Weeding out the quitters

Dec 31 2007 by Brian Amble Print This Article

For many human resources professionals, one wish that might well appear near the top of their list of new year's resolutions is to reduce employee turnover in the year ahead.

But with figures from the from the U.S. Bureau of Labor suggesting that the annual voluntary turnover rate in 2007 was as high as 24 percent, it is clear that many organizations find achieving this aim both perplexing and challenging.

While many organizations expend considerable efforts to keep employees once they are hired, rather fewer make the same effort to focus on hiring the right people from the start Ė people who are less likely to quit.

According to organizational psychologist Ryan Zimmerman, a management professor at Texas A&M's Mays Business School, weeding out likely quitters even before they are hired is a smart way to cut your turnover rate.

"There is proven research that shows certain people are more likely to be habitual quitters, where others will tend to stay at a job no matter what," he says.

To better understand why people quit their jobs, Zimmerman looked at turnover and its relationship to individuals' personalities.

His research, which will be published in full in published in an upcoming issue of Personnel Psychology, focused on three key characteristics that can be measured in an individual: agreeableness, conscientiousness, and emotional stability, which best predict future turnover decisions.

People who are more agreeable are less likely to leave a job because they go with the flow and tend to be concerned about what others think, he said.

Conscientious people usually have a strong work ethic and are more dependable and reliable, which Zimmerman describes as characteristics of a committed employee. As for being emotionally stable, these individuals are also less likely to quit a job because they are apt to be more calm and secure.

"By focusing on hiring individuals who are higher on these traits, organizations can reduce the amount of turnover they have," Zimmerman said.

"An organization can actually avoid turnover before an employee is even hired by looking at the personality traits ahead of time."

However, as Zimmerman is quick to acknowledge, organizational factors such as job satisfaction and job complexity are also powerful predictors of turnover.

Just what these factors are and how much they affect individual employees is the subject of a the annual Workplace Study report by the Bernard Hodes Group which highlights how companies should focus recruiting efforts on retaining top talent.

According to the study, a growing proportion of workers are looking for employers who have a cohesive workplace culture and offer benefit packages that include options such as work-life balance and flexible working options.

The two biggest reasons for employees looking for new employment are a limited career path and a compensation package that is not in line with their skill set.

But significantly, one in five of those surveyed said that at some point in their career they had returned to work for an employer from whom they had previously resigned and six out of 10 said they would be happy to reapply for the same job at the current employer.

Paul Austermuehle, senior vice president of Bernard Hodes Group and an expert in employer branding, said that this proved the old truism that 'people don't quit companies, they quit supervisors.'

Equally, he added, it is the "power of community" that draws them back.

"Strategy should build on the friendships and sense of belonging that make so many jobs so satisfying in the first place. This takes considerable pressure off of the staffing team," he added.

Ryan Zimmerman agreed that companies can help reduce turnover by creating a desirable work environment. However, he still sees personality as the most significant predictor of an employee's actual decision to leave.

"In the past organizations were worried if people liked their jobs, but based on these results, personality is as, if not slightly more, important than how a job is designed," Zimmerman said.

"By assessing personality you can better hire a person who is less likely to quit."