Balancing on the Tightrope of Ideal Turnover

Topic: Staffing, Turnover
Publication: Academy of Management Journal (APR 2009)
ArticleSearching for the optimal level of employee turnover: A study of a large U.K. retail organization
Authors: W.S. Siebert, N. Zubanov
Reviewed by: Katie Bachman

There are two ways to think about turnover. Some will tell you that turnover is bad for organizations because new hires require training, benefits packages, and startup bonuses. Meanwhile, others will tell you that turnover can be good for an organization because turnover weeds out the bad workers and infuses new blood into the workplace. So what’s the right answer? Well, like so many things in the practice of Psychology: It depends!

In this case, the benefits versus costs of employee turnover really come down to the type of workers that you’re employing. If you have full-time “committed” workers (i.e. workers who have made your organization their career), you don’t want to lose them. Any turnover in this scenario is bad turnover because these workers tend to be better trained and more carefully selected; there are fewer bad workers to weed out and you’re likely to be losing your future management candidates. On the other hand, if you have temporary, part-time “secondary” workers, it’s a good idea to thin the herd once in a while. These workers tend to be less committed to the organization, receive less training, and are less carefully scrutinized as applicants. The natural rate of turnover tends to be higher for part-time workers anyway and there is actually an increase in productivity by changing out these workers, although too much turnover should be avoided.

All of this is pretty standard fare so far, but here’s he kicker: the two job types are interdependent, so if you are suffering from too much turnover in one type of worker, it is likely to affect the productivity of the other type of worker. For example, if your turnover among full-time workers is high, there will be no one to train your part-time/temporary workers.

Ultimately, the message is this: not all workers are created equal. You want to keep as many of your full-timers as possible, but some turnover in the part-timers will keep your company vital. Also, problems in one side of this balancing act will negatively affect the other side.

Siebert, W. S., & Zubanov, N. (2009). Searching for the optimal level of employee turnover: A study of a large U.K. retail organization. Academy of Management Journal, 52(2), 204-313.