When They are on the Way Out

This series of blog posts takes its inspiration from an article by Ilya Pozin titled “8 Ways to Tell Your Employee is About to Quit.

People quit their jobs every day.  Probably more should.  When I was working for one of my large employers, the company began performing an annual Gallup survey known as the “Gallup Twelve Questions.”  This survey (which I found to be a little silly) allowed us to classify the workforce into one of three categories – engaged, disengaged, or actively disengaged.  The methodology might have been a little suspect (although Gallup swears there is research that backs it up), but I found the classification methodology to be quite useful when thinking about how to handle employees and the challenge of insuring their continuing employment.

Audiobook version of my novel, INCENTIVIZE, set in the Horn of Africa.

Audiobook version of my novel, INCENTIVIZE, set in the Horn of Africa.

Actively Disengaged

The Actively Disengaged category of people, which fortunately wasn’t unusually large in my group, tended to be toxic to nearly everyone else.  Actively Disengaged employees complained the most, worked the least, and often made people around them miserable.

I wanted these people out of the company.  They weren’t worth the effort to try to rehabilitate, as was proven to me by multiple attempts over the years to do so.  In my opinion, many of these folks are “hardcore unhappy,” and no matter what attention, concessions, and flexibility was shown toward them, they never seemed to change.


Beyond the actively disengaged, my employer invested significant time and attention in trying to motivate and inspire the disengaged, moving them up the ladder into the Engaged category in the process.  This was done by trying to correct problems identified in small group sessions – a time-consuming and daunting task.  Over time, I managed to make slow progress with this effort, but it was definitely tough going.  Eventually, it became clear that “victory” would never be declared – an excellent circumstance when your job is selling consulting services to help move people up the ladder, but deflating when you’re embroiled in the effort.

Along the way, we lost some of our Disengaged employees.  Perhaps progress was too slow, or maybe I focused on the wrong things to make a difference for them.  Or maybe there were outside circumstances that dictated a change (such a spouse changing jobs, or needs surrounding child/senior care).  Some Disengaged employees undoubtedly could have been saved by better, smarter, quicker action.  But probably not the majority of them.  And since they weren’t my most valuable employees, taking extraordinary measures generally simply wasn’t justified.


But extraordinary measures were justified when it came to the Engaged employees.  This group of people was the exact opposite of the Actively Disengaged – they took up little management time, produced a lot, and were a positive influence on their peers.  Engaged employees are very valuable, and are definitely worth preserving.

And yet we still lost some of them.  Sometimes the cause was better opportunity.  Sometimes it was frustration.  Occasionally, it was me (or their direct supervisor) failing to recognize issues as they appeared on the horizon and taking appropriate action to counter them.  While it isn’t always true, the old saying that “employees join companies and leave supervisors” has more than a grain of truth in it.  A single Engaged employee bailing out on a supervisor might be random chance.  Two or three is a pattern that indicates something is seriously wrong.

Not sure who is “Engaged?”  Generally, you can just look at your most valuable and productive employees – many of these, if not most, will be “Engaged.”

This is my latest release -- click the image for details.

This is my latest release -- click the image for details.

Because the managerial task is about selectivity (deciding where to spend your limited time and attention, and where not to waste it), I recommend making your Engaged employees the primary focus of retention efforts.  While I would still keep an eye on “Disengaged” employees and try to retain them, I wouldn’t take extraordinary steps to do so.

What does turnover really cost?  It depends….

“150% of annual salary.”  I’ve seen this figure quoted as the cost of turnover again and again.

But I don’t believe it – at least not as a general rule.

In my experience, if you swap out an Actively Disengaged employee for one that is Engaged, the break even point arrives very quickly.  Engaged employees are usually eager to dig in, and can produce a large amount of valuable output in a short period of time – particularly when they are new to the company.  They will often challenge existing paradigms and propose better ways of doing things utilizing insights that they bring with them from their past jobs.

I’d make this kind of trade all day, every day.

Swapping one Disengaged employee for another one probably causes some loss of traction, but I certainly don’t think it is anywhere close to the equivalent of an annual salary.  Sometimes I (experimentally) left such positions open for a time while we made a thorough search for a replacement – often times this lead to job redesign, consolidation, or some other form of savings.

Losing a Disengaged employee may cause some hiccups, but with a little creativity it can also represent an opportunity.

An Engaged employee, however, is often never adequately replaced.  This is the person who, when they leave, sometimes requires two people to replace them.  After the loss of an Engaged employee, things are generally never the same, and often never as good as they once were.

Employee turnover is another example of the 80:20 rule – 80% of your costs in turnover come from 20% of the people who quit.  In reality, it might really be closer to 95:5.

The signs

A B&W version of the Cover to my novel INCENTIVIZE.  Click the image for more details

A B&W version of the Cover to my novel INCENTIVIZE.  Click the image for more details

Are departures preventable?  In the majority of cases, the answer is “yes.”  Preventing a valued, Engaged employee from leaving requires carefully planning and good observation skills.  You must pay particular attention to the opportunity-related signals you are sending through things like promotion, increases in responsibility, interesting projects and other challenges, and rewards.  Engaged employees want to feel like they are valued and that their efforts are getting them somewhere.

But Engaged employees are also the ones that are least likely to complain when those elements aren't adequately present – they tend to vote with their feet.  As a result, managers need to watch for the signs that their most valuable employees may be looking elsewhere.  Over the next few weeks, I’ll be exploring each of these signs and discussing what you can do to counter the situation.  So without further ado, here are the subtle (and not-so-subtle) signs that an employee may be on the verge of quitting.

  1. Taking mysterious time off
  2. Offering vague explanations about what’s happening when away from work
  3. A change in normal work habits (dressing, workday, personal items)
  4. Rumors that the employee is unhappy or considering leaving
  5. Emotions that are out of the ordinary
  6. Suspicious computer activity
  7. Stepping back from challenges and responsibilities
  8. A sudden change in outside-of-work relationships
  9. Commute fatigue and complaining

Once these subjects have been explored individually, I’ll also provide posts on a few related topics such as:  Intervening in personal matters, Counteroffers, and friendships with subordinates (and anything else that seems appropriately related as I further develop the subject).

Other Recent Posts:

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To the right is the cover for INCENTIVIZE.  This novel is about a U.S. based mining company, and criminal activity that the protagonist (a woman by the name of Julia McCoy) uncovers at the firm's Ethiopian subsidiary.  Her discover sets in motion a series of events that include, kidnapping, murder, and terrorism in the Horn of Africa.

My novels are based on extensions of 27 years of personal experience as a senior manager in public corporations.