9 reasons good employees leave — and how to prevent it

Talent is your biggest asset, and while you’ll never eliminate employee turnover, the following strategies can help you keep your best.

8 reasons good employees leave — and how you can prevent it
Thinkstock

News of the Great Resignation isn’t overblown.

Some 4 million people quit their jobs in July, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. And companies reported a record-breaking high of 10.9 million open positions. The IT profession is feeling the effects of that churn, with 80% of tech managers saying they’ve seen an increase in turnover in 2021, according to staffing firm Robert Half.

Seeing all that talent walk out the door is challenging, but losing top workers is even harder — and happening more and more.

“It’s harder to hold onto top-performing superstars when the market is throwing money at them,” says Kim Curley, vice president of workforce readiness consulting at NTT Data Services. “Most companies do not or cannot react quickly enough to either prevent the loss due to a big salary increase offer or to successfully negotiate a satisfactory counter offer.”

And when good employees leave, productivity sinks, morale suffers, and colleagues struggle with increased workloads.

But before you can implement a plan to increase employee retention, you need to determine why valuable employees are leaving. Here are the most common reasons top tech employees jump ship.

They’re not engaged

Employees who feel engaged in their workplace tend to stay in their jobs, but the reverse is true, too, with workers who feel disconnected from development opportunities, management, or the organization’s values being more likely to leave.

And disengaged workers make up a noticeable amount of the workforce: A 2021 Gallup survey found that 15% of US workers are “actively disengaged.”

“They may be generally satisfied but are not cognitively and emotionally connected to their work and workplace; they will usually show up to work and do the minimum required but will quickly leave their company for a slightly better offer,” according to Gallup.

Knowing whether an employee is disengaged requires paying attention to subtle signs, as it can be tricky to spot. Experts advise managers to study workers and ask themselves: Are they withdrawing from social activities? Calling in sick more than usual? Performing the bare minimum to get by?

“You should be assessing factors on an individual basis rather than comparisons with [their] peers, or judging engagement based on productivity or quality of work,” says Sanja Licina, Ph.D., president of workforce experience at QuestionPro. “If someone’s always been outgoing, but suddenly they’re more reserved, or they’ve always participated in outside-of-work team building or activities and suddenly, they aren’t — those are signs, for sure. But if someone’s an introvert it can be trickier unless you have built a personal relationship with them.”

Management mishaps

It’s a common expression: “Employees don’t quit jobs, they quit managers.”

Wendy Duarte Duckrey, executive director of global technology recruiting at JPMorgan Chase, says that’s true.

"When you lose your top talent, the first place to look is at management," Duckrey says. "Managing teams as a whole is hard. You have to manage to each individual, and invest time into discovering what each member of a team needs both at work and outside of work to do their job to the best of their ability."

Do your employees feel that they're all "in this together"? Do they feel their suggestions, concerns, and challenges are acknowledged and, when possible, acted on? Do they feel valued?

“Tech talent expects transparent and accountable management. The best talent wants to work where they feel their work has a real impact. If they feel leadership is not delivering results, they are more likely to leave,” says KC George, a partner at Bain & Co. “Managers should be visible and directly engage with employees, and should act with speed and decisiveness, and hold themselves accountable for real outcomes.”

Although it may sound inconsequential, simply listening to employees' concerns and doing what you can to address those — or at least explaining why they can't be addressed at the present time — can go a long way toward keeping the best and brightest, HR professionals say.

Tom Gimbel, CEO and founder of LaSalle Network, a staffing firm, once saw an IT worker quit after his managers opted not to upgrade the security protocols he knew were needed. “He didn’t want to get saddled with blame for the company not investing in what he recommended.”

Unprepared managers

It’s not uncommon for a manager to be a highly talented technician ill-equipped to deal with the demands and nuances of management.

Skills that make an employee a great software developer, for example, are different from those required for management. You need to provide training and guidance to help your managers lead and manage their teams.

“This is a chronic issue where people are promoted into people management roles but there is insufficient investment in training them to play the role well,” George says. “The teams underneath these ill prepared managers suffer the lack of people development and seek out alternative paths with better career development, either within the company or often outside.”

No room to grow

One of the main reasons top performers leave is because they feel their career advancement isn't going as planned.

"It doesn't matter if they like what they're working on, who they're working with and are compensated fairly or more than fairly," says David Foote, chief analyst and research officer at Foote Partners. "They have to feel there's something in it for them personally, otherwise, they will be tempted to search for employment elsewhere, or be susceptible to recruiters.”

