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Employee Flight Risk: Signs an Employee May Be About To Quit and How To Retain Them

  • Human Resources
  • Article
  • 6 min. Read
  • Last Updated: 03/23/2023

a dissatisfied employee thinking about leaving her employer

Table of Contents

When competition is fierce for top talent — in addition to high levels of worker stress and the time-consuming and costly hiring and recruiting process — employers need to understand how to approach employee flight risk. In many circumstances, employees who have decided to leave may not be open to reconsidering their decision, in spite of the benefits you offer or how much you solicit their feedback. But it's important for employers to identify some common signs an employee may be about to leave, take proactive steps in employee retention that can help keep a high-performing workforce, and understand how such strategies can positively impact the business.

What Do We Mean by Employee Flight Risk?

Employees who are a flight risk are workers who are most likely to leave their employer. A flight-risk employee may be dissatisfied with factors such as their current pay, position, or future with the business, to the point where they choose to look elsewhere for new opportunities. For this reason, flight risks and disengaged workers often go hand-in-hand.

Signs an Employee May Be About To Quit

Part of identifying whether an employee is about to quit involves taking steps well before they begin to feel unhappy or disengaged. This involves developing a strong benefits and compensation structure that aligns with employees' needs and skills, maintaining close relationships with them, and keeping lines of communication open. By learning and understanding more about their personal and professional concerns, you can recognize when someone is dissatisfied at work and take steps to address issues before they become breaking points.

The following are some common circumstances that may lead to an increased chance of an employee becoming a flight risk:

Major Life Changes Outside of Work

When something big occurs in an employee's life, it often presages a change in attitude about their job. Such big events can include marriage, divorce, a sudden (and/or serious) illness, childbirth, or the death of a loved one. We've seen this over the past few years during the "great resignation", as employees struggled with many challenges in the wake of the pandemic, opting for more work/life balance or prioritizing time with their families. In such situations, employees may reflect on what they're doing at the time and, if they determine the situation isn't making them happy, may opt for "greener pastures" elsewhere.

This is a tough situation for managers and HR teams, since they may not know the full story behind an employee's personal issues or changes that they're going through. Bringing emotional intelligence into conversations with employees early on might make a difference between an employee staying or going. On the other hand, acting without emotional intelligence (e.g., just offering a perfunctory "congratulations" or "sorry for your loss" and then forget about it), may deprive you of an opportunity to prevent the exit of a valued employee.

Changes in Job Role or Responsibilities

Employees should find meaning and value in the work they do each day. In circumstances where an employee's role or responsibilities have changed recently, they may be overwhelmed, underwhelmed, or feel that new tasks don't align well with their career aspirations. They may also no longer have a clear understanding of how their day-to-day work contributes to the business's larger goals. This could lead to the employee doubting their abilities, feeling unaligned with the business at large, and in search of a new start elsewhere.

Employees who take on new projects or roles need resources and training to help them ramp up and be put on a path to success. Managers and supervisors also play an important role here. They should have honest, ongoing conversations and check-ins with the employee about what the new responsibilities require, set measurable and attainable goals to help the employee stay on the right track, and work through any obstacles along the way.

Dissatisfaction With Compensation

One of the biggest catalysts for turnover is employee pay. And within this concern, there could be multiple issues:

  • The company pays employees below market value and/or pay gaps exist between peers within the business
  • Employees perceive that they're underpaid but don't understand how their compensation is calculated

If employee compensation isn't competitive with the rest of the market, or there are pay disparities between employees in similar positions, flight risks could be imminent. You should evaluate industry data about compensation as well as the business's pay-banding approach, which can clearly define upper and lower pay limits for a specific position. If you identify employees who are below the minimum of their salary range, or whose performance warrants a raise, you should communicate with impacted staff and make those adjustments.

In the case of perceived low pay, just paying your employees and hoping they come around likely won't go very far to assuage their concerns. You should also demonstrate your commitment to fair and equitable pay across your organization. Even where not required by law, consider adopting a culture of pay transparency and communicating about the methodology you're using to make pay decisions. If you're not, recognize that your competitors may already be disclosing this valuable information to your employees and other job candidates. Once your transparency plan is in place, it can aid in your recruiting and retention efforts, improve company culture, and help build trust with employees.

Changes in Company Policies

A new company policy or change in procedure that comes out of the blue can blindside employees, especially if employers don't ask for their input before making any decisions. That's because employees want to know that they are being heard at work and that their well-being is part of the consideration process. Where appropriate, check in with employees to see what feedback they have on current company policies or how they would perceive potential changes in the future. This type of feedback usually indicates where employees are feeling dissatisfied or have developed a sore spot for company policy over time.

