According to a July 2022 report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “the rate of job quitting in the United States has reached highs not seen since the start of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey program in December 2000.”
This phenomenon, knowns as the “Great Resignation”, is a workplace trend that started in early 2021 and has seen record high numbers of employees voluntarily resigning from their jobs. This trend of high turnover continues today, and shows little sign of slowing.
Employee turnover—the number and rate at which people leave an organization—has a direct financial impact on an organization and its people. It also has an emotional impact; no manager feels good about losing a good employee, or even worse, your star employee.
The good news is that there are often warning signs an employee is about to quit. In these cases, you may be able to manage the situation to either keep that employee, or at least prepare yourself and your team for their departure (and start recruiting!).
Here I'll go into what those signs are and some early-warning systems you can put in place to alert you.
What can cause an employee to quit?
Before we jump into the signs an employee is about to quit, it’s worth mentioning some of the most common triggers that can cause someone to want to quit.
- Feeling ignored, unappreciated, or taken for granted
- Lack of career advancement or career development opportunities
- Major life changes, such as divorce, health issues, or a death in the family
- Unhappy with the job’s role, responsibilities, or compensation
- Failed to achieve a promotion or salary increase
- Challenges with manager, co-workers or other team members
- Dissatisfied with the work environment or company culture.
If you can be aware of these types of issues and address them proactively, your team members may never get to the stage of feeling like leaving. That said, some of these (e.g. compensation) may be easier to change than others (e.g. company culture).
8 Signs an Employee is About to Quit
Over my years of managing people and reflecting on things like pre-quitting behaviour and exit interviews, I’ve identified various signs an employee is about to quit.
They aren’t foolproof, unfortunately there will always be that surprise resignation you weren’t expecting.
However, being aware of these signs might help you keep that valued employee you care so much about.
Sign #1 - Unusual behaviour or a new “bad attitude”
A change in someone’s attitude can be subtle or obvious, but a negative attitude will almost always be visible as a change to their normal behaviour.
For example, if your star employee is suddenly complaining constantly about the company or their job, or being rude or dismissive to you or their teammates, this could be a sign they are about to quit. If a normally conservative team member has started to take silly or unnecessary risks, they might be thinking, “What have I got to lose?”.
Sign #2 - Increased LinkedIn or networking activity
In my experience, unless they’re planning on traveling the world or going back to school, most people don’t quit their job without having a new gig already lined up.
If you see your employee active on sites like LinkedIn or Xing, it’s a good indication they’re actively searching for a new job. This activity could include updating their profile, adding more recommendations, connecting with more people than usual, or posting more than normal.
Similarly, if your employee is attending more conferences or networking events than they have before, it could be a sign they’re about to quit.
Sign #3 - Taking unusual amounts of time off work
When a team member who typically takes vacation as blocks of time off—multiple days or weeks—suddenly starts taking random single or half days off, this could be an indication they’re interviewing for another job.
Similarly, if your star employee begins taking longer lunch breaks, or having more “personal appointments” that take them away from work for a few hours in the middle of the day, this could be a sign they’re about to quit.
Sign #4 - Avoiding bigger projects or long-term commitments
When I decided to quit my corporate job I purposefully avoided taking on any big projects or commitments. I knew that I would be leaving before they were completed and I didn’t want to leave the team in a lurch. Lead a big strategy meeting to chart the course of our business over the next year? No thank you!
If a great employee who ordinarily jumps at the chance to take on new projects or tasks suddenly begins jumping at the chance not to, there’s a chance it’s because they’re about to jump ship.
Sign #5 - Abnormal work performance
When a high-performing employee suddenly starts missing deadlines or producing poor-quality work, it could be a result of them mentally checking out of their job as they prepare to quit.
This is even more likely if their role and responsibilities, and your expectations or standards, haven’t changed. If you provide feedback to your team member about their poor performance, and they don’t seem to care or have no real explanation for why their performance has dropped, this could also indicate they’re preparing to walk out the door.
Sign #6 - Distancing themselves from you and colleagues
In my experience, the best employees are those who are also great team players and get along well with their co-workers. I’ve also found that these employees usually have some sense of duty and loyalty to their manager and team so, if they’re about to quit, they’re likely to feel at least a little bad about it.
