Curbing the “Great Resignation”: A Guide for Leaders from the Person Who Coined the Term

Nathan Allen

by Nathan Allen

5 min read
Curbing the “Great Resignation”: A Guide for Leaders from the Person Who Coined the Term
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What managers and leaders can do to retain employees and thrive in the face of unprecedented resignation rates

Anthony Klotz didn’t intend to create a viral phrase when he told Bloomberg Businessweek in May 2021 that a “great resignation” was coming. But that’s exactly what happened. The associate professor of management at Texas A&M University’s Mays Business School was simply doing what he’s been doing for years—observing and studying the ways people resign from their jobs.

But Klotz was right. People are resigning from their jobs. In droves. Quit rates hit an all-time high in April 2021, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data. And March and May came close.

So, as a manager, how do you curb the churn? We asked Klotz for some guidance.

Four Trends Leading to the Great Resignation

Klotz notes four converging trends that foretold this mass exodus of workers.

  1. A simple backlog of resignations

Klotz keeps close tabs on BLS resignation data. “There was a backlog of about six million resignations in 2020,” Klotz tells wrkfrce. While resignation rates have been climbing over the past decade, fewer people quit in 2020 because of the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic.

  1. Multiple reports of job burnout

Klotz notes that the “relationship between burnout and quitting your job is very strong. We know that from the literature.” The literature also shows that “when people are forced to think about their mortality or the mortality of those they love,” they expand beyond the job to “more existential thoughts.”

  1. Considerations about living a happier, more meaningful, and purposeful life

“Some people had a lot of time to reflect and ask themselves if their work was contributing to the good life and their happiness and well-being,” Klotz explains.

  1. Remote work, or the lack thereof

“Humans have a fundamental need for autonomy,” Klotz says. “The more personal freedom we have, the more we like it. And there’s no getting around the fact that working from home gives you more freedom than working in the office.”

What’s more, Klotz says, people working from home for the first time fully adjusted to that lifestyle and the autonomy that comes with it. “So, when they’re asked to give that autonomy back up, that’s going to cause some dissatisfaction among a not-small percentage of people,” Klotz adds. Combine that dissatisfaction with many companies switching to a remote-first workstyle, and you have a “perfect storm” of resignation.

Cynthia Saunders-Cheatham, assistant dean of the Career Management Center at Cornell SC Johnson College of Business, says she’s hearing a lot from alumni about the desire to move into positions and companies that offer more work flexibility. “This last year has provided an opportunity to reconsider what is important in their lives,” she told wrkfrce. For many, this includes “making a career change into areas that they are more passionate about, that offer more work-life balance and flexibility, more desirable geographic location because of family or cost of living, and more.”

Solutions to the Great Resignation

This is a tough time for managers and leaders, and Klotz acknowledges they should feel “fairly concerned” about the high churn. That said, company leaders and managers also need to see this time in work history as a significant opportunity to seize.

“This may be one of the best times ever to upgrade talent,” Klotz says. To take advantage of the opportunity, a company can “aggressively increase” signing bonuses, pay, benefits, and the work arrangements it offers to the talent it wants to attract.

Klotz also advises talking to employees individually to see how they feel about their jobs. No, not pulse surveys, but taking the time to speak with each person to ascertain how they feel now, coming out of the pandemic, about the meaning and purpose of their work. After gathering this information, managers need to come together to share what they have learned.

Saunders-Cheatham concurs: “Managers should reach out and meet one-on-one with each of their team members,” and possibly more than once. In that meeting, managers should listen to team member feelings and concerns. “Ask them what would help make them more comfortable about returning. Be transparent about some of the reservations you, as a manager, may have about returning. Advocate to get them the resources they need.”

Klotz and Saunders-Cheatham agree that talking is not enough. As a manager, you need to provide innovative solutions.

Dating app Bumble closed its office and sent everyone home for a week to stave off burnout. Beginning in 2022, crowdfunding platform Kickstarter will move to a four-day workweek. After listening to your employees, figure out some similar perks that could help mitigate burnout. Try one-week “creativity sabbaticals” that don’t count against PTO, or increase pay and bonuses.

“Companies are not going back to the old normal,” Klotz says. Yours shouldn’t either.

Your underlying mission should be to assign meaning and purpose to the job. “Really great visionary leaders can connect our work to a greater purpose,” Klotz shares. “This is a time when people are looking for meaning and purpose, and leaders can provide that by tying their work into a higher purpose.”

If you’re thinking “big concept” and “not a simple task,” you’re right. Information in this April 2021 McKinsey report can help you tap the huge potential of a workforce aligned with a purpose-driven organization.

The Remote Work Conversation

Klotz believes that the toughest adjustment managers are facing now is how to balance remote, hybrid, and fully in-person office work structures. Lean into this conversation with employees, he suggests, rather than avoiding it.

Reality: The office creates a real sense of purpose for the manager. It’s also easier to manage (and trust) employees when they’re right in front of you. But Klotz advises keeping an open mind and considering employees’ perspectives. Do a trial run during which employees come into the office for one or two days a week. People may resist returning to the office at first, but if hybrid work is the goal, experiment with a “soft launch” toward that.

Facing the Inevitable

Some employees will resign regardless. Although your initial response may be negative, strive to practice self-control, and move past those feelings quickly. Deal with the reality of the situation, Klotz recommends, and react to the employee positively and supportively. Listen to them, try to figure out why they are resigning, and ask genuinely if there is anything you or the company can do to retain them.

But also remember that this is an opportunity to upgrade talent. Don’t be afraid to let someone go if you believe there is potential to recruit even more qualified team members.

Assuming you want to retain an employee but that you can’t do anything to stop the resignation, treat the employee well as they leave. “Companies tend to put all of their attention on onboarding and completely ignore offboarding,” Klotz points out, noting that savvy companies have emphasized offboarding for the past decade. Make sure you acknowledge employees for their work as they depart.

And don’t stop there. If your company or unit experiences a lot of resignations and turnover, the employees sticking around will question what’s happening. Take measures to stop resignations from becoming contagious. Be direct and honest with your team. Don’t dodge tough questions. When filling vacant positions, try hard to promote internally. If that’s not an option, consider offering a referral bonus to current employees.

Leave the Door Open for the Boomerang Employee

Klotz says it’s not uncommon for a valued employee to try another job for six months or so and then realize they want to come back. Leave that door open. Stay in contact with them after they leave; perhaps create an alumni or former-employee group to keep in touch.

goodbye

You can also offer a one-year leave of absence. If the employee comes back within a year, they can return to the same benefits, salary, and job—with no penalty.

Klotz sees resignation growth continuing. It won’t be the sky-high resignation rates of April 2021, “but that trend will likely continue at a higher slope” for the next two years.

If you’re a leader or manager, that means it’s more important than ever to have a strong plan to curb a potential great resignation within your company.

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