For instance, if you're thinking about switching your benefit offerings, a good first step may be to get a sense of employee utilization rates of current benefits, what workers would like to see in the future, and where they think the business could be doing better. A conversation about benefits may lead employees to confide that the business isn't doing enough to help them save for retirement, and that they've been talking to other companies with a more robust 401(k) plan. Getting this feedback and taking it into account when making policy decisions can elicit more trust from employees and boost their confidence working for you. And in this example specifically, enhancing your benefits package can be great for long-term retention.

Lack of Development Opportunities

Providing training and development opportunities sends a clear message to your staff: you care about them and believe in their abilities. This can foster a sense of belonging in employees who may work harder with a deeper commitment to their teams. But without such opportunities, employees may question their future with your business.

Training is an important piece of the larger employee lifecycle. It can help develop the skills and expertise needed within your business and is critical in developing your organization's future leaders. Offering professional development opportunities for your employees is also key to their engagement and desire to stay with the company. Having a robust training program can help you stand out as an employer to attract and keep top talent.

How To Calculate Employee Flight Risk

Investing in the right technology may make it easier to take a deeper dive into the company's data and tie it back to critical decisions around employee retention and turnover. HR teams can use predictive HR analytics to help them identify employees who may be a flight risk (usually aggregated at the manager or department level vs. individual level), determine areas of the business where turnover risk is highest, and uncover any underlying issues. Analytics can also help HR more accurately determine what current retention strategies are working well.

Calculating employee flight risk with HR analytics requires details such as:

  • Employee demographic data
  • Tenure with the business
  • Performance metrics and employee reviews information
  • Engagement survey data
  • Employee workloads
  • PTO and vacation usage
  • Absenteeism rates
  • Compensation data
  • Larger industry metrics around compensation and benefits

Building flight-risk models based on this information can result in a better understanding of:

  • The catalysts that drive turnover
  • Actions that can reduce or increase attrition
  • Specific investments needed to drive retention

Of course, insights from HR analytics alone can't keep employees. What's important is turning insights into action once you have these findings. This includes talking to employees and managers, providing training, evaluating your compensation and benefits, and much more.

Why Is It Important To Identify When Employees Are Flight Risks?

Sometimes there's not much you can do to cause an employee to change their mind about leaving. After all, turnover is part of running a business. But it's important for you and your HR team to keep an eye on such behavior to help mitigate being caught by surprise. Consider what the impact of even one employee leaving can have on the business and the workforce that's left. Re-hiring and recruiting for an open position in a tight labor market is costly and time-consuming. Remaining employees may feel resentful picking up additional work in the meantime, and morale can take a considerable downturn.

Don't overlook the power that a well-timed conversation with a "suspect" employee might have. It could uncover causes for grievance that you can address and perhaps change for the better. The key here is being proactive in your retention efforts, communicating with employees, and demonstrating how much you value your workforce.

How To Prevent an Employee From Quitting

There are many reasons for employee departures, and understanding why individuals leave is key to helping others stay. Though it's impossible to retain every employee, there are many innovative retention strategies that can help your business mitigate turnover, foster an engaged workforce, and create a desirable workplace. While you can execute targeted strategies with the goal of improving employee satisfaction, it's also wise to consider that long-term worker retention is a holistic effort, which may include:

  • Benefits offerings
  • HR insights and analytics
  • Quality hiring
  • Providing career development opportunities
  • Open communication policies, especially at critical junctures such as employee performance reviews and exit interviews (or even a stay interview)

Again, it's impossible to fully eliminate employee attrition. But you can encourage workers to stay by getting their input on areas for improvement and focusing on developing well-rounded employee retention efforts.

Stay Proactive To Help Reduce Flight Risk

The unexpected departure of a top employee is never desirable, but keeping an eye out for warning signs can at least reduce the element of shock involved. When early intervention is possible, you may be able to ward off that departure and retain your team. Beyond that, it's imperative to focus on retention efforts and proactive measures like offering a range of attractive employee benefits, which can go a long way in keeping great employees around for the long term.


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* This content is for educational purposes only, is not intended to provide specific legal advice, and should not be used as a substitute for the legal advice of a qualified attorney or other professional. The information may not reflect the most current legal developments, may be changed without notice and is not guaranteed to be complete, correct, or up-to-date.

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