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Martin Baker

Clear Lessons & The Charity Learning Consortium


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Why employees resign: recognising disengagement, and what to do about it


Martin Baker is the Chief Executive of the Corporate eLearning Consortium. He’s recognised as being one of the top ten most influential people working in learning technologies in the UK. Here he shares an analysis from the Toolkit for Managers on the work of Leigh Branham - a key contributor to the debate on employee retention.

Leigh Branham’s book The Seven Hidden Reasons Employees Leave is based on in-depth analysis of exit interview data gathered by the Saratoga Institute.[1]

This identified the root causes of employee disengagement and why they ultimately leave. This analysis taken from the Toolkit for Managers profiles Branham’s seven reasons, alongside his insights on what employers can do to improve engagement and reduce turnover.

1. The job or workplace was not as expected.

Many employees leave soon after starting a new job: a phenomenon often termed ‘the induction crisis’. This is commonly linked to some form of post-recruitment ‘surprise’, where the new employee realises their expectations of the job or the organisation will not be met. Where the reality of working for an employer is quite different to the original promise, the psychological contract they’ve entered can be broken.

What to do:

  • Give candidates an accurate insight into: how the organisation operates; its culture and values; the requirements of the role and responsibilities of the job. In return, candidates should be encouraged to voice their expectations and needs openly, to minimise misunderstanding.
  • Provide opportunities for candidates to interact with their potential colleagues and manager(s), to get a flavour of working for the organisation. Existing team members could be involved in the interview and selection process, or candidates could shadow them at work.
  • Provide new employees with information on what to expect. For example, how their performance will be managed and the organisation’s approach to learning and development.
  • Survey new recruits to learn how to reduce post-recruitment surprises and improve recruitment and induction processes.

2. A mismatch between the job and the person.

Many employees feel frustrated that they’re unable to use their skills, and that their best talents are ignored. They may feel restricted by an unchallenging job or be faced with tasks that overstretch them due to a lack of relevant skills or training.

What to do:

  • Before filling each vacancy evaluate the role to identify the competencies required to perform it effectively.
  • Ensure a good fit between a candidate’s skills and the role requirements by conducting a rigorous, competency-based selection process. This should focus on assessment of the skills, knowledge and experience needed to perform the job well.
  • Don’t rely on traditional methods of recruitment alone. Open up the pool for recruitment and consider new sources of talent - for example include older workers, source talent from abroad or develop your own internal talent pool - to increase the likelihood of finding a good fit.
  • Improve engagement by identifying and nurturing talent. This can be achieved by coaching employees to realise their strengths and identify where they can add value.
  • Increase autonomy to create new challenges and job enrichment.

3. Too little coaching and feedback.

Improving the quality of coaching and feedback can have a positive impact on engagement and retention rates. Research shows that employees who are coached can feel a stronger sense of organisational commitment.

What to do:

  • Aim to create a culture of continuous improvement by providing structured coaching and regular feedback to all employees, particularly new ones.
  • Ensure that managers are held accountable for coaching and giving feedback to their staff. Train managers to deliver effective performance reviews and feedback.
  • Be prepared to deal with persistent poor performance where feedback and coaching efforts fail. Consider moving the individual to a role which better suits their skills.

4. Too few growth and advancement opportunities.

Insufficient training, lack of promotion opportunities, ignoring internal talent in favour of recruiting externally, and favouritism are some of the reasons why employees decide to look for more rewarding opportunities elsewhere.

What to do:

  • Help employees assess their talents by providing self-assessment tools and training in career self-management.
  • Help managers understand their primary responsibility for employee development. Providing management training in how to coach team members to identify their strengths and career goals.
  • Do not rely on rigid, traditional career development paths. Develop an awareness of differing career paths, and allow employees choice in how to develop their careers, e.g. shadowing someone in a different area of the organisation.
  • Improve career advancement by recruiting internally. Develop a fair and efficient system of internal job-posting and build a skills orientated database of those looking for an internal move or secondment.
  • Demonstrate a strong commitment to employee learning and development to help improve productivity and retention rates. Encourage managers to regularly review and evaluate development needs.

5. Feeling devalued and unrecognised.

Lack of appreciation or recognition, being paid less than the market rate or being passed over for promotion are some of the ways employees can be made to feel devalued by their employer.

What to do:

  • Create a culture of informal recognition by encouraging managers to show appreciation to their staff in different ways e.g. by giving verbal or written thanks, or by organising team activities or social events.
  • Use creative flexible benefits which can be tailored to suit employee preferences, with a mixture of financial and non-financial options. Ask employees to identify the rewards that mean the most to them, and offer these accordingly.
  • Ask for input on how to improve the organisation, perhaps by using an employee suggestion scheme. Recognise input by giving rewards for ideas that are implemented.
  • Keep employees informed about organisational changes and developments in order to build a sense of ownership and commitment. Communicate key information such as objectives and the organsation’s financial position, or consider giving employees a financial stake in the business with company shares or options.

6. Stress from overwork and work-life imbalance.

Work-related stress is a fact of life for many employees. Sources of stress include overwork, conflict, and poor work-life balance. These issues affect productivity and morale, and can result in employees seeking work elsewhere.

What to do:

  • Develop a culture of ‘giving before getting’. Organisations who genuinely care for their employees through the provision of comprehensive work-life, health and other benefits garner a stronger sense of commitment than those who offer the bare minimum.
  • Build social connectedness between employees to help develop positive relationships and increase commitment to the organisation. This can be achieved by bringing together different teams, organising group activities and creating employee interest groups.
  • Encourage fun in the workplace as a means of combating stress.
  • Tackle the root causes of stress e.g. by addressing issues with difficult managers, hiring more staff to cope with increased workloads or improving work-life balance options.

7. Loss of trust and confidence in senior leaders.

Disappointment in senior leaders can stem from a lack of trust in their ability to lead the organisation effectively. Leaders can often appear unapproachable to employees and isolated from the rest of the organisation. Employees can lose confidence in their leaders as a result of poor decision-making or ineffective management of change. Other leaders may show little concern or appreciation for employees.

What to do:

  • Leaders can inspire confidence by having a clear, achievable vision for the future and a well communicated strategy for how the organisation will achieve its aims.
  • Leaders can instil trust in their employees by showing integrity in their actions and ‘doing what they say’.


By following Branham’s advice, organisations can mitigate against the key causes of employee disengagement and ultimately reduce the chances for employees to take their talent elsewhere. His suggestions provide a clear roadmap for the development of a proactive and strategic approach to improving retention. Employees and the organisational knowledge they possess are a key source of competitive advantage, so an understanding of the seven root causes of disengagement is critical to tackling unwanted turnover.

[1] The Saratoga Institute is considered to be a world leader in the field of third-party exit interviewing and provision of employee commitment surveys. Data was collected from 20,000 exit interviews over a five year period from 1999 to 2003.

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