What makes quitting so contagious? Why multiple employees quit at the same time

March 7, 2023
Praisidio Inc
What makes quitting so contagious? Why multiple employees quit at the same time

Turnover contagion: it’s any manager’s worst nightmare. If you’ve ever had multiple employees quit at the same time, you know how confusing and disruptive it can be. One employee leaves and before you know it, several more are out the door behind them. 

We humans are complex beings programmed for connection. As social creatures, our peers influence our behavior, whether we like it or not. This type of mass exodus drives home the importance of connection in the workplace — something we too often overlook. 

The problem is that the nuances of workplace relationships are too complex and ever-changing to detail in an org chart, so the most meaningful connections — the ones that most influence turnover contagion — often fly under the radar. 

We don’t realize how important these hidden connections are until it's too late: one person leaves and kicks a mass resignation into motion. 

At Praisidio, we spend a lot of time studying employee attrition: why it happens and how to prevent it. In this article, we share what we’ve learned about turnover contagion, what to do when multiple employees quit at the same time, and how to prevent turnover contagion before it starts.

Who employs your ex-talent now?

Find out exactly which companies your ex-employees work for now, broken down by role and location.
Learn more

Why multiple employees quit at the same time

Humans aren't as individual and autonomous as we'd like to think. 

Our emotions and survival instincts keep us alert and susceptible to the actions of those around us. In this way, the resignation of one employee can trigger a wave of insecurity throughout the workplace. People start wondering: why are they leaving? What am I missing? 

Before you know it, multiple employees have quit at the same time, often including some of your best performers. It only snowballs from there.

Our mirror neurons and negativity bias are designed to keep us alive, but in the workplace, these survival adaptations can cause a previously happy employee into a spiral of doubt, insecurity, and job hunting. 

When you think about multiple employees quitting at the same time, it’s helpful to consider two important concepts: hidden linchpins and relationship mapping. 

Hidden linchpins

Linchpins are essential components in a complex system. 

In the workplace, linchpin employees link teams, facilitate communication lines, and have unique skills that their colleagues may rely on. Their absence can result in major setbacks and disruptions to the smooth operation of your workforce. 

Since these linchpins are often not who you would expect, their contributions may go unnoticed until it's too late.

The departure of a lynchpin is highly disruptive. And, if the contributions of that linchpin are not fully understood and appreciated, it can seem unpreventable. This is why losing a hidden linchpin often triggers turnover contagion. 

While this type of turnover contagion seems random, it’s actually identifiable and preventable. 

The case of a hidden linchpin: J. the IT specialist

One example we often point to is the case of J. the IT specialist. In this situation, a biotech firm lost six of its top scientists in quick succession. In an attempt to understand why, the firm mapped the connection between the six scientists using metadata from their corporate communications systems. 

They discovered that all six scientists had a strong working relationship with J, a mid-level IT specialist. J had never been identified as a high performer, and no org chart would have connected him to the scientists in any meaningful way. 

But as it turned out, those scientists depended heavily on J to accomplish their work. When he quit, it made it more difficult for them to do their jobs. To help prevent a similar situation in the future, the biotech firm now uses relationship mapping as part of its people operations function. 

The importance of relationship mapping

Relationship mapping is a valuable way to gain insight into unseen patterns that could affect your workplace down the road.

As the case of the J and the biotech firm illustrates, it’s important to look beyond the org chart to understand the less obvious connections between employees. If you understand these connections, it’s far easier to support everyone who is affected when someone quits. 

The bottom line: mass resignations might seem out of the blue, but they never really are. With the right information, it’s possible to see — and prevent — the risks associated with turnover contagion. 

By using a tool like Praisidio, you can easily gain this level of visibility. Praisidio uses talent intelligence to help you understand the connections within your workforce and to predict problems like mass resignations before it’s too late. 

What makes quitting so contagious?

Hidden linchpins are one factor that makes quitting so contagious. But every company is different. When multiple employees quit at the same time, there could be a number of reasons.

Excessive workload

When an employee leaves, they take their experienced knowledge of the position with them and leave behind their task list. 

Even when a new replacement is hired promptly, the unspoken flow and understanding of a seasoned employee cannot so easily be replaced. At least for a period of time, there is more strain on the remaining team and a high likelihood of them being overworked. 

Overworked employees are less productive, which increases the feeling of being swamped by a never-ending pile of work. The risk of burnout skyrockets. The effects are multiplied if the resignation is from a lynchpin, or if multiple positions are empty at the same time. 

All of this further increases the likelihood of additional resignations, which is why the domino effect is such a real risk. 

Lack of clarity and communication

The rumor mill gets going when lots of people leave. Speculations and assumptions spread. People want answers: Why is everyone leaving? What else don’t we know? How will these positions be filled? How will the workload be managed in the meantime? What will happen next? 

If leadership doesn’t communicate well with employees, they fill in the blanks themselves. This can cause people to act on misinformation, panic, and confusion.  

Uncertainty about the future

It's natural for people to need clarity on how changes will impact their future. Immediate concerns are at the forefront of people's minds: when will we be fully staffed? Will I get along with my new colleagues? Will my new manager change things too much? 

