So What is Turnover Contagion?

by Joel Cheesman

You've probably heard of it happening. One employee quits or is fired, and suddenly people are leaving in droves.

This phenomenon is called "turnover contagion," and is a real concern for many companies. It has become particularly common during the pandemic era, where many people are reevaluating their careers.

But What Is Turnover Contagion, Exactly?

Turnover contagion is when employees react to another employee quitting by quitting themselves. It turns into a domino effect of departures that can leave a company, especially a small one, very much in the lurch.

What Causes Turnover Contagion?

Turnover contagion is essentially the result of typical social cues, but it generally has a few causes:

  • The departing employee is either openly criticizing the workplace or boasting about their wonderful new job.
  • The departing employee is a boss or supervisor. Those under them may leave out of fear that the new manager will not be as good, or they will leave because the new manager isn't quite the same as the old one.
  • The departing employee is somebody seen as a "star employee" or a good performer.
  • When a poor performer leaves, people heave a sigh of relief.  When a good one leaves, it motivates others to move on as well.
  • People in similar jobs are strongly influenced by each other.
  • The departing employee is popular and well-liked.
  • The departing employee was fired and the remaining employees don't feel it was justified.

In a few cases, a departing employee may intentionally try to take others with them if they are particularly dissatisfied. This can also happen as a cascade over a period of months, where the departing employee(s) are asked to refer others to positions at their new job and reach out to former coworkers.

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What Should Employers Do About It?

First of all, the obvious way to reduce turnover contagion is to reduce turnover in general. You don't have to worry about people quitting in sympathy when the first person doesn't quit in the first place. In addition, you should: 

  • Try to leverage the exit interview and process to discourage complaining to other coworkers. (However, don't try to prevent communication, as this can look even worse).
  • Be open about why staff are leaving. If somebody is leaving to move to another state to be closer to their parents, make sure people know this. You should not, of course, violate a departing employee's privacy. However, if they left for a non-work reason, turnover contagion is much less likely to happen.
  • Be proactive about keeping the people most likely to cause turnover contagion. Well-liked supervisors, popular star employees, etc. In fact, making sure you truly reward people according to their merits is one of the best ways to prevent all kinds of turnover, and can nip turnover contagion completely in the bud.
  • Invest in your remaining employees after somebody quits. Reconsider your retention approach. Remember how much it costs to replace employees and consider some of the ways turnover contagion has hit the news, particularly in the restaurant industry. It's cheaper to raise pay, give bonuses, and otherwise set up financial disincentives to leaving.
  • When replacing a manager or supervisor, unless there is a good reason not to, look for somebody with a similar style to the departing employee, somebody their people are more likely to be happy with.

Above all, make sure that if you have to fire somebody, it has not just the reality, but the appearance of fairness. Nothing creates turnover contagion faster than unfair treatment.

How the Competition Might Use Contagion Against You

We've already mentioned the way your competition might use your ex employee to poach more of your staff, whether deliberately or not.

Headhunters pay attention, and if it appears that people are leaving a company in droves, they are likely to see this as an opportunity. They will target your best remaining staff and offer them better positions elsewhere. The only way to stop this is, as already mentioned, to increase your focus on retention.

Retaining your best employees is ultimately how you prevent turnover contagion. Of course, you may also be in a position to take advantage when it happens to others.

Poach Founder Joel Cheesman

About the Author

Joel Cheesman is the founder and all-around handyman at Poach. When he's not busy putting together the world's most perfect poaching machine, he's creating content like this. He calls Indianapolis, Ind. home.