The Great Resignation: Dear Employer, what went wrong?

The Great Resignation: Dear Employer, what went wrong?

The term Great Resignation first appeared in a statement by Anthony Klotz, a management professor at the Mays Business School of Texas A&M University, who predicted that this mass exodus would arrive in May 2021. And he was right.

The Harvard Business Review reports that 4 million Americans will quit their jobs by July 2021. The McKinsey report reads that 19 million Americans will leave their jobs between April and August 2021. A survey of workers in Belgium, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, and the Netherlands found that workers in Europe are also quitting their jobs and will continue to do so in the coming months.

Great Resignation

Some economists describe the Great Resignation as a major strike involving scores of disgruntled employees. China is dominated by a phenomenon called „tang ping,” which is a revolt by the overworked Chinese against the system and workaholism. Tang ping stands for the „lying flat” movement, which was started by former Chinese factory worker Luo Huazhong. Luo quit his job and went on a bicycle trip to Tibet. He supported himself with odd jobs and tried to live on USD 60 a month. He is now being emulated by thousands of Chinese who are tired of participating in the rat race.

A Microsoft survey of more than 30,000 employees worldwide found that 41% of workers are considering leaving their jobs or changing careers in the near future. According to McKinsey, more than half of those surveyed report that they believe the trend of leaving will continue and even strengthen in the near future.

Who is quitting their jobs?

Observing the phenomenon of the Great Resignation by industry, we note that employees in healthcare, administration, hospitality, food service, and technology industries are the most likely to leave. The industrial sector is also suffering. Some U.S. factories have seen 100% turnover since March 2020. The churn rate is highest among workers who worked in areas that experienced an extreme increase in demand due to the pandemic. This quite likely led to an increased workload and burnout.

As for the age of quitters, for the vast majority, we’re talking about Millennials and Generation Z. But they are not the only ones. This phenomenon also affects employees aged 30 – 45, working in corporations at the middle management level.

A large part of those who are resigning is women, who were forced into this decision by their family situation – care for the sick or elderly, child care, remote learning, closing child daycare facilities. The decision to leave the job was, in most cases, a matter of compulsion. In part, it was a conscious choice of family life.

Interestingly, and even a bit shockingly, 36% of resigning employees had no offer in hand when they left.

Why do employees leave?

  1. Exhaustion and lack of meaning in their work – many employees have reached a breaking point. Months of working in confinement have taken a significant toll on people’s mental health. Add endless online meetings, a blurred line between work and personal life, and chronic fatigue to that.
  2. Treatment of employees by the employer – no attempt to understand the life circumstances of employees who were faced with working from home with children doing remote learning, caring for the elderly, or living in complete isolation. Lack of support, listening and understanding of concerns. This is the point at which many realize that they don’t count as an individual and the stress level is simply unbearable.
  3. Professional burnout – employees felt unappreciated and unheard by their employers. They began to question the actual value of the work they were doing. They came to the conclusion that their work life needed to be redefined.
  4. Change of priorities – in many cases, the pandemic became an incentive to do their „dream job” or to go into full-time parenthood while staying at home.

How do leaders react and where do they go wrong?

Leaders’ reactions are the result of panic gripping them. Without taking a hard look at the problem, they decide to fix it the way they know best, which is a raise or extra benefits. Meanwhile, employees do not care (only) about the transactional approach to the issue, but first of all about the human aspect. They expect to be asked questions like: How are you feeling? How can I help you? At the same time, employees want to feel that the work they do has meaning and value that is appreciated by their supervisor and the organization.

Then there’s the issue of hybrid work. Not all companies have tried to find the golden mean to reconcile the interests of groups of employees, each with different expectations in this regard. Some want to work 2 days out of the office, others don’t want to come back at all. The worst thing to do in this situation is to introduce strict return to office policies and other restrictions. And in fact, you hear about such cases.

What do employees need?