Worrying and speculating are distracting and demoralizing. Job satisfaction and security drop and people start taking their own measures to secure their future.

Could I be happier?

We live in a happiness economy. The question is not: am I happy? It's: could I be happier? Being content is not enough when we are told to strive for even more purpose, even more fulfillment, and even more happiness. 

So, if your remaining employees keep in touch with a colleague who left, they might find out they’ve snagged better pay or more growth opportunities at a new company. If those same opportunities aren’t available at your company, this puts you in a vulnerable position.

How to prevent turnover contagion before it starts

It’s much easier — and far less expensive — to prevent turnover contagion in the first place rather than deal with the aftermath. This might seem impossible, but there are a number of ways to proactively tackle turnover contagion before it ever starts.  

Address problems quickly

Nipping issues in the bud as quickly as possible is the best way to avoid the hassle and cost of escalating problems. 

Patterns and trends can reveal the underlying cause, so begin by gathering relevant information in the form of employee feedback (or even better, talent intelligence). From here, solutions can be planned and actioned. 

Consider trialing your ideas first on a small scale to test their effectiveness. This means you are nimble enough to make further adjustments without significant sunk costs. Once you start to implement the solution on a larger scale, make sure to monitor progress to see that the issue is truly resolved. 

Provide a sense of greater meaning and purpose

Meaning and purpose are the words du jour at the moment, but for good reason. Nine out of ten employees are willing to earn less money in exchange for doing more meaningful work. And it's not only the employees that benefit. 

When employees have a sense of purpose, it positively impacts their work performance since their motivation comes from a deeper place. This in turn will help them persevere through challenges and setbacks, including the impact of resignations. 

There are many ways to help employees incorporate purpose and meaning into work life. Here are a few ideas to consider: 

  • Connect your employees to an individual and collective mission
  • Give employees more autonomy and decision-making power 
  • Ensure everyone understands and is aligned with the mission, vision, and values
  • Communicate these values often and integrate them into the way your company functions 
  • Foster a positive, collaborative company culture 

If your employees are united and working towards a common purpose, the connectivity of your team will make departures less appealing and less influential.

This goal here is to increase the resilience of your employees, especially when facing people leaving around them. They have their own reason to be there, as well as a sense of ownership, community, and connection to their work.

Offer opportunities for growth

We are hard-wired to evolve, so offering opportunities for career development and personal growth goes a long way toward increasing staff retention. Not only does this mitigate the feeling of stagnation, but it also increases their expertise and confidence performing the role. 

Opportunities for growth include: 

  • Investing in training programs, courses, or seminars to upskill employees
  • Offering internal mentorship programs 
  • Providing clear paths for promotion within the company. 

Build feedback into daily work life

Feeling like your voice is heard and that you have the power to influence workplace culture is empowering and motivating. Regular feedback sessions help create a sense of investment among employees, especially if they see their suggested changes being put into place. 

To effectively build feedback into your company, encourage higher ups to lead by example. They need to prove they are receptive to feedback, so employees feel comfortable giving and responding to feedback without fear or hesitancy. 

Do note the most critical step — acting on the feedback. Implementing changes and addressing concerns proves to your employees that their feedback is taken seriously.

Highlighting and celebrating instances where feedback has led to positive change completes the cycle. It reinforces the importance of feedback, thereby encouraging more in the future. 

Leverage talent intelligence

Of all of the solutions for proactively preventing turnover contagion, talent intelligence is probably the most effective. (It’s also the way of the future for human resources management.) 

Talent intelligence essentially takes all of the employee data you already have on hand and uses it to identify attrition risk factors at your company, both system-wide and at the level of individual employees. 

With a talent intelligence solution like Praisidio, you’re able to see potential problems early and make changes long before the first employee ever leaves. You’ll also receive suggestions for targeted interventions, tailored to at-risk employees. 

Continuously track the progress of all your interventions and adjust your practices based on real-time data.

Who employs your ex-talent now?

Find out exactly which companies your ex-employees work for now, broken down by role and location.
Learn more

What to do when many employees quit

Proactive solutions are your best bet, but what about when the worst happens? What do you do when many employees quit? How do you best support the people who remain?

Transparent communication and support are essential. Leaders need to connect with each employee and ensure they don't feel unsupported, overburdened with work, or concerned about their future at the company. 

Provide assurance and encouragement in concrete forms, like development or coaching. This helps the remaining employees feel adequately resourced and capable moving forward. 

Exit interviews, relationship mapping, and talent intelligence can help you identify the root cause, be it salary, benefits, leadership style, or even a lack of maker time. Addressing these issues goes a long way towards preventing further turnover.  

Mass resignations: understanding your risk 

We all hope we’ll never have to face a scenario in which multiple employees quit at the same time. But turnover contagion does happen. 

In a situation like this, knowledge is power. The more you know about why your employees left — and where they went when then did — the more you can make changes to prevent turnover contagion from ever happening again.

Prevention is always better than cure. Book a demo with one of our retention experts to see how Praisidio can help you solve turnover 6 months before it happens.