Many human resource executives spend a great amount of time and money investigating the causes of employee turnover, particularly through exit interviews. The objective is to find out why people leave. If a company can identify the reasons for terminations and departures, the theory goes, it can remove some of the causes for employee dissatisfaction. There are, however, two shortcomings with this traditional practice:

 It looks only at why people quit. Why not also look at the reasons others stay? The reasons why people stay are just as important as the reasons for leaving. One individual may stay in a job for the same reason another leaves.

 Exit interviews also assume there is a correlation between job dissatisfaction and turnover. A low turnover rate presumes that employees are happy and consequently productive; this is not necessarily the case. The mere fact an employee stays is not as important as why that person remains.

To get a more integrated view of workforce stability, a study of more than 400 employees in three different companies investigated the reasons employees stay and proper ways to encourage retention. This study went as far back as 1973. Since that time, studies of the attitudes of tens of thousands of employees in more than 500 organizations elicited similar results. From anonymous questionnaires and selected interviews, this is the picture that emerged:

 Why do employees stay? Employees tend to stay where they are until some force causes them to leave, in other words "inertia." As in physics, a body will remain as it is until acted upon by an external force.

 What causes inertia? Two factors inside organizations and two factors outside make people stay: job satisfaction and satisfaction with the working environment. These factors produce the internal inertia and are directly affected by the positive or negative correlation between the employee’s personal value system and that of management.

A disparity between personal and organizational values reduces the desire to stay, while compatibility between these two values increases the desire to stay.

The external factors increasing inertia include perceptions of other job opportunities and personal and family reasons. Some employees stay because they like the schools or the neighborhood, but what if both of these deteriorate and become less appealing? Other job opportunities become more attractive.

Other employees report they stayed in an unpleasant job because they could not leave the community in which they or their spouses were born and had lived most of their lives. Despite low job satisfaction, they stayed.

 Want to stay versus have to stay? Progressive management should try to improve retention by reinforcing positive reasons for staying, while at the same time making it easier for people who are staying for negative reasons—negative to both employer and employee—to quit. Turnover quality, as opposed to turnover quantity, might improve.

Improving employee retention will be more effective over the long run than the ordinary, negative approach of simply reducing turnover. The key is improving attitudes about the work itself, supervisor competence, confidence in the fairness of management, work group cooperation, consistency in treatment, feedback about performance, opportunities to get ahead, and other positive aspects that relate to the work context. Work content factors—those aspects of the job inside the organization—include pay, benefits, facilities, attendance rules, and other environmental aspects.

External factors include outside job opportunities, the community, financial obligations, family ties, and even the annual weather patterns. As a result of the combinations of external and internal factors influencing employees’ job decisions, employees can be identified as one of four types:

 Turnovers are not happy with their jobs, have few external reasons to stay, and will leave at the first opportunity. Employees may not start out in this position, but a gradual erosion of their inertia causes them to slide into this area.

 Turn-offs are candidates for unions and employee relations and productivity problems. These employees have negative attitudes about their jobs and stay because of golden handcuffs. They may feel they are too old to start over again and are locked in by benefit programs and high rates of pay. Productivity may suffer.

 Turn-ons have positive attitudes and remain with the company almost exclusively for reasons associated with the work itself. From management’s point of view, as well as the individual employee’s, this situation is the most desirable. If management actions lower attitudes and the positive, work-related reasons to stay, turnover will probably jump. Because the turn-ons are not affected by environmental factors, they will not stay without continual job satisfaction.

 Turn-on plus employees are likely to stay for the long run because they have work and environmental satisfaction. A short-term drop in satisfaction does not lead to resignation. If attitudes drop permanently, however, these employees become turn-offs. This does not raise turnover, but increases employee relations problems.

The traditional approach to measuring and understanding terminations has focused on turnovers. These employees generally represent a small percentage of the total employee population; therefore, directing retention efforts at them exclusively ignores the reasons the majority of the workforce stays with the company. Employers wanting to improve their working environments should stop assuming exit interviews are providing a meaningful picture of why other employees stay.

An anonymous attitude survey was used to identify where employees fit in the matrix of "having to stay versus wanting to stay." This survey covered 20 factor-analyzed statements to which individuals could respond "Agree," "Disagree," or "?". It explored job satisfaction, supervision, management, advancement, working conditions, pay, benefits, communication, performance expectations, job security, favoritism, use of skills, work group cooperation, rules, freedom to do the job well, plus an item on whether the individual had looked for another job during the past six months.

Correlations between each attitude factor and whether the individuals were looking or not looking to terminate from their company were sought. For example, if they were satisfied with any factor but looking to terminate anyway, they were classified as "turned-on" by that factor, but "not locked in." Conversely, if individuals were "dissatisfied" by any of the attitude factors and not looking for another job, they were "turned off" by that factor or factors, plus they were "locked in." If an individual was "satisfied" with any factor and "not looking" to quit, then that factor, or factors, "turned on" but did not "lock in" that employee.

Consequently, there are three reasons employees stay: two positive (want to, and want to plus have to) and one negative (do not want to, but have to). None of these shows up as a turnover statistic and none gets an exit interview. In short, sometimes companies have lost many people who are still with them. So it is why people stay, not just why they leave that must be considered.

