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Is Quitting Contagious?

Turnover prompts people to question their place within the company. How is your organization addressing this concern?

Scientific American

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Quitting appears to be more common when coworkers around the departing employee are not embedded in their jobs. Photo by Westend61/Getty Images

Employee retention is a top-of-mind concern for any organization looking to be competitive in today’s market. For all that technology has to offer, in our knowledge-based global economy a company's primary assets are still its employees. It’s concerning—and somewhat of a red flag—when employees quit in succession. Why does the departure of a key team member serve as the catalyst for turnover? While there are a number of reasons why employees may decide to leave an organization, including job satisfaction and organizational and economic market factors, an often overlooked reason may be their coworkers. When a group of employees leave an organization in a rapid cycle, it may be due to the influence of their immediate peer group.

There are psychological (micro) and organizational/economic (macro) reasons for employee turnover. Macro reasons are generally more systemic. For example, industries that are high stress, low reward tend to be more prone to turnover. In addition, market factors such as the availability of alternative employment opportunities can determine if people leave or stay. Micro reasons are more individual. They are often related to the degree of job satisfaction and organizational commitment held by the employee. Job satisfaction is a combination of pay satisfaction, social integration, peer and managerial communication, role overload, opportunities for growth, general training opportunities, supervisor support, coworker support, and distributive justice. Organizational commitment is measured by job embeddedness, which is like a net or a web. A highly embedded employee has many links or connections—essentially a more tightly woven net—within the organization. Embeddedness is characterized by the extent to which people have links to other people or activities, and the degree to which their jobs and communities are similar to and fit with the other aspects in their life. An employee’s organizational commitment forecasts the ease with which these links can be broken.

In general, employees who are less satisfied and less committed are more likely to think abut leaving, are more likely to be willing to look for alternative jobs, are more likely to quit, and will do all of these things to a greater degree if they believe that desirable employment alternatives exist for them. Job satisfaction is a variable thing. Given the same employment circumstances between two people, one may be more satisfied than the other when personal and lifestyle factors are taken into account. Job satisfaction can also be called into question if employees perceive others who are similarly skilled or otherwise considered influential are questioning their organizational commitment. These factors can also be exacerbated when people begin to compare themselves to others and perceive favoritism from managers or believe that they are not being appropriately recognized for their efforts. This comparison is a pervasive tendency; we use the status of others to measure ourselves and determine if we’re attaining prescribed social milestones at the established normative rate. So if it is known that some colleagues are actively looking for other jobs, it can make leaving seem like a viable option for someone who might be wavering or on the fence about staying. If job hunting occurs within a team, especially if that team is a close one, it can cause other members of the team to question whether they should be doing the same. These doubts can be raised by both direct and indirect methods, meaning it can be prompted if a colleague explicitly states that she has a job interview or if job hunting behaviors (e.g., perusing job sites, updating a resume) are witnessed by others.

The idea that assessing job satisfaction and organizational commitment between colleagues can be a determinant of quitting is known as turnover contagion. It appears to be more common when coworkers around the departing employee are not embedded in their jobs. If we view embeddedness as the links that an employee has to others and to the organization, embeddedness can tell us how well the employee fits within her peer group or team (e.g., do they have the skills to get their tasks done well, do they get along with their peers, is their relationship complementary?) A highly embedded employee will believe that she is a good fit within the organization and has the tools and skills to get her tasks done, whereas a low embedded employee will not. For a highly embedded employee, the prospect of leaving the relationships she has established can act as a deterrent. Focus group discussions support the hypothesis that job embeddedness is negatively related to voluntary turnover. Research shows employees with low embeddedness are more likely to make comments about leaving, particularly noting that former colleagues were able to get more pay, better opportunities or benefits, move into roles that were less physically demanding or go back to school after they left. For example, one participant commented that “At [alternative] company, the pay starts at $9 or $10 and they reimburse 100% of tuition. If I saw that they were hiring, I could see myself leaving.” When turnover is perceived as the norm, it also invites more open commentary reflecting embeddedness—employees are more likely to talk openly about possibly leaving. This openness feeds the comparison between colleagues and makes people more likely to participate in job search activities because they believe their colleagues are doing the same.

The effect of the turnover contagion is particularly pronounced in smaller team groups that are self-contained. These employees have a greater impact on each other as they interact more closely with each other and have greater opportunities to observe and assess each other’s behaviors and interactions with management. In fact, turnover tendencies were mitigated in company settings where employees had broader interactions with colleagues beyond their immediate teams and departments.

For employers looking to increase retention, this research shouldn’t suggest that a surveillance state is necessary or that teams should be regularly divided or that random, superfluous perks will offset turnover. At the heart of embeddedness and job satisfaction are very personal, very individual issues concerning recognition (of both skills and needs), growth and support, and equitable relationships. Leaving a job is not a decision that is made easily in many cases. What this research suggests is that turnover may be prompted by unaddressed departures of key personnel, which can trigger an assessment of self (i.e., “Is this job going to help me attain the goals I have?”, “Can I afford to leave this job?” and “Can I afford to stay?”, “Am I satisfied and rate of growth here?”). Older employees, those who are married, those who have children or have other caregiving responsibilities, or simply those who are carrying debt may be more likely to stay than leave despite turnover prompts. A new job means starting fresh and giving up tenure and credibility with colleagues as well as earned benefits. It’s a serious decision. A demonstration of investment in employees can go a long way toward mitigating turnover contagion: providing training and growth opportunities, giving managers the tools to better support and direct reports, and maintaining a culture of clear, open, and direct communication can help build embeddedness.

Social forces and social assessments will always be present; they’re a driving force in maintaining social norms. Social comparisons can absolutely make quitting contagious. This in turn can also devastate a company from a service delivery and reputation standpoint. The failure of organizations to see employees as individuals with specific needs will impact turnover. Granted, in a 500 person organization, the CEO may not know every person under the corporate banner, but they can empower managers to better serve the people they are responsible for by responding to specific needs on a case by case basis. This is not an invitation for the mass renegotiation of contracts but an understanding that job satisfaction and embeddedness can fluctuate. And if previously high performing employees are suddenly withdrawn, it may be worth a deeper look.

The workforce is increasingly moving toward greater flexibility, partly in recognition of the needs and obligations and responsibilities employees may need to satisfy during traditional working hours but also because technology now makes it possible to make allowances in work locations and work hours. Ultimately, when a key employee leaves and it seems that others may be queuing to also leave as a result--and this loss is evaluated as being detrimental to the workplace overall--it’s an opportunity for the organization to evaluate the relationship it has with its employees and judge whether it believes it is providing the opportunities its employees need to help the company attain its business objectives.

Krystal D'Costa is an anthropologist working in digital media in New York City. You can follow AiP on Facebook.


  •  Felps, Will, Terence Mitchell, David Herman, Thomas Lee, Brooks Holtom and Wendy Harman (2009). "Turnover Contagion: How Coworkers' Job Embeddedness and Job Search Behaviors," The Academy of Management Journal Vol. 52(3): 545-561.
  •  Mitchell, Terence, Brooks Holtom, Thomas Lee, Chris Sablynski and Miriam Erez (2001). "Why People Stay: Using Job Embeddedness to Predict Voluntary Turnover," The Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 44(6): 1102-1121.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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This post originally appeared on Scientific American and was published October 4, 2017. This article is republished here with permission.

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