If this describes your employee, and they start to cancel your regular 1:1 check-ins, blow off meetings, stop attending team events and celebrations, or avoid you as much as possible, this could be a sign they’re close to leaving.
Sign #7 - Unusual network drive/file activity
As employees, we invest a lot of ourselves into our work. We put time and effort, often over the course of years, into creating systems, processes, documents, presentations, etc. It can be difficult for some people to just walk away from all of that and leave the fruits of their labor behind, particularly if they think that those fruits might help them in their next job.
If you or your IT department notices that your team member is downloading or copying large numbers of files to a location outside your network, like an external data storage device, this could be a sign they’re about to quit. It could also be a violation of company confidentiality and intellectual property rules, in which case you might need to make their decision to quit for them.
Sign #8 - Getting their affairs in order
Most great employees also have a great work ethic and consideration for their team mates. Some of these employees may feel the need to “get their affairs in order” before they leave to enable an easy transition for their replacement.
If you see a valued employee taking the initiative and putting in extra time to document their role and responsibilities, create “how-to” manuals, and organize their file systems and work documentation, it could be a sign they’re about to quit.
(Bonus) Sign #9 - Finding their resume on the shared printer
Ok, this one is kind of obvious, but it happens! Once many years ago I found a colleague’s resume on the printer we shared. I didn’t mention anything to him, and in hindsight maybe I should have told his manager, but he left the company shortly after.
“Early warning” mechanisms
Before we jump into some of the mechanisms, systems, and processes you can use to get an early warning that an employee is about to quit, remember this: assume positive intent!
In other words, if you see one or some of the behaviours or warning signs listed above (with the exception of #8), don’t immediately jump to the conclusion they’re about to quit.
For example, if they’re distancing themselves from you or colleagues, or taking random days off work, maybe they’re dealing with personal issues. If their work performance is suffering, maybe it’s because one of their colleagues keeps dropping the ball.
Start with the assumption that there is something else going on, and that their intentions toward you and the organization remain positive.
Mechanism #1 - Implement employee feedback systems
We discuss various employee feedback mechanisms in our related article here but, in my experience, the most important mechanism is the 1:1 check-in. Nothing can replace sitting with someone one-on-one, listening to their feedback and concerns, observing their tone and body language, and discussing work performance.
Mechanism #2 - Track goals and deliverables
A critical part of monitoring work performance, and being able to see when things start to go off the rails, is by setting and tracking your employee’s goals and deliverables. If you’ve got a good goal-setting system in place, and you review it regularly, this can give you advance warning that something might be going wrong.
Mechanism #3 - Track vacation and time off work
In general, I don’t recommend requiring employees to track an hour off work here and there for things like dentist appointments. That said, I do highly recommend having a time-tracking system that allows employees to track days off work, whether it’s for vacation or some other type of leave. This system should also allow you to review these days to look for any anomalies.
Mechanism #4 - Follow them on social networking sites
There’s nothing wrong with connecting with your employees on social networking sites, as long as the intention isn’t to analyze their every post and activity. There’s a difference between following someone because you’re interested in their content and stalking someone with negative intent.
Mechanism #5 - Track network file activity
There are apps and software solutions that enable you to monitor file activity on things like shared network drives. For example, Google’s G Suite Business edition provides the ability to audit drives and check download activity. Custom software might be required for your particular network storage system, but it could be worth it not only to protect your data, but to get insight into whether someone’s about to quit.
What can cause an employee to stay?
We’ve covered why people quit and the signs they’re about to, so it only seems fair to touch on how you can make great employees stay.
In my experience, things like compensation, benefits, and work environment are important, but people become truly loyal to an organization when they’re driven by the purpose of that organization, they love the company culture, and they’re highly motivated and engaged.
Unfortunately, there is no magic recipe for how to do these things and retain high-performing employees, but you can start by reading some of these articles on our website!
- Company Culture: Why It Matters And How To Improve Your Own
- People Management Tips For New And Experienced Managers
- Engaging Employees Through Empathetic Leadership: What I Learned
- A Better World Of Work Is One With Balance And Belonging
- How To Do Employee Recognition The Right Way (with Tom Short from Kudos)
- How To Create A Compensation Philosophy For Better Hiring And Retention
- How To Identify, Pre-empt, And Deal With Workplace Burnout