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September/October 1996

Losing Key Employees? Six Warning Signs

"Losing key employees can be costly to your practice. Here's how to recognize if an employee is contemplating leaving and what, if anything, you can do.

The management of any organization is an extremely complex and difficult task, primarily due to the dramatic changes that are occurring in every industry and the dynamics of the external and internal environment. Based on extensive review of literature, research and formal surveys, organizations today assume they are operating in a hostile external environment. More often than not, government regulations, competition and others external to a group place pressure on organizations just to stay in business. As a result, managers spend much time "looking out" from the organization instead of "looking in." Managers may not value or make use of their most precious resource, their employees. When managers ignore their own employees, they make a critical error in judgment, spending too much time, energy and organization resources on the external marketplace. Managers neglect the internal environment and potentially place the organization out of balance. Mangers need to spend efforts and resources on the internal environment, namely with their employees to meet the internal demands of day-to-day operations, strategic planning, research, employee education and training.

When employees feel an organization "out of balance," they may consider leaving it for "greener pastures." Let's take the scenario that an employee has decided to leave the organization. George was genuinely surprised when Mary, the best clerical employee in the practice, gave two weeks" notice and handed in her resignation. If the supervisor, George, had known about Mary's job-hunting intentions, he may have tried to save Mary by encouraging her to continue to work in their particular office. The purpose of this article is to help managers and supervisors recognize the signals sent by an office employee who begins searching for a new position.

Why Know Someone is Going to Quit?

It is important for a manager to know when an employee is about to consider leaving the organization. Those who are displeased with some aspect of the job or organization are often the first to leave the organization. If managers want to keep the better employees, they want to know what aspects of the job or organization with which employees are displeased. Managers also want to know if they have the power to make the changes necessary to keep the employee in the work force.

There are other reasons why it is useful to know who in the organization is about to leave:

Broken social linkages. When an employee leaves the organization, the social linkages, especially the team-like aspects of the work group are broken, and will have to be rebuilt. This takes time and the contribution of the organization's resources to get the organization "back to where it was" before. The social fabric of the organization is broken when an employee leaves the team; the social relationships are unique and the readjustments can be difficult and can take a long period of time for the supervisor to accomplish.

The morale of the employees "left behind" can suffer. They may feel that the "grass may really be greener" on the other side. Their attitude may suffer. They may feel sadness, real or imagined, over the employee who has left the group. They may feel anger that the supervisor treated the employee unfairly, and may begin to identify with the employee rather than with the remaining work group.

Loose cannons. A resentful former employee in the community can be a "loose cannon" and create a negative public image of the company by telling (true or false) stories about how bad the company supposedly treats people. The organization is then perceived by outsiders as a place that does not treat its employees fairly.

Improved policies. If the needs of the disgruntled employee are met, perhaps the personnel policies for the entire company will have been improved by the process.

Ethical purposes. The ethical ideal of providing secure and meaningful employment for a person even if there are difficult times is also a consideration, especially in organizations that strive for customer loyalty and trust.

Favorable relationships. The employee may have work relationships with outside individuals or organizations which are useful to the company. These will be lost if the person leaves, i.e., favorable relations with customer, clients, regulators, community leaders, other influential people, or even competitors.

Replacement costs. Finally, it is costly to recruit, train and orient a new employee. According to the Fourth Annual SHRM/Saratoga Institute Human Resources Effectiveness Report (HRER), it costs more than $800 to fill each non-exempt clerical vacancy.1 Therefore, management personnel need assistance in identifying early signs that indicate employees are looking for new jobs. If the possibility that a particular employee might leave the organization is disturbing, it would be advisable to prepare a retention strategy for the office. Once an employee decides to look for a new job, the office can suffer from reduced productivity from the "short-timer."

It is difficult for an employee to hide the signs of feeling that something "good" is about to happen, such as entertaining a move to a desirable new job, perhaps one with greater responsibility or increased salary. The manager who is surprised with the news that an employee is leaving has already missed the clues exhibited by that employee about the impending departure.

What Are the Six "I'm-About-to-Quit" Warning Signs?

