How to identify when an employee is about to quit (and what you can do)

Stefan Palios

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Not all employee turnover is bad, but when they call it the “Great Resignation,” you’re forgiven for worrying. Thankfully, help is on the way. Debby Carreau has helped hundreds of companies with turnover and hiring through her company Inspired HR. Speaking with PACT, Debby shared her insights on how to identify when an employee is about to quit (and what you can do).

Key takeaways:  

  • People spend most of their waking hours at work, so being unhappy with life usually manifests as looking for a job change.
  • The signs someone might be leaving are subtle: weird requests, cleaning their desks, taking closed door meetings, and more.
  • The key to retaining valuable employees is to focus on the human element versus a big strategy. 

Whether unhappy with work or unhappy with life, people are quitting and reshuffling jobs more than ever before. And business owners are freaking out.

Debby Carreau, founder of managed HR services company InspiredHR, has seen thousands of employee resignations over 14 years across the 150+ organizations her company works with. And while they haven’t come in the same avalanche as they are now, she’s noticed consistent trends from the past that still apply today.

Speaking with PACT, Debby shared her insights on how to identify when an employee might be getting ready to quit and the often overlooked things employers can do about it.

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Subtle signs an employee might be getting ready to quit

A lot of the Great Resignation is stemming from unhappiness and wanting a change - sometimes about work, but often about life in general. Debby said studies indicate we spend around half our waking hours at work, so often being unhappy with life can easily manifest as wanting a job change.

Adding COVID-19 context accelerates things: about half of people want hybrid work forever, while the remainder are split between wanting all-remote and all in-office. It creates a tough spot for employers to navigate, and some people will definitely quit because they disagree with whatever policy a company decides upon.

Within this context, here’s what Debby said are some subtle signs an employee might be getting ready to quit:

Unrealistic requests: If someone’s about to quit, they might throw out a demand for a massive promotion or pay increase, thinking they might stick around if they get it but secretly expecting to be denied so they can use that as their “reason” for quitting.

Vagueness about future commitments: People don’t like to lie, so they will often deflect or try to avoid situations where they have to commit to something in the future.

Office housekeeping: If someone’s getting ready to quit, they are also preparing themselves for being walked out the moment they give notice. To prepare, they might remove personal items from their desk, tidy up computer files, and in general try to leave their space organized for their soon-to-be former colleagues.

Closed door meetings: Debby said employees typically tell 2-3 people they are going to quit before telling their boss. So if the employee usually meets out in the open then suddenly has closed-door meetings, that could be a signal something is up.

Avoiding the boss: Similar to being vague, someone getting ready to quit might just avoid the boss entirely.

Changing habits: If they start suddenly dressing differently or used to go the extra mile but have since pulled back, that might be a signal they are looking for a way out.

Social media: If employees suddenly start connecting with recruiters or people in industry (and they didn’t do this before), Debby said that’s a dead giveaway they are looking at new opportunities.

Stopping employee churn isn’t always the right move

Even during a period of mass resignations, retaining every employee is not always the right move.

You should not try to retain an employee, regardless of performance, that:

  • Is a bad culture fit.
  • Doesn’t align with company values.
  • Delivers an ultimatum in any way (usually in the form of asking for a raise and threatening to quit if they don’t get it).

“Don’t put in blanket retention policies,” said Debby. “Think about if you actually want to retain someone. Sometimes people quitting can be a good thing.”

The overlooked way to curb employee churn

For those employees you want to keep around, here’s what Debby recommends:

Ask top performers why they like working at your company: Gather all the reasons why people enjoy their jobs. This is both to highlight those things for new candidates and to ensure you don’t accidentally remove or change something your top performers love.

Tell valuable people they are valuable: Genuinely share that you care about them and value their performance.

Ask if there are any issues or opportunities for improvement: A lot of managers don’t ask this question for fear of hearing things they can’t deliver on (thus letting employees down), but Debby cautioned against this mentality, saying the issues are there anyway so the only way you can fix anything is if you know about them. And to know about them, you have to ask.

Focus on cross-team connections: The old adage that people quit managers still holds true, but people also quit because they don’t feel connected to, or valued by, their team. As you work on the 1:1 conversations, also make sure you’re creating opportunities for employees to connect with one another and get to know each other as people.

The Great Resignation doesn’t have to happen to you

While the Great Resignation is a time of many people seeking new jobs - sometimes through no fault of their previous employer - it doesn’t have to happen to you. Some churn is acceptable and even beneficial, but stopping unwanted churn is about getting to know your employees more deeply as people then enabling them to do their work. Beyond fair pay, Debby said that’s really it.

“Have honest conversations with your people, look for the signs someone might be heading out the door, and realize that retention strategies don’t need to be this big thing but can start with simple human connection,” said Debby.

When it comes to budgets, leadership needs to understand the effect that underfunding DEI strategies is having in our workplaces. “If we’re going to make a real difference to work cultures, businesses need to support DEI programs with meaningful dollars, not afterthought dollars.”

Sage recommends starting proactively with a meaningful budget. “You’ll have data on which to base decisions and actually understand what the current state of inclusion is within the company. Limitations come with small budgets and often in a reactionary situation, you're choosing who you’re going to help. Support the minoritized groups or educate the potential allies? When you have to choose between groups, you’re not going to completely solve the problem.”

The answer is support a program that allows the DEI team to uniquely craft an approach for each individual. Person A is going to respond to something that makes them a better salesperson, and person B is going to respond to something that reminds them of their grandmother. Crescendo was designed to deliver those individual, private learning moments and get the heart of what will motivate them to take inclusive action.

A lot has happened in the last few years to help start conversations that are moving the needle and helping business leaders to realize that DEI is good business. It is encouraging to see DEI is a priority with many corporations who are delving into the micro-learning and analytics opportunities available to them. Sage is confident that with the proper approach and adequate funding, more and more inclusive action goals will be realized.