says that top IT staffers often look for new work options when they feel a lack of appreciation.  

“With an extremely competitive job market, IT employees more than ever have options if they’re not engaged at work,” Castelán says. “One way for managers to get ahead of this is to have regular check-ins with top talent to ensure they’re engaged and working towards their goals as well as providing them with regular pay raises before they have to ask.”

Castelán cites a recent Gallup poll that reported that almost 85 percent of employees aren’t engaged — or are actively disengaged — at work.

“As with almost anything else, it’s easier to retain star employees than to try to replace them,” Castelán says, “particularly in an age where talent is a limited resource. So, communication is key to engagement and productivity.”

They’re looking out for No. 1

Jayne Mattson, senior vice president of career consulting firm Keystone Associates, says that when your former team player switches to an individual sport, it’s a warning sign.

“There may be a different mode of operation, a sense of every person for himself,” Mattson says. “You can sense there’s no enthusiasm in the employee’s work. These are major signs that the person is no longer satisfied and could shift to quitting.”

A change in attitude

In addition to a lack or engagement, another potential sign is an abrupt change in attitude. That doesn’t necessarily mean a negative attitude. More important is to take note of the change itself.

“Everyone has their pet peeves and idiosyncrasies, which don’t change overnight,” says Victor Pavlov, head of AI engineering at recruiting software firm AllyO. “People who used to argue about different things would stop — and people who would not argue, would start. Attention to details is reduced, which is never a good thing.”

In high-level meetings, a disaffected team member can negatively affect strategic planning, says Mattson, where before they offered valued insights.

They are giving off subtle signs of closure

It’s especially challenging to sense when talented IT staff are looking to move on, because they’re used to performing at a high level, says Kelli Dragovich, senior vice president of people at Hired.

“These employees have high standards for their work and are unlikely to let that slip as they search for a new job,” Dragovich says. “In order to look for warning signs, you first have to have a basic understanding of how the team member usually performs and approaches their work. Only then can you tell if their behavior indicates they’re looking for something new: Are they consistently pushing back a meeting with their manager? Are they zeroing in on wrapping up current projects, and focusing less on long-term strategy and planning? These are subtle shifts, but could indicate a career change is on the horizon.”

They appear to feel left out

If a star staff member feels out of the loop, that may be a sign they’re ready to move on, The Navio Group’s Castelán says.

“Poor communication affects employee engagement by making team members feel removed from decisions and devoid of any sense of ownership,” he says. “It can lead to role ambiguity and heightened stress or anxiety because of a lack of feedback, which ultimately leads to talent drain or other symptoms of low employee engagement.”

They’re punching up social media

If your LinkedIn feed — or other professional social media — shows a flurry of activity from a team member, it may be another indication that person is looking to move on, says Keystone’s Mattson.

“You see that your team member is becoming more active, for example, liking, commenting or sharing articles,” she says. “Perhaps they’re looking for visibility outside of their company. If they are becoming more active, check out their profile to see if it looks up to date. This could help you get ahead of someone leaving.”

They’re splitting responsibilities

Mattson cautions managers to note when employees are splitting roles, which may be another sign of dissatisfaction.

“Maybe the employee isn’t being asked to take on high-visibility assignments,” she says. “Your employee teams are being broken apart and moved on to other teams to maximize their strengths. This may show employees do not want to take on strong responsibilities anymore.”

Mattson argues for raising expectations beyond employee satisfaction and working to help them thrive.

“Satisfied sounds like getting by,” she says. “Managers don’t ask their staff members enough about what keeps them satisfied, and some assume they know what staff needs. If managers treat employees as individuals as well as team members, they’ll learn more about them. The most important thing is to have staff members feel their contribution is valued. They clearly know how they contribute to the success of the company and what skills and experience are needed. Often, managers think recognition is enough — and staff members want and need more.”

They’re hitting an important milestone

If you want to avoid creating a workplace-wide revolving door, keep an eye on an important, but an often overlooked date in the employee’s career: The 18-month anniversary at the organization, says Hired’s Dragovich.

“Employees have different motivators and pain points,” Dragovich says, “but we’ve found that one data point indicates employees’ likelihood of moving on — the amount of time they’ve been with the company. Many companies now are being rightly open and transparent about the fact that the average tenure within the tech industry is shorter than ever before. On average an employee will stay 18 months, so it’s critical for employers to be aware of employee behavior around that time.”

They seem overwhelmed

Giancarlo Di Vece, president of software outsourcing firm Unosquare, looks for signs of stress that suggest a team member isn’t going to stick around. And sometimes that strain comes from moving from the ranks of coworker to manager.

“Talented IT professionals have the ability to quickly rise up the ladder,” Di Vece says. “But this rapid growth isn’t always for the best. I once hired a talented developer for a major client and fast-tracked him for promotion. Soon after starting, he was managing a team of five. Despite his success, he felt he couldn’t carry out his role and resigned. The issue was about leadership potential, not technical know-how. We now have a strategy in place where we take pains to mentor potential leaders while developing their soft skills, in addition to technical skills. Our approach includes regular feedback to ensure everyone is successful in their role.”

You have a hunch

In addition to a lack of engagement, Di Vece says the most accurate way to tell someone is ready to quit, is to lean on your instincts as a manager.

“In today’s tight job market, with fierce competition for talent, employee turnover is a major concern for good reason,” he says. “It can be expensive, time-consuming and disruptive to fill crucial job openings. I’ve found that team members most likely to jump overboard show signs of being disconnected from the group and lose interest in projects. A sharp dip in productivity can show an employee has checked out of a job. Additionally, I think trusting your gut, as a manager or leader, is more than just a metaphor within a tight-knit team. If you suspect a team member has checked out, there is a good chance your suspicions aren’t too far off.”

Tips for keeping star talent

Recruiters and executives argue that relationships tend to go off the rails when communication fails. The best way to keep staff engaged is to make sure you’re communicating honestly and effectively — or your top talent is likely headed out the door.

“I’ve dealt with this many times,” says Steve Bond, partner with Global Recruiters of Blackhawk. “Let your employees know that you care about them and want to know if anything is bugging them. Then show them that you’re working to address it. It works more often than not.”

Another tip: Make sure your staff is exposed to current technology, advises Keystone’s Mattson.

“Keep them challenged and choose particular staff members to research for the future,” she says. “IT staff members need to keep up to date with the technology used in their field and if they hear what other colleagues are working on that don’t work for the organization, they might feel they are getting behind with the market.”

Intel’s Toliver says any retainment efforts should focus on helping your best employees create a positive arc for their careers.

“You should be having consistent, productive career planning sessions,” she says. “In those meetings, make sure you understand where they are now and where they want to go in the future. Agree on how you can help them achieve their career goals. It’s very helpful to get people to describe the aspects of their job that really make them happy and excited as well as the things they hate. Both of those are surprisingly strong drivers of satisfaction. Even though they’re often relatively small amounts of time, they have an outsize impact on satisfaction.”