Data on the Great Resignation Suggest Solutions

Drawing of door opened outward with a red arrow pointing outNo, the “Great Resignation” was not just about COVID-19. In fact, four of the biggest reasons people quit jobs last year are always around, and almost entirely within a manager’s control, which means there are solutions within a manager’s control.

I’ve read a lot of articles by people claiming to know what caused the Great Resignation, so it was refreshing to come across hard data in the form of a valid U.S. national poll.1 The Pew Research Center follows the best scientific standards for its surveys, unlike the consulting companies that too often get cited by bloggers without question. In this case, Pew asked people about their 2021 job history.

Only 19% of respondents quit a job last year. Here’s their list of reasons for quitting, shown with the percentage saying the item was a major or minor reason (they could choose more than one):

  1. Low pay (63%)
  2. “No opportunities for advancement” (63%)
  3. “Felt disrespected at work” (57%)
  4. Lack of child care (48%, asked only of parents)
  5. Lack of flexibility about when to work (45%)
  6. Bad/no benefits (43%)
  7. “Too many hours” (39%)
  8. Wanting to relocate (35%)
  9. “Too few hours” (30%)
  10. COVID vaccine mandates (19%, with 8% calling these a “major reason”).

I searched the Pew website for prior-year data to compare these results to, without luck, so we can’t be sure how or if these numbers were different due to COVID. But let’s assume pay, benefits, and child care were bigger factors because of it (reasons 1, 4, and 6). Leaving those out, four of the top seven reasons for quitting had nothing to do with COVID. Indeed, 69% of respondents said none of their reasons for quitting were virus-related.

Any manager can do something about those four reasons. Let’s take them in order, starting with the one tied for first with “Low pay,” about “advancement.” (I list it as #2 because more people said pay was a “major” reason.) You may not have the power to create a new career path, but money is only one reason people seek advancement. So there are other ways to create it. In many cases, they are just looking for more control over their working lives via promotion. You can increase empowerment by letting people make more decisions individually; adopting agile methods of work management, regardless of what kind of work they do; or even turning your colleagues into a self-directed work team.

Clearly a manager has nearly complete control over whether someone feels disrespected, Reason #3. I’ve run into a few employees over the years who seemed determined to be offended, but it’s a tiny percentage. The vast majority of times, the problem was supervisors who thought their job was to give orders instead of coaching, were rude, set unrealistic deadlines, etc. The second major cause in my experience, usually coexisting with the first, is supervisors allowing other workers to bully or harass their co-workers. Complicit were upper managers who let bad actors get away with these behaviors as long as the desired results were met.

Note that workplace bullies can be good at hiding their bad behaviors from their bosses, so middle and upper managers need to stay in touch with folks lower in the organization. Worse, it is nearly impossible for a manager to know whether their direct reports feel disrespected. Asking them won’t work, because no matter how much you promise it is safe to do so, most people who feel disrespected won’t trust that is true. An anonymous survey or neutral investigator is the only way to be sure.

My last post talked about how to balance schedule flexibility, the third controllable reason, with the value of in-person communication. Even in jobs like retail and restaurants where workers have to be onsite at given times, there are ways to give workers more power over their schedules.

As for #7, “Too many hours” can obviously result from employers not being able to find enough workers. But in many jobs, the problem is managers setting impossible deadlines—which typically get missed anyway—or performance metrics. “Too few hours” may be due to a COVID-related lack of customers. But for decades this has been a key trick of companies trying to avoid paying for benefits despite healthy profits, by keeping workers below the number of hours required to qualify.

Recently I tweeted an objection to an article in Wired, noting that only one of the managers interviewed understood that the Great Resignation was not primarily about money.2 These data support my point, and offer some solutions to any manager or small business owner. Focus your efforts on attracting and keeping good employees using the factors you can control, and it will vaccinate you against the worst effects of the Great Resignation.


1 “2022 Pew Research…”

2 Carnegie 2022.

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