Identifying employee flight risk isn't always easy, but there are often common warning signs. In many circumstances, employees who have decided to leave may not be open to reconsidering their decision, but it's important for employers to be alert and to start the search for new hires.
Here are red flags that may indicate employee flight risk is either possible or imminent in your workplace:
Major Life Change
When something big occurs in an employee's life, it often presages a change in attitude about his or her job. Such big events can include marriage, divorce, a sudden (and/or serious) illness, childbirth, or the death of a loved one. Employees sometimes 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 an area where a focused discussion early on might make a difference between the employee staying or going. If you simply let the big event pass by (or just offer a perfunctory "congratulations" for a happy occasion and then forget about it), you may have missed an opportunity to prevent actions that result in the loss of a valued employee.
Change in Work Habits
When a negative change occurs in a high-performing employee's work habits, that can be another red flag you shouldn't ignore. Professional development coach Kiely Flanigan describes such changes as "a general disengagement from company activities, sitting in the corner at a company-sponsored event," or by contrast, "a sudden overconfidence among executives that suggests the individual doesn't care anymore." At these times, Flanigan adds, you should "check in with the employee and see what feedback he or she has on company policies—feedback that usually indicates where the employee is feeling dissatisfied."
Keeping Strange Hours
Exploring other job opportunities takes time, so if a formerly reliable employee is abruptly asking for random time off or leaves early and/or comes in late, they may be going for job interviews or simply using up remaining paid time off prior to moving on.
Uncharacteristically Negative Attitude
A valued employee is almost always one with an upbeat, collaborative attitude. If that same individual is now visibly unhappy and complaining a lot, you should take this red flag very seriously. As Christian Schappel at HR Morning notes, "it's a not-so-subtle hint that something's amiss," with at least two negative repercussions: (1) the employee is "disenchanted with his or her work — or the employer, itself" and (2) their complaints "could lead other employees to become malcontents."
Other significant changes — talk about job-hunting in the office, dressing up more than usual, working in isolation — can also signal the intention to leave one's job. Sometimes there's not much you can do to cause the individual to change his or her mind, but it's important for you and your HR team to keep an eye on such behavior so that no one is caught by surprise. On the other hand, a well-timed conversation with a "suspect" employee might uncover causes for grievance that you can address and perhaps change for the better.
Benjamin Smith at Entrance, a software projects and consulting company, offers one technique he calls "Golden Handcuffs." These are enticements that hold an employee in place, but for all the right reasons. "Money sometimes makes the list, but often it doesn't," Smith notes. "My reports have listed as their Golden Handcuffs things like schedule flexibility, not having their estimates constantly scrutinized, and working with the most up-to-date technology." He adds that if you're unable to provide such Golden Handcuffs and another employer can, "you shouldn't be trying to keep that employee anyway."
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. And, when early intervention is possible, knowing those signs may help ward off that departure.