How Employers Drive Away their Employees

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 26, 2020

By Leigh Branham

Why Employees Say They Leave
We compiled a list of 67 reasons why people leave organizations, based on exit surveys completed by thousands of exiting employees. When you take away the seemingly unpreventable reasons—lack of advancement opportunity, better-paying job, career change, commuting time or distance, geographic location of job, job elimination, retirement, return to school, self-employment, and spouse relocation—that still leaves 57 preventable reasons for voluntary turnover out of the 67 total reasons on the list.

I have read and categorized the comments made by more than 4,000 employees who voluntarily left their employers since 1998, as surveyed by the Saratoga Institute and through my own open-to-the-public “Decision to Leave” post-exit Web survey. As I read them, I could not help being touched by the emotions expressed—disappointment, frustration, anger, disillusionment, dismay, resentment, betrayal, to name the most common. There were many positive comments and emotions, as well, but the negative ones were somehow more poignant, powerful, and instructive. It occurred to me that very few of the “reasons” for turnover were based on reasoned thinking; they were mostly rooted in strong feelings such as those just mentioned.

As I analyzed the reasons for leaving and grouped them into categories or themes, peeling layers off the onion in search of root causes, I found some common denominators. It became clear to me that employees begin to disengage and think about leaving their employers when at least one of four fundamental human needs is not being met.

The four fundamental needs are:

  1. The need for trust: Expecting the company and management to deliver on their promises, to be honest and open in all communications, to invest in you, to treat you fairly, and to pay you fairly and on time.
  2. The need to have hope: Believing that you will be able to grow professionally, use and develop your skills on the job and through training, and, for many employees, have the opportunity for advancement or career progress, leading to higher earnings.
  3. The need to feel worthy and respected: Feeling confident that if you work hard, do your best, demonstrate commitment, and make meaningful contributions, you will be recognized and rewarded accordingly, shown respect, and regarded as a valued asset, not a cost, to the organization.
  4. The need to feel competent as you gain mastery: Expecting that you will be matched to a job that makes good use of your talents and is challenging and that you will receive opportunities to learn to perform the job capably, prepare for future roles, be allowed to see the end results of your work, and obtain regular feedback on your performance.

Lack of trust was the most common of the four themes, representing 31% of the total. This supports the research finding of the Great Place to Work Institute that trust is the single most important driver of employee engagement and commitment.

There were also unavoidable reasons—those generally considered unpreventable by the organization. These amounted to only 5% of the reasons given and include excessive commuting distance, retirement, birth of a child, childcare issues, relocation, other family issues, career change, too much travel, return to school, and death or illness in the family.

What Employers Do Poorly
Here, in order, are the 10 most frequently mentioned issues that surfaced in departed employees’ written and spoken responses to Saratoga’s question: “What did your employer do poorly?”

  • Poor Management. Comments focused mostly on uncaring, incompetent, and unprofessional managers; there were also complaints about being overworked, not getting respect, not having their ideas listened to, and being put in the wrong job, as well as the company’s making no effort to retain staff, emphasizing speed over quality, and being abusive. There were also many comments about poor or nonexistent methods of selecting managers. (Unmet needs: trust, worth, hope, and competence).
  • Lack of Career Growth and Advancement Opportunity. Comments were mainly about having no perceivable career path, but also mentioned companies’ failure to post jobs or to fill jobs from within and unfair promotions or favoritism. (Unmet needs: hope, trust, and competence).
  • Poor Communications. Comments were mostly about poor top-down communication from managers and senior leaders and lack of openness with information, but also mentioned poor communications between departments, from the human resources department, from corporate offices to field offices, and following mergers. (Unmet needs: trust and worth).
  • Pay. Comments were mostly about not being paid fair market rates and not being paid in proportion to their contributions and hard work. Respondents also complained of pay inequities, slow pay raises, favoritism in giving raises and bonuses, and ineffective performance appraisal processes. (Unmet needs: trust and worth).
  • Lack of Recognition. This issue is connected to issues of pay and workload, but there were also many comments about the organization’s culture not being one that encourages recognition of employee contributions. (Unmet need: worth).
  • Poor Senior Leadership. Comments asserted that companies don’t care about, listen to, or invest in employees but also mentioned leaders being isolated, remote, and unresponsive, failing to provide an inspiring vision or direction, sending mixed messages, and making too many changes in direction and poor organizational structure. (Unmet need: trust and worth).
  • Lack of Training. Comments were mainly about employees not receiving enough training to do their current jobs properly, but also cited the poor quality of training, being rushed through superficial training, not being allowed to attend training, lack of new-hire training, poor management training, and lack of training for future advancement. (Unmet need: worth, hope, and competence).
  • Excessive Workload. Commenters mainly spoke about being asked to do more with fewer staff, but also mentioned that quality and customer service are sacrificed to “make the numbers.” (Unmet needs: worth and competence).
  • Lack of Tools and Resources. Comments cited a range of issues, including lack of office supplies, malfunctioning computers, outdated technology, and insufficient staffing. (Unmet needs: worth, hope, and competence).
  • Lack of Teamwork. Commenters spoke about lack of cooperation and commitment to get the job done among coworkers but also mentioned a lack of coordination between departments or different locations (Unmet needs: trust and competence).

In Conclusion
Most of the reasons employees disengage and leave are consistent, predictable, and avoidable, if the employers have the desire to retain and are willing to invest the time to take preventive or corrective actions. This is good news, since most such actions don’t require significant monetary investment. They generally do cost time, and, yes, time is money; but the cost of disengagement and turnover is greater than the cost of trying to retain valued employees.

© 2012 Leigh Branham. Excerpted and adapted, with permission of the publisher, from The 7 Hidden Reasons Employees Leave, by Leigh Branham. Published by AMACOM, a division of American Management Association.

About the Author(s)

Leigh Branham is founder/principal of the consulting firm Keeping the People, Inc. ( He is the author of Keeping the People Who Keep You in Business, coauthor, with Mark Hirschfeld, of Re-Engage: How America’s Best Places to Work Inspire Extra Effort in Extraordinary, and The 7 Hidden Reasons Employees Leave, from which this article is excerpted.