Apart from the aforementioned sense of meaning in their work, they want their voice to be heard, their family situation to be understood, and truth be known everyone has a different one. Many are experiencing signs of burnout and need a change of career direction to find enthusiasm and joy in their work. The Great Resignation is also the Great Exhaustion.

„We’ve changed. The work has changed. The way we think about time and space has changed,” says Tsedal Neeley, Harvard Business School professor and author of Remote Work Revolution: Succeeding From Anywhere. Employees now want the flexibility provided to them during the pandemic – which was previously unattainable.”

Magdalena – a manager, successful in banking, greatly appreciated living in the center of Warsaw, although she often missed her family living in the countryside on the outskirts of the Tri-City. Access to theaters, cinemas, meetings with friends, were important to her. During the pandemic, she and her husband returned to their family home to survive the pandemic winter together with her parents and siblings. At present, she cannot imagine returning to Warsaw, even if it means losing her job. She intends to stay in the house overlooking the forest. The pandemic has renewed her desire to make her family a priority.

Lars – an HR director in a large company in the Netherlands, has burned out professionally. He was unable to push through the changes that employees needed and that he needed as an employee. Management didn’t believe in the need for leadership change, and instead of discussions, they decided to impose. Lars became a head hunter for upper management. He says his new profession is allowing him to spread his wings.

A Great Resignation – A Great Opportunity?

Any difficult situation can be turned into a success. However, in this particular case, the only organizations that stand a chance are those that embrace flexibility, that understands that leadership should be centered around the individual. Those that will be characterized by a high level of empathy. What comes out of all the articles, forums, and opinions I read on LinkedIn can be put into a few very important points, which are not so easy to implement.

I will now boldly attempt to come up with a recipe for increasing retention in your company:

1. Redefine the organization’s goals – the time when goals were purely financial is long gone. Show people what you are supposed to achieve together, as a company, as a team. When defining goals, don’t forget about people, and put emphasis on environmental protection. Employees are more likely to work for a company that cares about nature and reduces the negative impact of its activities on our planet.

2. Ensure a high level of employee belonging – ensure a company culture that is based on diversity, equality, and inclusion. Ensure equal pay, multicultural teams consisting of men and women of different ages, with different world views. Involve employees in decision-making processes. Consider their opinion and let them feel it.

3. Take care of your employees’ well-being – find out what each of your team members is struggling with. Take the time to recognize their situation and try to help them. Do not forget about the rest of your employees. Check the mental condition of your team. Provide mental health support. Do it in such a way that employees are not afraid to ask for it.

4. Find out what your employees’ aspirations are. Does the work they do use their competencies? Check if they feel burned out and need a change of career direction? Make transitions between departments possible. It costs much less to nurture existing talent than to recruit it from outside.

5. Use people-centered leadership – nurture and strengthen relationships with employees. Take care of social relationships especially in teams where employees partially or fully work remotely.

6. Be a flexible employer – hybrid work is not a perfect solution for every employee. Don’t impose a return to the office. Research what your people expect. Ask them about their preferred way of delivering work. Adapt and don’t fret about performance if employees choose to work remotely. They’ve already managed to prove that their performance under difficult circumstances is at least satisfactory.

And finally, think about those whose coworkers have left the workplace in recent months. After all, not all these vacancies will be filled by the company right away. What about them – often already working two jobs at once because the employer can’t keep up with recruitment? I would like to write that this is a topic for another article. However, it is, first of all, a topic for wise and thoughtful actions of leaders.

There is a Chinese proverb: „May you live in interesting times.” I strongly believe, that the leaders of the new era, would agree that this is not a proverb, but a real curse.

Monika Ciesielska
President at IMSA Search Global Partners. An experienced consultant in the recruitment of the management staff, including board members, and a leader of the recruiting team in the IT/Tech area. Enthusiast of digital transformation of HR processes. Podcaster at "Skrzydlaty HR" and "Top Leaders Club".
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