7 signs that your employee might be planning to quit (and how to win them back)

About the Author: Ashley Thomson
Ashley Thomson

signs your employee might quitOur last two blogs have covered how to end the employment relationship when it’s a definite case of ‘it’s not me… it’s you’.

But what happens when it’s one of your star team members that wants to break up with your business?

How will you know? And what can you do to stop them walking out the door?

The 7 employee exit signs you won’t want to miss

We mentor our business coaching clients to be on the lookout for these seven changes in employee behaviour – they may indicate that your employee has one foot out the door.


Sign 1: They ask about pay rise or an increase in entitlements

One sure fire sign that your employee has visited Seek (or Indeed, CareerOne, or other job boards) is that they are questioning their pay and feeling entitled for more.

What to do about it: The name of the game here is to try to turn a subjective discussion into one that is more objective. And the way to do that is to be on solid footing. I check these things with my coaching clients: Do you have a development plan for the employee’s role on your company? When is the last time you did a performance review? When did you last survey market pay rates and scales? (The answers in the back of the book are: a) yes, b) within the last 6 months, and c) within the last 12 months.)
If your employee is already looking for other jobs then the horse may have already bolted but having a proactive plan so that employees can understand the effort and development required of them to get to the next rung on the ladder in your company counts for more than promises of raises in the future.


Sign 2: Alottttttt of side hustle jobs

If your employee is doing cash jobs on the weekend, forwarding client work emails to a non-work email address, or using company resources for their own financial gain, it could be a sign that they are building a portfolio of clients to prepare for setting up their own business.

What to do about it: If you foster an open and honest relationship with your employees then being real and finding out what they want to do is step 1. If you know their aspirations to one day be their own boss then you can possibly delay the move – “let me help you develop some of the skills you’ll need before going it alone – learn from my mistakes”. This can also help you to plan for life without your wingman at the same time as pumping up the business making it too exciting and rewarding for them to leave. The secret here is to know their intention – don’t assume it is to make more money; it could be more flexible time, the type of work they want to do or even the location of the work that is the reason behind the move. From there a development plan that paints a rosier picture than they can create themselves is how you keep them by your side.

Real life case study: One of my coaching clients, Brad, had an employee, Simon, who had been with the business for 3 years. Simon was great on the tools and good with clients so Brad and I were disappointed when Simon said that he wanted to go out on his own. He thought he could make more money, have more control of his time and be good as his own boss. Fair enough. We wished him well. After 11 months of experiencing the challenges of running your own business, Simon reached out to us – he was ready to come back. Because we had left things on friendly terms, Simon didn’t feel sheepish or defeated about asking Brad for his job back. Simon has been back with us for 5 years and has proven to be a committed and productive team member. (He may even be a potential buyer of the business when Brad is ready to sell in a few years.)

While it might be a bit hurtful when someone leaves to start their own business off the back of everything you’ve taught them, it’s worth ending things in a way that the door is always (slightly) open. When times are tough for them in their own business, we want to ensure that them coming back to the fold is an easy option rather than a driving force to prove us wrong. Add them to your CRM for follow up like you would with a business prospect so that our next recruitment after their replacement is them again.

Bringing people back in also needs to feel like a new company. The joy of having a weekly pay slip again will be short lived if the reason they left in the first place hasn’t changed. We need to ensure we give them a proper induction back into the business so they feel like things are different and step them through a development plan so that both parties are clear on the timeline and development needed to step up through the organisation chart in the business.

After you’ve set the tone for how the place has changed, make sure you over deliver on the promise. If you’ve set out 1 month, 3 month, 6 month timelines and measures in your plan make sure you agree on dates in the meeting and add it to the company calendar. I explain it to clients as the “bullet train” – if we don’t give an employee a reason to look anywhere but forward and upward then they’ll stay onboard the train.


Sign 3: A change in attendance

Is your normally committed team member suddenly showing up later and leaving work earlier? Do you find yourself approving a stack of leave forms for sick days, time off for appointments and holidays? Have they developed a habit of taking extra-long lunches?

Decoded: Sure, they might be interviewing, but it may be that they’re just not ‘feeling it’ in their job anymore and are avoiding it as much as possible.

What to do about it: Start by giving them the benefit of the doubt. If they’re working less, maybe they’re it because they’re being more productive. If they’re calling in sick, maybe they are actually unwell. In the words of Stephen Covey, “Seek first to understand (before being understood.)” Take time to understand what’s going on with your employee. Often just being interested in their wellbeing will open up a conversation where they can talk about any frustrations they’re experiencing.


Sign 4: A change in performance

Has your ‘employee of the month’ suddenly become the ‘least likely to succeed’? Is your normally dependable ‘do-er’ suddenly missing deadlines and doing the bare minimum?

Decoded: Behaviour is communication, so if a team member isn’t performing to their usual standard, you can be sure something’s up. It’s possible that they’re bored, feeling under-appreciated or have come to resent something in their working life. Time to investigate!


Sign 5: A change in attitude

Is your normally positive team member suddenly narky and hard to get along with? Do they seem more problems focused or (to be blunt) a little whiny? Are you starting to get getting negative feedback and direct complaints from customers?