Employee Value Systems Sway Employees’ Job Decisions

In looking at attitudes, what stimulates some individuals drives others crazy and vice versa. It is a matter of each individual’s value system. Not everyone finds the same satisfaction from the same work. Some prefer a variety of tasks, and others prefer routines. Some want a participative management style, and some truly want to be told what to do and do not want to make any decisions. Some seek promotion, and some prefer to stay where they are.

These individual differences in value systems are not unusual. People are dramatically different in their values for working and often hold quite different values for working than does upper management. Research has easily identified situations in which two individuals occupy similar jobs with the same supervisor, the same pay and benefits, working conditions, and so on. But one employee was satisfied, and one was dissatisfied—by the same things. One may be looking to leave, and the other looking to stay. Therefore, it is necessary to add another dimension to determine what keeps people in a job—value systems.

To capture these individual differences, a second part was added to the survey that studied employee attitudes—an analysis of an individual’s value systems. This analysis is accomplished by an instrument that measures six different aspects of value systems.

Clannish. Characterized by a strong focus on the group leader (chieftain) and his or her benevolent autocratic style, this person desires a routine, non-decision-making job. Pay and benefits security are essential, and this employee works most effectively under a paternalistic management style. Family values are strong, and advancement is not essential to job satisfaction. A compatible work group is necessary. The future is short term, and the inertia is strong.

Cynical. Characterized by rugged individualism and pervasive negative assumptions, this employee responds to authoritarian leadership. Tending to be suspicious of management, this type of person is often disruptive and a chronic complainer. With a tendency to challenge the supervisor for control, however, this employee displays no sense of ethics or fair play.

Conventional. Characterized by the traditional work ethic, this employee is loyal to causes and organizations if he or she believes in what they stand for. The employee prefers highly structured situations, detailed tasks, written instructions, and unchanging patterns. Judgmental of right and wrong, he or she will persevere despite adversity and expects others to conform and work hard for the future.

Competitive. Characterized by materialism, achievement, and the need for success and achievement, this employee is goal and career oriented. He or she seeks status and is an inveterate game player. While trying to manipulate others for his or her own financial gain, this type of employee plays to win by gaining titles and controlling others. Planning ahead for every aspect of life, this employee is constantly trying to influence and sell others on what to do; money is the scorecard.

Compassionate. Characterized by a high degree of concern for other people and social causes, this employee places humanistic ideals foremost, and cooperative, non-conflicting work groups are preferred. Harmony among people is essential for this type of person to support the peer-group focus, but the employee will persist in unpleasant situations if it is helpful to others. He or she is distrustful of manipulative people and sensitive to feelings and moods.

Conscious. Characterized by individuality in action and behavior, this employee has a high concern for intrinsic work satisfaction over money or promotion in and of themselves. He or she is outspoken on beliefs, but quick to change if appropriate; learning and self-development are paramount needs. This employee provides his or her own leadership and is flexible and adaptive in behavior and language style.

Research indicates clannish and cynical employees usually stay at their jobs because they are locked in by external factors; that is, they cannot leave because they have no place to go, regardless of whether they like their current situation. They show a high degree of inertia and so remain where they are—whether they are satisfied or dissatisfied.

Consequently, a company can have low turnover, but that does not by itself illustrate whether employees are staying because they want to or because they have to. It is necessary to look at attitudes to find out. The internal organizational reasons to stay are primarily pay and benefits more than intrinsic work satisfaction and management style. Thus, low turnover proves nothing but low turnover; why they stay is the key.

Conventional and compassionate employees are about equal on internal and external reasons to stay. They stay because they cannot leave, and they also stay because they want to. The internal reasons they remain with their companies include pay and benefits, plus intrinsic work satisfaction and appreciation of the management style of the organization. In short, they stay for more traditional reasons.

Compassionate and conventional employees show a classical balanced pattern familiar to human resource people. They stay with a company during short-term difficulties and dissatisfaction. In these instances, then, a company can have low turnover but high dissatisfaction. To presume morale is high because turnover is low is a serious error. That is why they seek union representation rather than quit.

Competitive and conscious employees stay almost exclusively for positive reasons. They are far less vulnerable to being locked in. Their turn-ons come mainly from positive motivation relating to their working situation and seldom from external factors.

Competitive employees stay primarily for factors relating to advancement and pay, whereas, conscious employees stay mainly for intrinsic work satisfaction and to use their skills and abilities. They pay little attention to external factors and keep their resumés up to date so they can leave quickly if they become dissatisfied.

Who Stays Versus Who Goes

From the analysis of value systems, it becomes apparent that quantity of turnover is not as important as is the quality. Is the company keeping the people it needs for the future? Exit interviews with those who leave provide little information about why others stay. To find that out, employers must ask those who stay why they choose to do so. To keep them, employers must reinforce the positive aspects of their employees’ reasons for staying and eliminate the negative aspects of jobs.

Since many people stay because their value system tends to lock them in, it is in everyone’s interest (except labor unions) to search out and eliminate the negative aspects that turn off those value systems and accentuate the positive aspects of the work. For those employees whose value systems demand a positive environment and who are not locked in by negatives or external factors, the positives must be accentuated as well as the negatives eliminated.

Written by Dr. Charles Hughes of the Center for Values Research, Dallas, TX. For more information contact Dr. Charles Hughes, President of CVR at 972-720-9100.

Copyright 2004,Center for Values Research, Inc. All rights reserved.