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A man waves goodbye to his colleagues as he leaves an office with a box of belongings.
When star performers leave, research shows it can lead to turnover contagion — especially when company leaders fail to motivate or inspire. (Shutterstock)

Is quitting contagious? Depends on who else leaves and who’s in charge

Quitting is one of life’s big decisions. It takes an emotional and financial toll on the employee, their families and their co-workers. People want power over these types of big life decisions, aiming to have self-control over their circumstances and decisions.

But what happens when our colleagues quit? Are we more or less likely to quit? Essentially, is quitting contagious?

A multi-phased study of 201 car salespeople working for 93 different car dealerships suggests that quitting behaviour depends on two factors: who else leaves and the employee’s relationship with their manager or leader. There are important employee and management implications of this study, which will be published in the next edition of the Leadership & Organizational Development Journal.

Who else quits matters

The phenomenon of people quitting because co-workers quit is known as turnover contagion.

When strong performers quit, employees are more likely to re-evaluate their relationship with the company. Employees may perceive the departure as a signal that the company may be a “sinking ship” or that it doesn’t reward or value star performers.

The loss of strong performers, in fact, can be demoralizing and legitimizes the belief that quitting is a viable option. Remaining employees might also interpret the loss of strong performers as an indication that they will have to work more, given that the work that the strong performer was doing needs to redistributed to others. Therefore, the exit of strong performers increases the likelihood that others in the workplace will consider leaving.

A woman stares forlornly at her laptop.
‘Do I really want to work here?’ The departure of a star performer can prompt others to ponder quitting. (Shutterstock)

In contrast, when weak performers quit, existing employees interpret that positively. Employees who perform poorly at work usually have lower work skills, knowledge, resilience, motivation and commitment to their employer. They are also more likely to be cynical towards their company.

Remaining employees feel that the exit of sub-par performers is desirable and might result in more fair distribution of work. It can also indicate that the replacement will add more value to the business unit or team. Overall, the exit of poor performers reduces other employee’s intent to quit, and increases their intent to stay with the employer.

Leaders’ behaviour matters too

The study also indicates that workplace leaders’ efforts and actions can reduce the impact of turnover contagion. At times, employees don’t know why their co-workers quit and they make assumptions based on who left. Managers should provide employees with accurate and timely information about why their colleagues left, which should reduce gossiping and misinterpretation.

For example, a strong performer who left to return to school, for early retirement or to move to another city wouldn’t trigger turnover contagion, because that doesn’t signal a problem or concern with the company.

Open communication can help to inhibit the spread of false information, alleviating the remaining employees’ insecurities, and ultimately reduce quitting contagion.

Also, when employees feel that they’re working for a transformational leader — someone who encourages, supports, motivates and inspires employees — they are less likely to be impacted by turnover contagion. Essentially, employees’ relationships with their managers can mitigate the turnover contagion caused when strong performers quit.

A woman boss yells at her employees in a meeting room.
A motivational, supportive and inspiring leader can reduce quitting contagion, while the opposite type of manager can fuel it. (Shutterstock)

Leaders should take note of these study results with the end of the COVID-19 pandemic in view. Without support and timely communication from leaders, employees may begin to engage in a mass exodus as they make return-to-work decisions when COVID-19 restrictions ease. This can be destabilizing for companies that don’t want to lose strong performers who have the potential to help the organization recover and succeed in the post-pandemic world.

Think before you leap

As the economy begins to recover, not all of us are interested in returning to our previous employers. Roughly one in every five employees plans to look for a new job. Given the research on turnover contagion, that means the post-pandemic period may be challenging for many companies if they lose strong performers.

A closed laptop on a desk.
Roughly one in five employees is considering leaving their jobs following COVID-19. This could hav a major impact on organizations. Luca Bravo/Unsplash

While employees want control over their decision to stay with their employers or quit, they’re clearly impacted by what others decide to do. We interpret the departure of our co-workers as a signal about whether we should leave or stay.

Often, we make assumptions about who people quit, based on our interpretation of their job performance. Additionally, the research shows that we are more likely to make such interpretations when we think our organizational leader fails to motivate, support or inspire us.

Given the results of the study, top performers should feel empowered to be proactive and discuss what is making them unhappy or dissatisfied at work with their employers. Sometimes, working together to address these issues can result in a mutually beneficial outcome for both the employee and their company.

Other times, although life-altering in the short term, quitting is the correct course of action.

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