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Solving Turnover Requires More Than Just One Approach

June 21, 2016

turnover-puzzle.jpgWho is going to turnover? I wish I had a crystal ball to answer that question. Speaking from my recent experience of separation from one of the most amazing talents that I ever had the pleasure of working with, I truly hope someone can give me a sense of peace. Were there signs of turnover? I wondered, could I have seen it sooner so that we could have prevented it?

Perhaps, but only if we take a holistic approach.

Industrial/Organizational (I/O) Psychologists are good at observing human behaviors, developing a good theory to explain human behaviors, and utilizing this knowledge to help solve real-world problems. But our flaws and biases start with where our strengths end. We focus a lot of our attention on individual characteristics and individual differences.

Unlike sociologists or economists who study the behavior of a system, we have a laser sharp focus. Individuals. Personality, temperament, and cognitive ability are ingrained in our thinking that rules the world of human behavior. We seek to predict by focusing on the quality of individuals first, and context later. Not explicitly, we assume individual differences triumph situational differences. I find this bias to be a fascinating byproduct of the American culture. After all, a lot of well-known psychologists come from the Western point of view - they look through life and develop theories with their own lenses. A lens that Hofstede (1980) would call Individualism as opposed to Collectivism that is often observed in Eastern cultures [1].

How does this relate to turnover?

What does that have to do with turnover, you ask? A lot! As a culture, we tend to ask what type of people are likely to turnover. Sometimes, we should also ask the other question, what type of context, whether within an organization or outside of an organization, are promoting costly employee turnover?

If we are to study employee turnover without the consideration of context, we can quickly come to the wrong conclusion. Let me give you an example. The annual turnover in 2011 for both China and the US have an astonishing difference. The average turnover rate for the US is 3%, based on US Bureau of Labor Statistics. For the same time period, the average turnover rate in China is 18.9%. That’s more than 6 times higher than the US.

A simple hypothesis would be that the Chinese simply have a higher propensity to turnover than Americans. That seems unlikely to be accurate, though. A more holistic view on the turnover disparity would suggest that there are large differences in the economy of these two countries, the development of new companies, and ratio of available talent to open positions, etc. Those differences likely account for the significant differences in turnover rate for these countries, as opposed to the assumption that "people" are different.

What does this all mean?

So, what does that mean for organizations that seek to reduce turnover? Do not automatically jump to the conclusion of bad hires for the spikes that you see in the turnover rate tracking chart. There are benefits to taking a more balanced view - think about the individual characteristics (e.g. there might be some hires who do not have good job fit) as well as the unique situation inside or outside of the organization (e.g. there might be a new start-up facility down the road that just opened shop two weeks ago).

Conduct labor market analyses to understand the forces that attract your talent elsewhere. Talk to employees who leave to uncover any dissatisfiers at work and try to improve it. Evaluate whether or not there are leadership or culture issues that disengage people. You want to gather as much information as possible as usually there are multiple push and pull forces that lead to turnover. Solving employee turnover is like putting a puzzle together. It is only complete when you examine all pieces of the puzzle.

Turnover will never be fully eliminated

There is also the reality that turnover is not going to be eliminated. Certain factors (e.g. relocation for family) is just a fact of life, as employee turnover is going to be a fact of organizational life. With that, I’m going to mourn the turnover experience. As the Chinese proverb says 塞翁失馬, 焉知非福- this may be a blessing in disguise, who knows?

turnover reduction

[1] Hofstede, G (1980). Culture’s Consequences: International Differences in Work Related Values. Newbury Par, CA: Sage. 

Mavis Kung, Ph.D. Mavis Kung, Ph.D. is the Manager of Research and Development based in the Pittsburgh office of PSI. She focuses on conducting validation studies, acting as an internal technical expert on selection for project consultants and clients, analyzing assessment data to determine selection system effectiveness, validity, and fairness and providing recommendations for system improvement and development.