Triggers of Turnover

It is well-known that turnover can be a costly exercise for an organisation. Once recruitment, training costs and lost productivity are taken into account, things start to add up quickly. This article draws on some recent research that delves into the triggers of turnover, and aims to help managers consider the topic from a slightly different perspective.

Many of us are familiar with a range of literature which emphasises job satisfaction as a major trigger of turnover. However emerging research suggests that such views may have overstated the importance of job satisfaction in predicting employee turnover.

According to Holtom, Mitchell, Lee and Inderrieden (2005) , precipitating events known as ‘shocks’ cause voluntary turnover more often than job dissatisfaction. Shocks can be positive or negative, and can be personal events (such as winning the lottery) or events that are work-related (such as being overlooked for a promotion or having a disagreement with a co-worker).

The ‘unfolding model’

Obviously the factors that drive individuals to leave an organisation are going to differ from one individual to another. However Holtom et al. suggest that people generally appear to follow one of five psychological and behavioural pathways when resigning. The main attributes of these pathways, which form the “Unfolding Model” of turnover, are as follows:

  • Shocks – A particularly jarring event that initiates the psychological analysis involved in leaving
  • Scripts – Predetermined plans of action
  • Image violations – Occur when an individual’s values, goals, and strategies for goal attainment do not fit with those of the organisation or those reflected in the shock
  • Job satisfaction – Occurs over time as people start to feel that the benefits of the job no longer meet the individual’s requirements
  • Search – Involves those activities associated with looking at alternatives
  • Offer or likely offer –  Whether the offer of a new role is present or imminent

The five different  pathways to turnover are detailed in the table below:

Source: Holtom, B.C., Mitchell, T.R., Lee, T.W., & Inderrieden, E.J. (2005). Shocks and causes of turnover: What they are and how organizations can manage them. Human Resources Management, 44(3), 337-352.

According to the model, being ‘shocked’ results in the quickest turnover. As shown in Path 1, if a person is shocked and has a predetermined plan of action, they are likely to resign within in a short period of time e.g. less than 3 months. For example, if your partner suddenly got offered a job interstate (the “shock”) and you had been hoping to relocate anyway (“a plan”), it is likely that you would leave your job and move straight away.

In Path 2,  if a person is shocked and they don’t have a plan, BUT their values have been violated, they will still leave the company within a short amount of time (e.g. 6 months) after being shocked. According to Holtom et al, a shock combined with an image violation causes a person to reconsider their attachment to the organisation, which reinforces their drive to leave.

Interestingly, the model suggests that turnover initiated by job dissatisfaction, as seen in Paths 4A and 4B, will often take much longer to come to pass than turnover initiated by shock, particularly when they don’t have a plan in place. The only exception can be seen in Path 3. If a person is satisfied but shocked, their values are breached, and they don’t have a plan they will take a long time to resign. The authors propose that the shock and image violations initiate a comparison of the current job with various alternatives, which can occur over a long period.


What does all this mean?

This study suggests that job dissatisfaction is not the primary cause of most voluntary turnover. Rather, it is shocks or sudden events that lead to the most immediate action when it comes to turnover. We are not suggesting that job dissatisfaction should be disregarded entirely. It is a proven trigger of turnover and it is clearly important to engage your employees and attempt to keep job satisfaction high. What the study does suggest though, is that perhaps the role of shocks should be given more emphasis in leadership training regarding employee retention.

Interested in exploring the impact of shocks on turnover? Want to integrate an exit interview process into your organisation? Contact HC directly on (02) 8061-3918 or email us at [email protected] for further information.


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