Your best individual contributors aren't always going to want to manage people. So you need to build a nonmanagerial career path for them or they will find another organization that does.

Making educational and career advancement opportunities available, even if they result in employees growing up and out of your organization, is a must, because you never know when an employee might return to your organization, or when they’ll make a key referral, says Duckrey.

"Make sure employees are aware of available opportunities to grow and to expand their knowledge," she says. "Find out if they are getting the resources to add to and change their roles, to take on more and different responsibilities, to spearhead new projects, to experiment."

You’re behind the bleeding edge

Most IT employees want to work on emerging technologies and explore new tech toys. They also want to keep their skills current in a quickly advancing profession. So they seek employers who also value the importance of leveraging cutting-edge tech.

“They want to know they’re dealing with the latest and greatest, because they know if you’re not, they’re going to fall behind,” Gimbel says.

Gimbel says top technologists often rank opportunities to work on the bleeding edge as a key reason to take or stay at a job. In fact, working with new tech is up there with compensation and quality bosses as the chief reasons IT pros want to work with a particular company.

If new technologies or upgrades aren't in the budget, consider sending employees to outside training on cutting-edge systems even if you can’t use them in your organization, says Rona Borre, CEO and founder of Instant Alliance. That will emphasize that you value their education and skills.

You’re not checking in regularly

If managers aren’t offering constructive feedback on a regular basis or discussing career goals at least once a year with employees, then your organization is at risk of falling out of touch with your talent — and upping the chances that they’ll leave.

“Lack of verbal communication amongst the organization is the main driver for employee departures,” says Kira Meinzer, chief people officer at Envoy Global. “IT leadership teams should encourage employees to pick up the phone or schedule a video meeting and have a conversation about their current role and any concerns they may have.”

Having open discussions about where top employees see their future is key, she adds: “Another simple yet powerful question for managers to ask is, ‘What is keeping you here now and what will keep you here for the future?’”

Once-a-year performance reviews are really the bare minimum. Experts agree more frequent reviews are better.

“Feedback is extremely important to the Millennial, X, and Y generations,” George says. “Not only checking in at regular intervals, but real-time live feedback is important. Top talent wants to remain at the top and is eager to continuously improve. This became even more critical in the pandemic, where managers could not passively check in on teams. More proactive effort was required, and was overlooked by some.”

Regular feedback will also give you more warning when people are feeling dissatisfied or disengaged.

Your workplace policies are too rigid

Flexible scheduling and telecommuting were common in IT even before COVID forced widespread adoption of remote work. CIOs need to make them permanent options if they want to keep their workers.

According to the 2021 Technologist Sentiment Report from Dice, 59% of technologists favor 100% remote or hybrid approaches versus 17% who say working in an office full-time is extremely or very desirable.

But CIOs must offer more than remote work, as employees also want some level of freedom to adjust work schedules. Engineers don’t want to be chained to their desks from 9 to 5 or 8 to 6 — or whatever the boss dictates working hours should be. They want to take their daughters to soccer practice and attend their son’s recital.

“Some are looking for flexibility to live where they want, and the rest desire at least part-time flexible in-office hours,” George adds.

Your mission is muddled

“Having a clear mission and vision is now the No. 1 most important factor for tech talent, especially Millennials,” George says.

Employees want to work for organizations they believe in. As Robert Half reports, 71% of employees said they’d leave a company whose values didn’t align with their own.

Borre says having a strong set of corporate values, a mission statement and specific goals (for the company, departments, teams, and individuals) can help employees see how their individual contributions are part of a greater whole.

"Most people want to work somewhere with a strong corporate culture, one that clearly defines its mission and has a set of values that every employee, from the CEO on down, has bought into, believes in, and is tracking to," says Borre.

Helping employees feel valued isn't difficult, says Borre, but involves investing time to listen, gather feedback, and incorporate that feedback into policies and mission statements.

They’re burned out

A lot of factors are driving the Great Resignation, with one of them being widespread burnout.

Microsoft reports in its 2021 Work Trend Index that 54% of employees feel overworked and 39% feel exhausted.

Paying attention to employees' struggles to manage work and home life is important to keeping top talent, Duckrey says.

"Little things that emphasize the importance of work-life balance go a long way toward making employees feel that they're not just disposable cogs in a wheel, but a valuable asset to the company, and to their families," says Duckrey.

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

Download CIO's Roadmap Report: 5G in the Enterprise