The Paper Shuffle

Using the office mail for personal business can be a sure sign of a potential job search by an employee. Another indicator is becoming focused on clerical activities that are not a normal part of the routine. Also, the increased use of office duplicating equipment suggests that something out of the ordinary may be afoot, perhaps duplicating letters of recommendation or making copies of a resume to send to prospective employers.

Employee Space Cadets

On-the-job actions, or even an employee's lack of actions, may be an indicator that the person is job hunting. Does the employee seem as committed to the organization's mission, goals, and objectives as before? Does he or she seem to be bored with current job duties? Is the employee spending too little or too much time on specific tasks? Is the employee making more mistakes than usual? Does it seem that the employee's length of concentration is not as long as it used to be?

Is an apparently healthy employee taking time off from work designated as "sick leave"?

Perhaps the time off is being utilized for interviews. Is the employee taking more time than usual for lunch or other breaks? Is the employee "making rounds" throughout the office on what seems to be no more than social calls? These can all be signs that the employee is looking for or has found a new job.

Change in Dress

When an employee arrives at work in extraordinary formal dress, a job interview may be only hours away. Does the employee who never carried a briefcase now have one in hand? Attire is a tough clue to uncover; an employee may take off the entire day, purchasing a day of vacation in the middle of the week, and not present that "best look" at the office. However, the employee may unconsciously may start to dress up on the job in anticipation of new employment.

The Ringing Telephone

A red flag often raised by the job-searching employee is the increased use of the office telephone. There may be an increased number of telephone calls in and out of the work place by and for a particular employee, and there may be a pattern of repeating telephone numbers requesting return calls by the potential job searcher. A sure sign for the manager is the employee's need for privacy on the telephone. Also, long distance telephone charges may begin showing up on the monthly telephone bill, possibly another clue that the employee is looking for a new job, especially if the office does not have a policy regarding personal long distance phone calls.

The Closed Door

Employees who have something to hide sometimes go behind closed doors to privately discuss new job opportunities with fellow employees or with someone from outside who visits your employee. The closed door may also mean a private telephone conversation with the prospective employer.7

The Last to Know

Often times, the manager is the last to know that an employee is dissatisfied and is looking for a new position. However, the employee may tell fellow employees about his or her job search activities. Sometimes, of course, the manager might want to be the last to know so the employee will leave before the manager is forced to communicate with the employee about unacceptable job performance.

Fellow employees may be used as sounding boards as to whether the employee should take the new job. Because of the manager's desire to avoid surprises on the job, it is the manager's task to uncover the job-searching employee through communication with the other office personnel. Sometimes it pays to be tuned in on the "grapevine."

The Loner

Another sign suggesting employees who are engaging in job searches are those who have previously been regularly functioning part of the office who suddenly start going to lunch alone and in other ways separate themselves. This is often a sign that the employee is dissatisfied with something and perhaps is seeking a new job in order to make a change.10 While some employees cannot wait to tell of their job-searching needs, others "clam up" and become loners.

What Can the Manager Do?

There are several strategies open to a manager to uncover the possibility that an employee is engaging in a job search.

One alternative is to do nothing.

This is a viable alternative, especially if the manager believes it is in the office's best interest for the employee to leave. If the manager shows concern over the employee leaving, the employee might just decide to stay. Fellow employees may also convince the job-searching employee that staying in the office is in their own best interest. Sometimes peer pressure can be exercised without the manager taking any action whatsoever.

Another alternative is to confront the employee in a direct manner.

The direct approach in talking with the employee about remaining on the job is accomplished by asking if the employee is considering another position. However, once such a question is asked, be prepared to receive an answer. Trying to predict an employee's reaction may be an important way to discover the clue you were looking for. Once the answer to the question of whether or not the employee is looking for another job is obtained, the manager needs to show concern for the employee.11 This may be accomplished by recommending that the employee compare his or her present position with the opportunities offered in the new position. Ask the employee to write down the assets and liabilities of each position and to get back to you as soon as possible for discussion. The manager should remain available at any time to further discuss the situation. After all, the manager may have only a short time to change the employee's mind, if indeed that is the goal.

The manager may also want to uncover the reasons why the employee wants to leave. Some employees would prefer to leave rather than confront unpleasant situations with co-workers. If the employee has already definitely decided to leave, the discussion can turn or slant into an "exit interview" so the manager can ensure that the office is doing all it can and should do to retain the other employees who have not yet shown an inclination to leave their positions.

