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Shocking Events Lead to Turnover Too

January 14, 2016

turnover-quit.jpgWe know that voluntary employee turnover is often an unwanted occurrence within organizations, especially if the organization is losing high-quality talent. As such, Industrial Organizational (I/O) psychologists have allocated a great deal of effort to studying the variables that are most likely to prompt individuals to make the ultimate choice to quit their job.

However, they have long struggled to pinpoint such variables. The most commonly researched variables that are theoretically thought to precede turnover, such as job dissatisfaction, burnout, and low commitment to the job and/or organization do not have a great deal of empirical support as being strong predictors of turnover.

So, what other variables might be related? Lee and Mitchell (1994) introduced a variable called a “shock to the system”, which is a jarring event that leads an individual to think about their current position within the organization and to potentially quit their job.

It is important to note that not all events are shocks. That is, only if the event prompts the individual to consider quitting would it be deemed a shock. Additionally, what one person considers a shock may not be a shock for someone else. For example, a coworker might eat your lunch and you think nothing of it, but if that same event happens to someone else it may be the last straw for that person and they may decide to quit their job as a result. Additionally, shocks can take a variety of forms that are outlined below:

  • Shocks can be expected or unexpected

  • Shocks can be positive, neutral or negative

  • Shocks can be job-related or non job-related

However, there are a number of events that are almost universally regarded as shocks to employees. These types of shocks are most likely negative and job-related. Additionally, these are the types of shocks that organizations are most able to control or take action against. Some examples include:

  • Experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace

  • Having altercations with a coworker

  • Being publicly scolded by your supervisor

  • Experiencing unsafe working conditions

Research has shown that shocks are estimated to be involved in about 50-60% of turnover incidents. Therefore, if organizations take action to reduce the likelihood of shocks occurring or, at least, reduce the likelihood of similar shocking events occurring in the future it can have the potential to greatly reduce turnover within their workforce. Some things that organizations could do to reduce the prevalence of shocks include:

  • Promote open communication so that employees feel that they can safely express their feelings and frustrations

  • Take appropriate action and implement appropriate policies/procedures so employees do not feel that issues are ignored when they arise

  • Provide training to managers and employees on topics, such as sexual harassment and conflict resolution

  • Provide support and resources to employees when applicable

  • Foster a culture that encourages employees and managers to work collaboratively

Also, organizations have the potential to intervene after a shock occurs to minimize the impact upon the recipient, others involved, or witnesses. Taking sexual harassment, for example, a counseling session for the victim and a follow-up training in the workplace could effectively prevent this event from adversely affecting more employees in the long term.

Of course, becoming aware of the shock is the first step in this process. Therefore, using the suggestions above will make employees more likely to share their shocking events with managers and other individuals within the organization, which will allow for the potential to intervene.

The moral of the story is that people do not always quit simply because they are unhappy or burnt-out, but rather events, specifically shocks, play a major role in turnover decisions and should be on the radar of organizations if their goal is to reduce turnover of employees.

Reducing Turnover and Absenteeism for Bottom-Line Benefits


Alli Besl, Ph.D. Alli Besl, Ph.D. was a Research Consultant based in the Pittsburgh office of PSI. Her areas of expertise include: employee turnover, selection and recruitment.