Beware the Turnover Bug: It’s Contagious!

Topic: Employee Satisfaction, MotivationTurnover
Publication: Academy of Management Journal (JUN 2009)
Article: Turnover contagion: How coworkers’ job embeddedness and job search behaviors influence quitting.
Author: W. Felps, T.R. Mitchell, D.R. Hekman, T.W. Lee, B.C. Holtman, W.S. Harman
Reviewed By: Benjamin Granger

There is a HUGE body of research literature on the predictors and causes of employee turnover (better grab two cups of coffee before reading all of these articles!). Most of the research has investigated either individual-level explanations (e.g., low job satisfaction) or economic and organizational-level explanations (e.g., unemployment rates and demand for jobs in certain industries) of employee turnover.

But, what about the social context that employees work in? Do the behaviors and attitudes of coworkers influence employees’ decisions to quit their jobs?

In a recent study, Felps and colleagues (2009) hypothesized that employees’ decisions to quit ARE influenced by the attitudes and behaviors of their coworkers. They tested this hypothesis by surveying employees working in two diverse organizations (a regional bank and a national hospitality company).

In both samples, Felps et al. found that coworkers’ job embeddedness (how well employees feel that they fit in with their job and the community) predicted voluntary turnover 18 months later.  That is, employees whose coworkers reported low levels of job embeddedness were more likely to quit their job.

Felps and colleagues also found that low coworker job embeddedness leads to increased job search behaviors, which then leads to turnover. In other words, employees whose coworkers report low job embeddedness, tend to engage in more job search behaviors (updating résumé, going on a job interview, etc.) themselves – which then makes them more likely to quit their current jobs.

All in all, these results suggest that employees look to their coworkers as sources of information when deciding whether to quit their jobs (or think about quitting).  In fact, the authors likened this phenomenon to a “contagious disease” which can spread throughout work units and entire organizations. Managers and organizational leaders must be aware that employee turnover can quickly grow from a minor “flu bug” to the bubonic plague!

Felps, W., Mitchell, T.R., Hekman, D.R., Lee, T.W., Holtom, B.C., & Harman, W.S. (2009). Turnover contagion: How coworkers’ job embeddedness and job search behaviors influence quitting. Academy of Management Journal, 52(3), 545-561.