What are the warning signs an employee is leaving, and what should a manager do?

Document created by 1017515 on Feb 13, 2015Last modified by 1017515 on Mar 10, 2017
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Employee attrition is a natural occurrence within any organization and some turnover is good.  Many times we learn that a key employee is leaving when it is too late to affect their decision.  Learning how to recognize when employees are at risk can have dramatic effects on the health and performance of your company.  If we could recognize when an employee is looking for another opportunity, perhaps we could reverse their decision to leave or, at the very least, be prepared for their departure.  Let's review some of the generally accepted warning signs that can indicate an employee is looking around for another job and what, if anything, you can do about it.



  • Lower Work ProductivityWhen a top performer, who usually produces high-quality results and always delivers on time, begins to show a lack of enthusiasm or care for the work they are doing.  This is usually a sign something has changed in the way they feel about their job or the organization as a whole.  It could also be a sign that something else is going wrong in their life.  Reaching out to employees going through hard times demonstrates how much we care about them.


  • Change in DressEmployees who suddenly turn up their professional dress and appearance a couple of notches are likely going on job interviews or attending recruiting events.


  • Unusual Work ScheduleComing to work late, leaving early or requesting days off with short notice can also be a red flag.  Some employees will strive to use any remaining paid-time-off before announcing their departure.


  • Increase in Private TimeEmployees who are spending time talking with recruiters or conducting job searches during their lunch hours are likely to be seen more in unused conference rooms or frequently talking on their cell phone outside during business hours.


  • Complaint DepartmentIf a typically happy and content employee is suddenly complaining about employer policies or management decisions, this is usually a sign that something is amiss. A disengaged employee is likely seeking a new opportunity and may also be spreading discontent among others.


  • DistantMost employees form bonds with their co-workers. When a worker begins to distance themselves from groups or co-workers, it can be a signal there is trouble somewhere. It may be a personal issue, but it could also be they have decided to leave and want to break those ties to make it easier.


  • Personal Life ChangesWhen an employee experiences a life-changing event in their personal life, it will inevitably affect their work-life balance and result in a change at work.  Sometimes, simply giving them the space they need to sort things out, or offering them an opportunity to talk confidentially about what they are experiencing, is a great way to be supportive.  Often, however, changes in an employee’s personal life will lead them to seek changes in their work life as well, as a way of resetting that work-life balance.


  • Punching the ClockEmployees who have made the decision to leave an organization may also decide not to give any more of their time than is required. These employees are likely to stop coming into work early and stop working after hours as well. 


Managers will only notice these warning signs if they are regularly spending time with their employees.  One of these signs in an of itself might not warrant any action.  Two or more is a clear sign that something could be going on at work or personally. When a manager notices any of these signs in an employee, we recommend the following action steps:


  1. We recommend that the manager schedule a time to sit down with the employee in a private setting to review the concerns they have observed.  A good way to start the conversation could be "Hey Sally, I've known you for a long time and I've noticed over the last several weeks a number of changes in your behavior that has me concerned.  For example, I've noticed [list out your observations...].  So talk to me about this - is there anything going on with you that I need to be aware of or can help you with? 
  2. If the employee opens up, it's important for the manager to primarily listen, being sure to avoid the desire to play armchair psychologist.  The goal in this first conversation isn't to necessarily resolve the issue, just to open the dialogue.  Obviously if the employee raises issues about the work environment that can be addressed the manager should do so.  If the employee does confirm they are looking for other work, treat this as a gift and try to understand what is driving them away.  Perhaps it can be fixed.  Do not get mad and ask them to just leave now.
  3. If the employee is reluctant to discuss the issues then the manager should ensure the employee that their door is always open, offer EAP if needed, time off, etc.  End the discussion by just reminding the employee that they care about them and are always there to discuss any concerns.  Also remind them they can reach out to HR as well.
  4. What if the manager is observing these signs but frankly doesn't really want the employee to stay?   This situation is obviously a judgment call, however we would err on the side of having the conversation.  You may discover things you were not aware of during the conversation.


By paying attention to these warning signs and then taking appropriate action, you may be able to reverse the direction of an employee who is looking elsewhere. At a minimum, you can begin to prepare yourself for their departure and start thinking about back-filling their position to reduce any business impact.  And remember that our Advice and Resolution team is always here to help you role play these types of conversations.


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