A third alternative is the indirect approach.

This is accomplished by using a probing, open-ended question, such as, "How are things going?" Once again, the manager is trying to get the employee to open-up and establish communication so that they can communicate on mutual ground and move to exploration of the decisions that will need to be made concerning employment.

Any of these alternatives should be based upon the limits of the office's policy and practice. These limits must be known in advance of any discussions with the employee. Can the manager offer an employee more money? Is it feasible to offer an employee additional salary? Is there another position or promotion available within the office in the near future that could be discussed with the employee? Are there new or different responsibilities that could entice that employee to stay within the organization with perhaps a transfer to a different unit? If the employee wants the opportunity to receive advanced training, can the answer be focused on allocating time away from the present job to allow the employee to attend, for example, a local seminar? These types of questions and their answers must be prepared in advance. If the organization has a human resource department, utilize that resource in every way possible.

Likewise, every one of these alternatives should be moderated by the manager's relative ability to deal effectively with a job-hunting employee. If the manager demonstrates concern for the long-term welfare of the employee, it matters not whether the employee remains with the office and organization. The final relationship and parting discussion with the manager will be remembered by that employee. At some point in time, the departed employee will tell others about working at that company. If that employee's last thoughts are positive, more than likely the manager will be remembered as a good person for whom to work, assuming such concern is genuine in the first place.


Turnover of employees is a natural event. It is sometimes a relief when a particular employee leaves the office. On the other hand, the cost of losing any employee can be high because of the costs related to lost productivity, training, and the time required for recruiting a replacement. Because of these cost elements, it makes sense to try to delay an employee's departure. By "buying time," the manager can minimize the time required to recruit a replacement and possibly even redistribute the workload among current employees before the job-hunting employee leaves the organization. This approach allows the manager to control the situation.

Sometimes it is better to let the employee leave immediately upon submitting a resignation if this will avoid disruption in work flow or the "chemistry" among the rest of the employees. Some employees become negative in their behavior patterns once they decide to leave the organization.

The knowledge that an employee is looking for a new position is vitally important information to a manager. The clues provided by the job-hunting employee can go a long way toward maintaining the stability of the work force and the effectiveness of the manager in achieving the goals of the organization.

This article focused on the problems faced by all managers who care about their organizations. It does not matter that the organization is large or small. In order to be successful, management must accomplish a great deal by getting the most production from the work force rather than replacing those management did not effectively manage. MacStravic indicates that getting the most out of those management has in terms of productivity and efficiency can reduce the shortage of good employees, a commodity that is always in demand.

Good employees are hard to find and keep. Management must manage those in the organization properly, or they will find employment elsewhere." "C. Nick Wilson, PhD, FACHE is an Associate Professor of Health Administration in the Department of Health Science at the College of Health at the University of North Florida. Prior to his academic appointment, Dr. Wilson was a health executive with several hospitals and health systems. He is an internationally noted writer and speaker on health management and financial management issues. He is a Fellow in the American College of Healthcare Executives.

David Kirkland, DC, MSH, is a practicing chiropractor in Jacksonville, Florida, a student in the Master of Health Administration (MHA) Program at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, and an Adjunct Professor with the Department of Health Science at the University of North Florida.


Society For Human Resource Management/Saratoga Institute Human Resources Effectiveness Report (HRER), 1989.

Roseman, Ed. "How to Tell When a Good Employee is Job Hunting," Medical Laboratory Observer,

(Vol. 20, No. 4), April, 1988, Pp. 55-6.

Taunton, R.L., Krampitz, S.D., Woods, C.Q. "Absenteeism- Retention Links," Journal of Nursing Administration, (Vol. 19, No. 6), June 1989, pp. 13-21.

Roseman, op. cit.

Mann, E.E., Jefferson, K.J. "Retaining Staff; Using Turnover Indices and Surveys," Journal of Nursing

Administration, (Vol. 18, No. 7,8), July/August 1988, Pp. 17-22.


Roseman, op. cit.


Mann, op. cit.

Roseman, op. cit.




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