Those who are thinking about leaving their job may be giving off cues that others can pick up on, even if the would-be quitters think they are keeping their plans secret.

Tim Gardner, a Utah State University associate professor at the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business, and two colleagues completed a study on voluntary turnover with findings that may surprise those who think they can easily identify an employee who is about to jump ship.

The researchers used a complex statistical methodology as they conducted three different studies, using seven different samples that included undergraduate students, graduate students, managers, and business leaders from around the world.

Something Unexpected

Gardner said he was surprised when his research showed, for example, that an employee who starts taking more vacation time, punching out at 5 p.m. every day, and looking at outside openings on company time, isn't necessarily someone who is about to leave.

One thing most employees have in common before they left was that they begin to disengage in the workplace.
He discovered, however, that one thing most employees have in common before they left was that they begin to disengage in the workplace. Here are a few examples of subtle but consistent behavioral changes people often make in the one to two months before they leave their job:

  • They offer fewer constructive contributions in meetings.
  • They are more reluctant to commit to long-term projects.
  • They become more reserved and quiet.
  • They became less interested in advancing in the organization.
  • They are less interested in pleasing their boss than before.
  • They avoid social interactions with their boss and other members of management.
  • They suggest fewer new ideas or innovative approaches.
  • They begin doing the minimum amount of work needed and no longer go beyond the call of duty.
  • They are less interested in participating in training and development programs.
  • Their productivity decreases.

Gardner said that if employees are demonstrating at least six of these behaviors, his statistical formula could predict with 80% accuracy that they were about to leave the organization.

People who are contemplating a job change are more likely to share company secrets or do things to sabotage the organization's goals.
Gardner, who worked with Huntsman professor Steve Hanks and Chad H. Van Iddekinge, of Florida State University, says the list of indicators that might tell a boss that someone is thinking of leaving were not surprising. What was unexpected, however, were the behaviors that did not make the list.

"People having a lot of 'doctor's appointments,' showing up to work in a suit, or leaving a resume on the printer were the kind of signs that dropped off the list," Gardner says.

"You might think that someone who starts showing up to work late, failing to return phone calls and emails, and taking lots of sick days might be about to leave, but those weren't unique behaviors that applied only to the quitters."

Gardner says that in today's competitive business environment, where companies invest a lot in their top performers, this information might help managers find ways to keep people on board.

He says the "dark side" of his research is that some employers may opt to let people go if they thought they were going to leave anyway. Research has shown that people who are contemplating a job change are more likely to share company secrets or do things to sabotage the organization's goals.

"It appears that a person's attitude can create behaviors that are hard to disguise," he says.

"As the grass starts to look greener on the other side of the fence to you, chances are that others will soon notice that you've lost your focus."