Many human resource executives spend a great amount of time
and money investigating the causes of employee turnover,
particularly through exit interviews. The objective is to
find out why people leave. If a company can identify the
reasons for terminations and departures, the theory goes,
it can remove some of the causes for employee dissatisfaction.
There are, however, two shortcomings with this traditional
looks only at why people quit. Why not also look at the
reasons others stay? The reasons why people stay are just
as important as the reasons for leaving. One individual
may stay in a job for the same reason another leaves.
interviews also assume there is a correlation between job
dissatisfaction and turnover. A low turnover rate presumes
that employees are happy and consequently productive; this
is not necessarily the case. The mere fact an employee stays
is not as important as why that person remains.
To get a more integrated view of workforce stability, a
study of more than 400 employees in three different companies
investigated the reasons employees stay and proper ways
to encourage retention. This study went as far back as 1973.
Since that time, studies of the attitudes of tens of thousands
of employees in more than 500 organizations elicited similar
results. From anonymous questionnaires and selected interviews,
this is the picture that emerged:
do employees stay? Employees tend to stay where they are
until some force causes them to leave, in other words "inertia."
As in physics, a body will remain as it is until acted upon
by an external force.
causes inertia? Two factors inside organizations and two
factors outside make people stay: job satisfaction and satisfaction
with the working environment. These factors produce the
internal inertia and are directly affected by the positive
or negative correlation between the employee’s personal
value system and that of management.
A disparity between personal and organizational values reduces
the desire to stay, while compatibility between these two
values increases the desire to stay.
The external factors increasing inertia include perceptions
of other job opportunities and personal and family reasons.
Some employees stay because they like the schools or the
neighborhood, but what if both of these deteriorate and
become less appealing? Other job opportunities become more
Other employees report they stayed in an unpleasant job
because they could not leave the community in which they
or their spouses were born and had lived most of their lives.
Despite low job satisfaction, they stayed.
to stay versus have to stay? Progressive management should
try to improve retention by reinforcing positive reasons
for staying, while at the same time making it easier for
people who are staying for negative reasons—negative
to both employer and employee—to quit. Turnover quality,
as opposed to turnover quantity, might improve.
Improving employee retention will be more effective over
the long run than the ordinary, negative approach of simply
reducing turnover. The key is improving attitudes about
the work itself, supervisor competence, confidence in the
fairness of management, work group cooperation, consistency
in treatment, feedback about performance, opportunities
to get ahead, and other positive aspects that relate to
the work context. Work content factors—those aspects
of the job inside the organization—include pay, benefits,
facilities, attendance rules, and other environmental aspects.
External factors include outside job opportunities, the
community, financial obligations, family ties, and even
the annual weather patterns. As a result of the combinations
of external and internal factors influencing employees’
job decisions, employees can be identified as one of four
are not happy with their jobs, have few external reasons
to stay, and will leave at the first opportunity. Employees
may not start out in this position, but a gradual erosion
of their inertia causes them to slide into this area.
are candidates for unions and employee relations and productivity
problems. These employees have negative attitudes about
their jobs and stay because of golden handcuffs. They may
feel they are too old to start over again and are locked
in by benefit programs and high rates of pay. Productivity
have positive attitudes and remain with the company almost
exclusively for reasons associated with the work itself.
From management’s point of view, as well as the individual
employee’s, this situation is the most desirable.
If management actions lower attitudes and the positive,
work-related reasons to stay, turnover will probably jump.
Because the turn-ons are not affected by environmental factors,
they will not stay without continual job satisfaction.
plus employees are likely to stay for the long run because
they have work and environmental satisfaction. A short-term
drop in satisfaction does not lead to resignation. If attitudes
drop permanently, however, these employees become turn-offs.
This does not raise turnover, but increases employee relations
The traditional approach to measuring and understanding
terminations has focused on turnovers. These employees generally
represent a small percentage of the total employee population;
therefore, directing retention efforts at them exclusively
ignores the reasons the majority of the workforce stays
with the company. Employers wanting to improve their working
environments should stop assuming exit interviews are providing
a meaningful picture of why other employees stay.
An anonymous attitude survey was used to identify where
employees fit in the matrix of "having to stay versus
wanting to stay." This survey covered 20 factor-analyzed
statements to which individuals could respond "Agree,"
"Disagree," or "?". It explored job
satisfaction, supervision, management, advancement, working
conditions, pay, benefits, communication, performance expectations,
job security, favoritism, use of skills, work group cooperation,
rules, freedom to do the job well, plus an item on whether
the individual had looked for another job during the past
Correlations between each attitude factor and whether the
individuals were looking or not looking to terminate from
their company were sought. For example, if they were satisfied
with any factor but looking to terminate anyway, they were
classified as "turned-on" by that factor, but
"not locked in." Conversely, if individuals were
"dissatisfied" by any of the attitude factors
and not looking for another job, they were "turned
off" by that factor or factors, plus they were "locked
in." If an individual was "satisfied" with
any factor and "not looking" to quit, then that
factor, or factors, "turned on" but did not "lock
in" that employee.
Consequently, there are three reasons employees stay: two
positive (want to, and want to plus have to) and one negative
(do not want to, but have to). None of these shows up as
a turnover statistic and none gets an exit interview. In
short, sometimes companies have lost many people who are
still with them. So it is why people stay, not just why
they leave that must be considered.
