Why people quit: What HR should know

If your organisation is experiencing high turnover, ask yourself: How can you, as HR, stop the bleeding?
By: | March 12, 2018

For decades, we’ve all heard the saying “people don’t leave their jobs, they leave their bosses”. This was the conclusion from decades of Gallup data and interviews with 25 million employees.

Without a doubt, if you had a horrible boss, you would leave in a heartbeat as well. But what if the attrition was not due to the poor leadership and management? In an article by the people team from Facebook, a case study of their attrition rates pointed to hygiene factors instead. It was less of mismanagement from their managers, and more because of the nature of work itself.

The argument where the fault may lie with the employee might be a sound one, but looking deep into the situation, what were the pull and push factors that truly engineered the exit? It was the delusional farce of the business.

It’s always easy to place the blame on others, be it the people managers or the employee. Rome was not built overnight, neither will the employee’s choice to exit be due to a small incident. It was a collation of disappointments, empty promises, frustrations, missed opportunities and roadblocks that led to the exit.

While the idiom “where the fish rots from the head down” is not biologically true, this idiom is most often used for companies and governments that are known to be mismanaged, or corrupt. Where does one suppose the frustrations from the nature of work might be from? Go ahead, make your best guess. I’ll wait.

The straw that broke the camel’s back

Employee turnover isn’t ideal but it is inevitable, so why are we all so hung up on it? Simply, the cost of turnover is not only expensive, it’s like a plague that destroys your teams from within. For the uninitiated, this article by George Dickson simply outlines the cost of turnovers, and how it will quickly reach deep into different areas without directly surfacing on the balance sheets.

Here are a few things that your business is doing that might just be things that are driving your people away:

1. Horrible people managers

Let’s start with the most intimate of relationships within the workplace. The relationship between the employee and their managers. It’s understandable how the source of frustration might be from their managers as there are so many different expectations here to be fulfilled. The manager needs an employee who performs desirably and captures the attention of the business leads, while the employee seeks personal growth and a level of care by their managers to support them in their time of need.

So why shouldn’t an employee place substantial value on the relationship with their manager?

A good manager will give you the freedom to grow, mentor you to be better at what you do, and make your daily work enjoyable. A bad/ toxic manager, by contrast, can hold you back professionally, developmentally, and make you unhappy. In undesirable cases, a bad manager could be holding you back from delivering on your work as well.


No one is born a full-fledged leader, neither is it theoretically possible to be the perfect leader as the management of people is an iterative process where it continues to grow over the decades. The way people behave and connect constantly changes as values change across generations. This is where the business should be placing their efforts in, constantly guiding and developing its managers to handle every new situation which might arise.

Being a good manager isn’t rocket science, but it takes hard work. Unfortunately, a lot of managers don’t put the same dedication and effort into people management as they would in their individual crafts of what they consider their “real” work is.

Good management takes effort and experience, but it’s really pretty straightforward

2. Meeting the needs of your people

Bear in mind what ultimately drives people to work, is it for a fulfilment of personal needs, or is it something closer to survivability and financial stability?

Photo credit: Raymond Soh’s LinkedIn profile

Look well into levels 4 and 5, has your company ever addressed the de-motivators as explained in the diagram above? Recognitions are great, but have you met the security and survival needs of an individual? In this day and age, as cost of living continues to rocket above the stars, while the employers drag their feet whenever it comes to merit adjustments. We’ve always heard that age-old saying where “money is the root of all evil”, but if you’re a good employee who feels undervalued and under-compensated, would you not look out at greener pastures?

As rightfully foreseen by Cameron Keng on Forbes, there is a dire need for skilled labour, and businesses around the world are starved for talent. Companies can tout technology and artificial intelligence disrupting jobs and replace the need for labour, but it is only exacerbating the global shortage of human capital and skilled workers. This would only mean that employees have gained the upper hand in the negotiation for better salaries. After all, why would one punish themselves by staying loyal to the business if the payout for job switching is much more attractive?


Now, I’m not saying that you should go ahead to overcompensate every employee in the business. However, you should never drag your feet around merit increases. Also, by providing the adjustments yearly on par with inflation rates is definitely not the way forward. The adjustment against inflation provides for the situation to remain status quo but it doesn’t propel an individual towards the next level of engagement, after all, there is zero increment in real wages and it does not meet their survivability needs.

I urge businesses to look beyond inflation rates to rightly compensate its employees against competitive and fair salary bands within their operating industries. The total cost of this movement could very well be a fraction of the turnover cost in the long run. Afterall, the 3% increment standard was meant to be a temporary adjustment to meet recession needs, which manifested into a global merit increment practice today.

3. The job of yesteryears

Pause for a moment and think deep into your daily work. Has it ever occurred to you why some things you’ve done at work feels dated? Almost archaic if I may. The design of each job date back to the early years with little study and iteration in the ways of working. If anything, the scope and load of each job has extensively increased over the decades and had long lost the human aspect of doing things.

Looking back to the chart from the Maslow’s Hierarchy adaption above, if you’ve met the two critical layers of survivability and security, the next step to engagement screams for the need to be part of a team, and seeing a future with the business. The transformational sense of belonging to a business and the need for recognition starts from the nature of work each employee does over a course of an 8-hour workday. When employees fail to see a clear path within the business, it is hard for any individual to justify their prolonged tenure.

Interestingly, if an employee feels that if you’re not providing the opportunity for challenge, engaging work, you’re naturally going to lose these employees. The lack of challenge or the absence of a level of autonomy over their work and life causes the disassociation between them and the company. Nobody enjoys a micromanager who limits their growth and their innovative ideas.

No one wants to feel infantilised or that they aren’t trusted to make the most basic decisions in their work. People want the opportunity to be the expert in their own job.


Have regular pulse checks on the ground, actively listening and engaging with everyone through their team managers or even having HR teams to go on the ground to listen to their woes on a personal level (not one with any business motives).

It helps to build a strong level of trust and engagement with employees when they are allowed to bring both their goals and their concerns to a manager before it’s too late to identify and solve the problems.

Exit interviews hold rich information where businesses can gather themes around the cause of separation. Given that it is a sharing session on their reasons for the exit, people teams must also be wary that nobody would willingly burn bridges to bring out their ugliest sides. Do look beyond his or her politically correct answers to find the legitimate sore points. Focus on their tenure, and what kept them going throughout this time with you.

Be it people leaving their jobs, or their managers, it is ultimately an exit within the business. It’s up to the business to design jobs and an employee experience that are too good to leave. This comes down to the individual managers. There are many ways to this, and the results greatly differ from a HR-centric management or a customer experience HR management (CxHR). This would be further discussed on a separate occasion.

When you have an employer who cares about your happiness, your success, your career, and your life, you end up with a better job, and it’s hard to imagine working anywhere else.