Predicting Who Is About To Quit

I am continually surprised at managers who are surprised when one of their own top people quits. Identifying who is likely to leave is relatively easy-if you are aggressive and think ahead. Some firms have reached as high as 75% accuracy in predicting who is likely to leave. With a planned strategy you can easily predict who is at risk of quitting. Be aware that there are many ethical, legal, and cultural issues involved in using some of the tools outlined below. Although I am not recommending all of these, each has been used by at least one firm. Each individual must set down their own limits, but it is important to remember that the goal of identifying who might be looking should never be to punish or criticize those individuals. A “Who is vulnerable?” search should be done in a positive manner, as an effort to begin the process of re-motivating the employee. The goal should never be to seek out the “disloyal.” Smart managers use this knowledge to improve the “lookers” job. Also be aware that as many as 85 percent of the reasons why a typical employee leaves are controlled by their direct manager-so the focus of most successful retention efforts must revolve around the manager! Part I. How To Find The Names Of Employees That Are Looking

  1. Ask people to tell you.
    • Ask the entire team to force rank who is most likely to leave.
    • Ask consultants who work with you which employees inquire about what it’s like to become a consultant.
    • Get managers to use their personal credibility to directly ask the employees, “Will you let me know if at any point your are considering entering the job market?”
    • Identify their best friend and ask them to tell you.
    • Identify the office “gossip” and the receptionist and ask them to educate you when they think someone is looking.
    • Have headhunters do a “dry search” of your team in order to identify who is worth poaching.
    • Hire executive search firms to use their contacts to develop a list of “lookers,” or those that are likely to get headhunter calls.
    • Ask their “references” to let you know when they are unhappy/looking.
    • Hire away a competitor’s recruiters and ask them who was looking.
    • Hire a private detective to see who is looking/unhappy.
  2. Actively search for who was looking.
    • Search the web’s job boards for the resumes of your employees.
    • Use spiders to constantly track when new resumes are added and old ones are updated.
    • Check to see if the information/resume on their personal website has been recently updated.
    • Have a recruiter call them directly and see how fast they respond and how interested they are in talking.
    • Run a blind ad to attract your own employees that may be looking.
    • Attend job fairs and see if any of your employee attend.
    • Use a “who is overdue” list to identify who is likely to leave due to their lack of promotions, opportunities etc.
    • Look at the timing of previous job changes to see if there is a predictable pattern of when they are likely to leave.
  3. Things they do that indicate they may be looking:
    • Increase reading of job want ads or subscriptions to magazines and papers that carry a large number of ads.
    • Look at an individuals resume to see if there is a predictable time before they move on (18 months to 2 years).
    • Have your benefits department notify you when employees asks “quitting related” questions (How much would I cash out at? How do I ensure a continuation of benefits? How do I exercise all of my stock options?).
    • Increase attendance or speaking at conferences.


  4. Other:
    • Do individual satisfaction (morale) surveys or 360 degree assessments to identify who is not satisfied.
    • Ask them about their dream job and how far from attaining it they are.
    • Do an individual frustration survey to find out their frustration level and what might trigger them into leaving.
    • Do a statistical profile of past high-performance employee “losses” to identify any possible patterns and common causes.
    • Identify high performers that were “overdue” for a promotion, raise etc.
    • Assume the best are automatically the targets of outside recruiters, so focus on the top 30% as potential turnover problems.
    • In a similar light, assume the bottom 30% are not desirable and thus are less likely to be recruited away.

Part II. Smoke Detectors: Early Warning Signs Of Potential Turnover Before someone actually leave there are usually warning signs that they are unhappy. Some of them might include:

  • Life events that are possible “pre-cursors” (predictors) to an employee leaving:
  • Their last kid graduates.
  • They received (or will soon) an advanced degree/certificate.
  • They turn 40 (or 30 or 50).
  • A recent divorce or death in the family.
  • They are rejected for job promotion, ideas, project funding etc.
  • Family/home life instability.
  • Other “pre-cursors” (predictors) to an employee leaving:
  • Increased visibility (holding office) in professional associations, etc.
  • Increased use of sick days (especially on Friday or Monday)
  • Frequent time off on afternoons and unusual dressing up
  • They spend increased time on the Internet.
  • As a large amount of their stock vests, they sell all of their company stock.
  • A major project ends.
  • A recent stock crash or options underwater.
  • A mentor/friend/or manager left recently.
  • The completion of a major product.
  • A new manager is assigned.
  • A major re-organization occurs.
  • Others in job/dept./team have left recently.
  • They visit career center library

Be sure to increase identification efforts following a “trauma,” like a merger, RIF, product failure, or the loss of major customer. You should also offer a group incentive to the team if everyone stays until project completion, in order to encourage others to tell you about a possible “quitter”.

  • Indications of dissatisfaction which may lead to eventual turnover:
  • Less overtime or not working late.
  • Consistent whining or formal complaints.
  • They disagreed with their recent performance appraisal.
  • They no longer volunteer for projects.

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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