Employee Value Systems Sway Employees’ Job
In looking at attitudes, what stimulates some individuals
drives others crazy and vice versa. It is a matter of each
individual’s value system. Not everyone finds the
same satisfaction from the same work. Some prefer a variety
of tasks, and others prefer routines. Some want a participative
management style, and some truly want to be told what to
do and do not want to make any decisions. Some seek promotion,
and some prefer to stay where they are.
These individual differences in value systems are not unusual.
People are dramatically different in their values for working
and often hold quite different values for working than does
upper management. Research has easily identified situations
in which two individuals occupy similar jobs with the same
supervisor, the same pay and benefits, working conditions,
and so on. But one employee was satisfied, and one was dissatisfied—by
the same things. One may be looking to leave, and the other
looking to stay. Therefore, it is necessary to add another
dimension to determine what keeps people in a job—value
To capture these individual differences, a second part
was added to the survey that studied employee attitudes—an
analysis of an individual’s value systems. This analysis
is accomplished by an instrument that measures six different
aspects of value systems.
Clannish. Characterized by a strong focus
on the group leader (chieftain) and his or her benevolent
autocratic style, this person desires a routine, non-decision-making
job. Pay and benefits security are essential, and this employee
works most effectively under a paternalistic management
style. Family values are strong, and advancement is not
essential to job satisfaction. A compatible work group is
necessary. The future is short term, and the inertia is
Cynical. Characterized by rugged individualism
and pervasive negative assumptions, this employee responds
to authoritarian leadership. Tending to be suspicious of
management, this type of person is often disruptive and
a chronic complainer. With a tendency to challenge the supervisor
for control, however, this employee displays no sense of
ethics or fair play.
Conventional. Characterized by the traditional
work ethic, this employee is loyal to causes and organizations
if he or she believes in what they stand for. The employee
prefers highly structured situations, detailed tasks, written
instructions, and unchanging patterns. Judgmental of right
and wrong, he or she will persevere despite adversity and
expects others to conform and work hard for the future.
Competitive. Characterized by materialism,
achievement, and the need for success and achievement, this
employee is goal and career oriented. He or she seeks status
and is an inveterate game player. While trying to manipulate
others for his or her own financial gain, this type of employee
plays to win by gaining titles and controlling others. Planning
ahead for every aspect of life, this employee is constantly
trying to influence and sell others on what to do; money
is the scorecard.
Compassionate. Characterized by a high
degree of concern for other people and social causes, this
employee places humanistic ideals foremost, and cooperative,
non-conflicting work groups are preferred. Harmony among
people is essential for this type of person to support the
peer-group focus, but the employee will persist in unpleasant
situations if it is helpful to others. He or she is distrustful
of manipulative people and sensitive to feelings and moods.
Conscious. Characterized by individuality
in action and behavior, this employee has a high concern
for intrinsic work satisfaction over money or promotion
in and of themselves. He or she is outspoken on beliefs,
but quick to change if appropriate; learning and self-development
are paramount needs. This employee provides his or her own
leadership and is flexible and adaptive in behavior and
Research indicates clannish and cynical employees usually
stay at their jobs because they are locked in by external
factors; that is, they cannot leave because they have no
place to go, regardless of whether they like their current
situation. They show a high degree of inertia and so remain
where they are—whether they are satisfied or dissatisfied.
Consequently, a company can have low turnover, but that
does not by itself illustrate whether employees are staying
because they want to or because they have to. It is necessary
to look at attitudes to find out. The internal organizational
reasons to stay are primarily pay and benefits more than
intrinsic work satisfaction and management style. Thus,
low turnover proves nothing but low turnover; why they stay
is the key.
Conventional and compassionate employees are about equal
on internal and external reasons to stay. They stay because
they cannot leave, and they also stay because they want
to. The internal reasons they remain with their companies
include pay and benefits, plus intrinsic work satisfaction
and appreciation of the management style of the organization.
In short, they stay for more traditional reasons.
Compassionate and conventional employees show a classical
balanced pattern familiar to human resource people. They
stay with a company during short-term difficulties and dissatisfaction.
In these instances, then, a company can have low turnover
but high dissatisfaction. To presume morale is high because
turnover is low is a serious error. That is why they seek
union representation rather than quit.
Competitive and conscious employees stay almost exclusively
for positive reasons. They are far less vulnerable to being
locked in. Their turn-ons come mainly from positive motivation
relating to their working situation and seldom from external
Competitive employees stay primarily for factors relating
to advancement and pay, whereas, conscious employees stay
mainly for intrinsic work satisfaction and to use their
skills and abilities. They pay little attention to external
factors and keep their resumés up to date so they
can leave quickly if they become dissatisfied.
Who Stays Versus Who Goes
From the analysis of value systems, it becomes apparent
that quantity of turnover is not as important as is the
quality. Is the company keeping the people it needs for
the future? Exit interviews with those who leave provide
little information about why others stay. To find that out,
employers must ask those who stay why they choose to do
so. To keep them, employers must reinforce the positive
aspects of their employees’ reasons for staying and
eliminate the negative aspects of jobs.
Since many people stay because their value system tends
to lock them in, it is in everyone’s interest (except
labor unions) to search out and eliminate the negative aspects
that turn off those value systems and accentuate the positive
aspects of the work. For those employees whose value systems
demand a positive environment and who are not locked in
by negatives or external factors, the positives must be
accentuated as well as the negatives eliminated.
Written by Dr. Charles Hughes of the Center for
Values Research, Dallas, TX. For more information contact
Dr. Charles Hughes, President of CVR at 972-720-9100.