Decoded: Your team member might be stuck looking at work through a negative lens. Listen to their rants and complaints and look for clues behind their dissatisfaction. Are their comments directed at any part of the business in particular?

NB: This one needs to be managed quickly, because when it comes to company culture, open discontent can become contagious.


Sign 6: A change in volume

Has your employee suddenly gone silent? Do they sit through whole meetings without contributing any ideas? Have they stopped being as responsive to calls and emails? Have they stopped socialising with the rest of the team?

Decoded: This could be an indicator that your team member is no longer as invested in the success of your business. It could be that their focus has shifted away from advancing your agenda, and onto moving their own plans forward.


Sign 7: They are networking more actively

Has your team member started putting their hand up to attend conferences or industry networking events? Are you noticing that they are suddenly very active on LinkedIn?

Decoded: It could be that your employee is growing their network in order to widen their job search. LinkedIn activity should really tip you off -it’s no longer just a place to post your CV and hope for the best. The business networking site is really taking off as a primary source of new employment opportunities. If they are commenting on people’s posts and their number of new connections is soaring, they may have plans to make use of those new business buddies.


Bonus sign 8: You have a gut feeling

Sometimes you can’t put your finger on just one thing, but you just get a feeling that someone is a little ‘off’.

Decoded: Listen to your gut instincts – even if you’re off-base thinking that they’re about to quit, they may be going through something else that requires your support. Starting a conversation might help you uncover whatever is making your alarm bells ring.


Decoding the signs is just the first step

So, you think that your employee may be a walking resignation letter time-bomb? Well, that’s only half the battle.

If, after some reflection, (related article: 8 sanity checks to get you off the fence about employee dismissal) you’re sure your business is better with them in it, then you’ll need an emergency retention strategy.


Why do they leave? Why do they stay?

According to employment experts at SEEK, there are three main reasons why employees abandon ship:

  1. problems with working conditions or environment
  2. lack of stability due to organisational changes or restructure
  3. issues with management or leadership

They also identified the top three factors (that employers can influence) that improve employee retention:

  1. salary/compensation
  2. flexible hours
  3. working conditions/environment

Consider your business from an employee’s perspective. Can you identify any areas where you could improve? Reflect on these insights as you prepare to talk with your team member about what’s happening for them in their working life.


Three questions to help you formulate your emergency retention strategy

Schedule some time to meet with your employee. You’re on a recon mission to find out three things.

1. Are they, in fact, thinking of leaving? You’ll first need to confirm that this is what’s behind their unusual behaviour. You’ll get the best results if you just ask them about the behaviours or changes you have noticed in a non-judgemental way. Be prepared that it may turn out that there is something else going on for them, such as problems in their personal lives.


2. If they are thinking of quitting, what are their reasons? Try to just let your employee talk without defending yourself against their assertions. They’re more likely to address your question if they feel like you really want to know the answers.


3. What can you do to change their mind? This is where the gold lies in your mining mission. You could be about to hear some useful insights about your business from the employee perspective that you had no idea about. You don’t have to take everything on board but keep an open mind and really consider their suggestions for improvement.


If you’ve been fortunate enough to get some answers to these questions, thank your employee for being open and honest and let them know that you’ll take their views and ideas into consideration.

You can now decide how to use this knowledge to formulate a plan to reel them back in. The strategy you use to accomplish this will depend on the employee and their individual reasons for wanting to leave, but (to boil it all down to its simplest form) your plan should centre around re-engagement. All the research shows that a truly engaged employee stays put.


My coaching tips for keeping employees engaged and in your business

To avoid these employee relationship emergencies, I coach my business clients to think about how they can build retention strategies into the day-to-day of your business.

Here are my top tips:

  • Make sure that there are opportunities for employees to develop and be challenged by their role. This will re-invigorate their interest and keep them from getting stale. I like to visualise how they answer the “How’s work?” question at Christmas with family. Chances are that if they visualise they will be doing the same job in 2 years’ time that they are doing today, we’re at risk of someone looking for something greener.
  • Working conditions and environment are mostly within your control – could you offer a more attractive salary package or increased flexibility? Could you work on improving your team culture? If it really is a money thing, be careful before you tip in more funds. It is inevitable they will talk with co-workers either way so being prepared with the rest of the team is just as important. Equally, I never like to give away money for nothing – link it to some new work they need to do or efficiency targets that also improve the company’s bottom line result.
  • While organisational change and restructure is unavoidable, be sure to keep an open line of communication with your team about these changes. There’s nothing like uncertainty to make people look for more stable employment opportunities.
  • Seek to continuously improve leadership within the business. Allowing employees an appropriate amount of freedom to innovate and have impact often comes down to leading rather than simply managing.
  • Build a mechanism for gathering employee satisfaction feedback into your processes. It should never be assumed that your team are happy with the status quo.

Parting comments…

It’s a bit of a blow to the ego when you find out that a valued employee wants to leave your business. But the silver lining comes in the opportunity to view your business from your team’s perspective. Through open and honest employee communication and feedback, you can gain invaluable insights that will help you build a business that is also a great place to work.