When an employee decides to leave their current employer for a new opportunity, too many managers are caught off guard, wondering what went wrong. Even conducting exit interviews isn’t always a reliable way to prevent future turnover, since employees may not feel able to speak freely about what contributed to their decision to leave.
To help open up a conversation about this challenging subject, we surveyed candidates who have made a career change in the past and gave them the opportunity to speak anonymously about the factors that influenced their decision. We wanted to find out two related but distinct things: what long-term conditions influenced their decision to change jobs, and what was the “final straw” that determined when it was the right time to make a change?
Here’s what we learned:
Toxic Cultures & Poor Leadership
Great workplace cultures vary as widely as great workers do - different types of employees will thrive in different environments, and there’s no one “right” way to run a company. However, there are a few common elements of positive cultures, such as respect, community, support, and good communication. In the same way, many toxic cultures also have a few things in common: a lack of trust and respect, an unhealthy work-life balance, and a lack of support, just to name a few. Many of those cultural elements, both positive and negative, start at the top of a company, with the behavior and practices that are modeled by the company’s leaders.
When asked about the biggest long-term influences on their decision to make a career change, 38% of our respondents cited a lack of leadership and/or culture fit. Over time, toxic cultures and poor leadership wear down employee engagement and can begin to convince employees that they need to look for healthier opportunities elsewhere. Almost half (49%) of our respondents listed a toxic culture or poor leadership as the “final straw” that cemented their decision to change jobs. Another 19% said that being overlooked and overworked was their signal that it was time to leave; a lack of appreciation and support can make employees feel that there is no way to be successful in their current roles, so they make the decision to move on.
Lack of Growth & Development Opportunities
Some employees make the decision to leave a company not because they’re unhappy in the moment, but because they don’t see a future there. About a third of our respondents (34%) said that they felt undervalued or underutilized in their roles during the time before they chose to leave, and another 20% cited a lack of career development opportunities within their companies. When an employee isn’t feeling challenged and can’t see a path forward, they are much more likely to start looking for different opportunities where they can continue to grow, learn, and develop.
While those responses show how a lack of long-term opportunities can contribute to a slow buildup of employee dissatisfaction at a company, our second poll showed that 20% of respondents also named a lack of career growth, or “hitting the glass ceiling,” as the primary reason they chose to make a move when they did. In other words, those factors have both short- and long-term effects on employee retention.
The third major theme that our results showed was the impact of unkept promises. When asked about the “final straw” that convinced them to leave a company, 13% of respondents listed unkept promises. This is especially significant because it shows that there isn’t always a long-term consideration period when an employee runs into an issue in the workplace: once a promise is broken, trust is broken, and employees can quickly decide that it’s time to move on from that company.
That lack of trust is part of toxic cultures, but unfortunately, it’s not always that obvious to employers. Unkept promises can be big issues, like promised raises that don’t occur on schedule or significant changes to an employee’s job description, but they can also be very small things that do not feel small to employees. For example, an employee might be excited to join a company that says it has a supportive and strong team atmosphere - but then they discover that their manager rarely connects with staff and most of the employees feel more comfortable working independently, leaving the new employee feeling isolated and misled. Or an employee could be taking a vacation week, but their manager calls and emails them multiple times a day with questions and problems that just can’t wait. If that employee values work-life balance, that type of interruption can be a deal-breaker.
Other respondents listed issues like an office relocation, nepotism, and a failure to meet industry standards as major reasons for leaving a company behind. There are many reasons why employees decide to change jobs, from long-term goals that a company can’t meet to immediate and significant problems that can’t be resolved. But if managers want to improve employee retention, avoiding toxic cultures and leadership, a lack of growth and development opportunities, and unkept promises is a great place to start.