Things are finally going well at work. You’ve recruited a couple of new people into the team, and they seem to be settling in OK. It was a painful process, but you now have a balanced department and can get on with doing your day job at last.
It’s good timing, as you need to focus all your time and energy into a high-profile project that’s coming to a conclusion next month.
But what’s this!? Your star employee, Tim, has chosen today – of all days! – to hand you a letter. A letter of resignation.
If only you’d seen this coming! Now all the recruitment pain will begin again, and Tim is NOT going to be easy to replace.
Bad luck. The warning signs were there, but you were too busy to notice and you missed them all.
The recruitment – resignation journey
If you want advance warning that someone in your team is planning to quit, there are four key signs you need to know about, which relate to the various stages of the ‘looking for work’ journey.
Sometimes you see none of these indications, as the whole process has been too quick, or your eye has been off the ball. Your only remedy then is the counter-offer, which we do not recommend except in exceptional circumstances. If someone resigns, it’s almost always too late to get them back.
But if you could have got to Tim before his resignation letter had appeared on your desk, you’d have had a much better chance of keeping him on your team.
So let’s go back a couple of weeks in time, and look for the signs you missed.
1. Change in behaviour
Tim is dissatisfied. Either something has happened that’s triggered thoughts of wanting to quit (e.g. a below-expected pay rise, a refusal to consider flexible working, promotion of a colleague) or it’s a general malaise that’s developed over a longer period. You don’t yet know.
Either way, this has led to a change in Tim’s behaviour. He’s now thinking about his next job, so he’s distracted from the one he is supposed to be doing for you.
He’s working slightly less conscientiously, taking longer lunch breaks, and leaving exactly at 5pm every night.
Tim is making time to look for other work, and (whether he means to or not) psychologically distancing himself from you and the job.
2. Phone activity
So what happens next? Tim’s sent off a few job applications and posted his CV online, and the recruiters are circling. Ten of them try to get hold of him in a single day!
Tim doesn’t answer his mobile at work so they leave messages and will try again later. Meanwhile they send texts and emails to Tim’s personal account, which is linked to his phone. After the first few notifications he puts it on silent mode, but he’s still checking it every few minutes – much more often than usual.
It’s exciting stuff, and Tim is more distracted than ever that day because he’s thinking about dealing with these calls as soon as he gets the chance. He might nip out for 10 minutes mid-morning, or go for a lunchtime walk.
3. Short-notice time off
Tim’s a good guy, and he has an impressive CV, so he has no trouble getting himself a few interviews. He doesn’t want to make it too obvious, of course, so he schedules one for after work on Thursday and a couple of others at the start of the working day next week. He needs to think of a good reason for being late, though.
Taking time off at short notice, particularly more than once in a fortnight, is very common behaviour if someone is planning to resign. In our experience, the most frequently used excuses are:
- Doctor’s appointment / illness – especially one with vague symptoms, e.g. upset stomach, flu, headache, entropic oculitis.
- Family emergency
- Delivery of a major purchase
- Household issue – e.g. needing a visit from a plumber / electrician / rat catcher.
Some excuses strain credibility. Here’s a bit of advice if you’re an employee thinking of a reason for short-notice absence from work: make it impossible to disprove, and not too dramatic. Don’t say you’ve broken your leg if you only need one day off, and don’t claim that someone has died if they haven’t. Things get complicated, and you can’t use that particular excuse a second time.
Tim isn’t an idiot, so he chooses two plausible excuses from the first list above, and tries extra hard on those days so that your suspicions aren’t aroused.
He’s bought himself a couple of new shirts, though.
4. Recruiters contact YOU
This one may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s true. As soon as recruiters get a sniff that someone may be leaving a company, they try to find out who the hiring manager might be, and they get in touch with that person.
They’re usually quite subtle about it, of course. They don’t say, “I’m getting in touch because I know that one of your team members called Tim is attending an interview with my client tomorrow”. But they might not have a very good alternative reason for calling, either.
So if you as the manager notice that recruitment types are suddenly looking at your LinkedIn profile, or calling you ‘just to catch up’ – be suspicious. One of your team members is probably on the road to resignation.
Who is it? Perhaps it’s the one whose behaviour has recently changed, and who is checking their mobile eighty times a day, and who has a dentist’s appointment on Thursday and a funeral next week.
Could it be Tim?
So those are the 4 main ways you can tell if someone is looking for work.
But what should you do as the manager?
If you want them to leave – do nothing!
If you want them to stay, on the other hand (and you do, because it’s Tim), don’t investigate and try to prove that they’ve been doing things behind your back. You could ask to look inside their mouth for evidence of a new filling, or you could ask to see a death certificate, but this kind of investigation can backfire in a spectacular way.
Instead, treat Tim like the adult he is. Assume he’s telling the truth, but take the opportunity to have a conversation. It doesn’t need to be a formal review meeting; just draw him aside for a chat so that you can try to understand what’s going on.
At worst, you’ll learn a bit more about Tim’s circumstances and you’ll get some idea of his level of motivation.
At best, you’ll discover that he isn’t looking for work but there’s something else going on that you can help to address.
But you might find out that he is actually looking for work, as you suspected, and you have a chance to turn things around.
He might not tell you everything, of course, and if he’s dead set on leaving, you’re probably too late. But you might be able to buy yourself a little more time, and you can at least begin to plan (discreetly) for his replacement.
Better advice still – anticipate all of this by having regular meetings with all your team members, Tim included. Staff turnover is inevitable – and a certain amount is healthy – but you can reduce the risk of being taken by surprise.
We always recommend using objective tools for recruitment and staff retention, and I’m going to do it again. Regular Motivational Map reviews will help you here.
The recruiter’s role
Obviously, we as recruiters want people to leave jobs; otherwise we wouldn’t have a job ourselves. In fact, we encourage it every day!
But we also encourage managers to look after their staff, especially if they are our clients. We believe in placing people in jobs for the long term (except contractors, of course) and we actively promote techniques that support staff retention – for the people we’ve placed, at least. Our clients benefit by having more stable teams, leading to more predictable business success, long-term growth, and organic recruitment opportunities for us.
So if you want to keep your staff for longer, be alert for the warning signs above.
And keep an especially close eye on Tim!