This article was originally published by The Sydney Morning Herald.
By Belinda Williams
May 20, 2013
How to tell when an employee is about to quit
Excessive personal web browsing is one of the many signs that an employee is unhappy at work. So is petty theft and serious sabotage. It’s a difficult balancing act trying to keep staff content without being walked over. You might be glad someone is on their way out, but that period beforehand is costly for everyone.
You’re not a mind reader, but you can read the signs.
Organisational psychologist Dr Michelle Pizer says it is important to “trust your gut” when it comes to gauging whether an employee is unhappy at work. Pizer says some of the indicators include:
- They avoid you.
- They don’t smile any more.
- They stop speaking up or contributing and they just agree with you and follow your instructions.
- They work to rule, such as starting and finishing right on time, or coming in late and leaving early.
- They avoid small talk and only speak when they have to discuss work.
- They miss deadlines, their productivity drops and they don’t seem to care.
- They take more sick days.
- They take a lot of personal calls.
- They take extra-long lunch breaks.
- They use more internet bandwidth.
- They only focus on the short term and are not interested in improvements or planning.
- Your customers tell you standards have dropped.
From general gripes to unexpected aggression
Director of Inspirational Workplaces, organisational psychologist Helen Crossing, says signs that people are unhappy at work can range in seriousness, from general complaining to sabotage.
“They complain about what’s wrong with the organisation, with systems, processes, or products, without providing constructive solutions or showing any willingness to be part of the solution,” Crossing says.
“If there is a discussion about their performance, they are likely to respond defensively and there is little change in their performance even if they agree to make changes.”
Crossing says a cagey demeanour could indicate a bigger problem.
“You observe them talking to colleagues and when you get near, they suddenly stop talking,” Crossing says.
“At office morning teas or celebrations, they take the food or drink and disappear. They do not join in. It’s all about ‘what’s in it for me’, rather than ‘what am I doing to contribute’.”
Crossing said negative behaviour can escalate.
“Sabotage and corporate fraud are also acts of unhappy, disgruntled employees,” she says.
“People find ways to get back at their employer – from petty theft to substantive fraud.”
Why employers should care
Tim James, senior regional director at recruiting company Hays, says many people are affected when someone quits.
“When an employee leaves, there is the loss of not only valuable industry knowledge – which can contribute to your business’s future success – but knowledge about your company, your customers, current projects and past history, which can take a long time to regain,” James says.
“Customer and client relations can also be affected by staff turnover and the effect can be felt throughout an entire organisation, with other staff having to pick up the workload.
“While it is difficult to fully calculate the cost of turnover, it can often equate to 25 per cent of the average employee salary – and this is a conservative estimate.”
Pizer says doing nothing affects everyone.
“Apart from the moral responsibility of caring that someone is unhappy at your workplace, it’s expensive to have unhappy employees, and not just financial,” Pizer says.
“Emotions are contagious and an unhappy worker might bring everyone else down.
“This matters if you want your staff to have good relationships with each other and your customers, be more creative, helpful and committed to your business – all more likely if your staff experience positive emotions at work.”
Crossing says employee salaries are usually the highest cost for small businesses.
“So, to have one or more people who are unhappy will mean you are paying them without getting the full benefit of their skills, knowledge, and creativity.”
Experts say employers should exercise caution when approaching disgruntled employees or better yet, seek professional advice. The problem may be less about work and more about personal problems.
Pizer says begin by setting up a meeting. Think about your own attitude and the outcomes you’re hoping for.
“Consider what you want to convey … find out what future direction they’d like for themselves and lock in some development opportunities to help them get there,” she says.
“Career-related hope is important for dignity and feeling good about work.
“Make it safe for them to give you feedback – without you falling apart or getting defensive, and don’t retaliate with negative consequences for them either.
“You’ll also need to be willing to do what’s within your control to change and then to make the changes. False promises will also make things worse.”
Pizer said indicators that someone is unhappy at work can also be signs that they are having personal issues.
“You’re not a mind reader, you don’t want to pry, but if it’s affecting their work or others then you’ll need to step up and talk to your employee about it,” Pizer says.
“If it feels all too hard, you’re not sure how to go about it or you find you’re avoiding dealing with it, you might want to consider getting some help to come up with strategies that will suit your particular situation and to support you through the process.
“This might be your HR department, a trusted mentor or you could consider employing the services of someone externally.”
Crossing said it was “important to recognise that as a manager you are not expected to be a psychologist”.
“However, you need to have some sense of what behaviour is acceptable or unacceptable in relation to the person’s role,” Crossing says.
“It is also important that advice is sought when a person’s behaviour is seen as problematic by you or their colleagues. The challenge for a manager is to determine the best course of action.
“Genuine concern for the person and a willingness to help them get through a situation is useful.
“However, avoid becoming their counsellor; instead refer them for professional help.”
Crossing said signs of personal problems might include:
- The person spends a lot more time on the phone or is suddenly absent from work.
- They take more sick leave.
- They request pay in advance; you hear of them borrowing money from colleagues.
- They use up all of their accrued leave without having taken a holiday.
- Colleagues may report finding them crying or vomiting in the bathroom, or smelling of alcohol, having injuries/bruises that do not relate to their job.
- In extreme cases the person will cease to make an effort with their appearance; they look dishevelled and colleagues may complain about poor hygiene.