What makes quitting so contagious?

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Something contagious is spreading through the workforce. Its symptoms present themselves in a series of two-week notices. Its transmission is visible in real time. And few bosses seem to know how to vaccinate their staff against this quitagion.

It catches on quickly.

“There is a shock when you see several people leave; it’s like, oh, is there something i’m not seeing? said Tiff Cheng, 27, who quit her digital marketing job in July along with five of her close friends at the 40-person agency. “Is it my time to go too?”

Dropout rates were high in August, September and October. Then, according to Labor Department data, they soared again: More than 4.5 million people voluntarily quit their jobs in November, a record in two decades of tracking.

Economists explained the figures by noting that competition for workers has led to better wages and benefits, pushing some to seek new opportunities. Psychologists have an additional explanation: quitting smoking is contagious.

When workers consider whether to change jobs, they don’t just assess their own salary, benefits and career development. They look around and note what friends think about team culture. When an employee leaves, the departure signals to others that it may be time to take stock of their options, which researchers call “turnover contagion.”

So quitting leads to more quits, a challenge that employers can’t always solve with raises or benefits. Even a single resignation notice can create a “hot spot”, said Will Felps, who teaches management at the University of New South Wales and is the author of a study on turnover contagion .

Felps and his team studied staffing at a hotel company and a selection of bank branches, all in the United States, and found that a worker’s decision to leave is particularly likely to inspire others. who do not feel strongly anchored in the company. In a recent survey of more than 21,000 LinkedIn members, 59% said the departure of a colleague also caused them to consider quitting.

The office has long been a petri dish for infectious behavior. Lying, cheating, and job satisfaction all tend to spread from office to office. Financial advisors, for example, are 37% more likely to commit misconduct if they meet teammates who have done so, which the researchers call “peer effects,” noting that misconduct leads to average 0.59 additional cases. Employees also mimic the eating habits of the people they sit with in the cafeteria. Teammates are influenced by each other in much more subtle ways than they realize.

But when it comes to heading for the exit, peer effects are particularly powerful.

“When you pass a restaurant and it’s full of people, that’s a clue that that restaurant is pretty good,” Felps said. “Similarly, when people you know, love and respect leave their jobs, you think the grass may be greener elsewhere.”

Cheng saw his inbox begin to fill with resignation notes last summer. Every two weeks, she would receive an email from a colleague who was leaving her company, where the hours were long and the opportunities for career advancement seemed limited. She decided to devote herself full-time to her own coaching business, which she now runs from Vancouver, BC.

“It’s always very scary to make the decision to quit your job, and it was nice to be able to see other people doing it,” Cheng said. “I didn’t feel as alone, or as if I was a stranger.”

A sense of disaffection and unrest at work began to grow for many Americans at the start of the pandemic. For some, social media has become a therapeutic couch, a space to vent those professional frustrations.

In March 2020, 31-year-old Erika Cruz worked at a Silicon Valley start-up, where she was unhappy with the characteristics of working life: “meetings that could have been email” and a lack of control over His schedule.

She got the motivation she needed to go that summer when she saw a friend she met on Instagram quit a cushy tech job to open a coaching business. Then Cruz, who had saved about six months of living expenses, returned to her parents in the Bay Area and gave her a month’s notice at work. She sought advice from social media on how to start a business. Cruz realized, however, that there was no one-size-fits-all approach to disrupting a career.

“If you google banana bread, there are over a million recipes online, and they’ll all be good, but they’ll all be slightly different,” she said. “You have to choose your own recipe.”

This is the story of the pandemic: When people posted their banana bread photos, they inspired their friends to start baking too. But like quitting smoking, it was something no two people did the same way.

The friend who inspired Cruz’s quitting, Cat Del Carmen, 34, agreed that it was important to develop her own quitting strategy. Del Carmen was able to quit a job at Adobe by cutting expenses for dining out, vacations, and TJ Maxx splurges. The six months since he left his job have been one of high financial pressure. Del Carmen was comforted by her correspondence with friends on social media who were also navigating post-paycheck territory.

Aimee Wells, 53, who works in public relations, had her own quitagion experience years ago. She worked at a global marketing company in San Francisco, where she bristled with the time constraints of corporate life. She was never able to drop her son off at kindergarten. She remembers watching the 1996 film “One Fine Day,” in which Michelle Pfeiffer plays an architect who decides to make her family a priority over a big job. This left Wells struggling with how to rebalance his own corporate work and personal life (away from the realities of Pfeiffer and George Clooney).

One evening, on the train coming home from work at 6 a.m., she passed a neighbor who was carrying shopping bags filled with files, office supplies and photographs. The neighbor told Wells that she had just left the role that burned her.

“I got home and started thinking about it a lot more seriously,” Wells said. A month later, she filed her own notice of resignation, catalyzed by the argument with her neighbor. “She was like my hero.”

The fallout for some pandemic dropouts has been significant. Nikissa Granados, 26, was considering whether to leave her job at a school in Orange County, California in 2020 to do freelance social media marketing. She took the plunge after seeing two of her teammates resign.

Granados went from earning $2,100 a month, spending days standing, setting up beds for naps and begging kids to wear their masks, to earning up to $8,000 a month while dictating her own schedule. , she said. She realized something that is now viscerally clear to many child care providers: in her work at school, the mismatch between load and pay was stark.

For employers, replacing a single quit is a simple task. But replacing several, or even dozens, is much more difficult, and the interim period tends to leave a heavier burden on existing staff, while recruiters ask awkward questions about what is driving all the departures. With skyrocketing dropout rates, some executives are wondering how to boost morale.

Seth Besmertnik, CEO of marketing software company Conductor, had seen his company’s turnover rates hover in the low single digits for years. He even feared that his retention was too strong, which made it difficult to find new talent.

In the past two years, however, sales have hit double digits. Besmertnik had to get creative with its tactics to keep workers happy, including adding new holidays and bringing in Broadway actors from “Hamilton” and “Dear Evan Hansen” to sing “Burn” and “Waving Through a Window” (respectively) for staff members all the time. – corporate video meetings.

Career coaches, on the other hand, worry that some people are too easily swayed by the behaviors of their traveling colleagues. Kathryn Minshew, CEO of Muse, a job search site, warns clients that a single employee’s desire to leave a company shouldn’t have too much bearing on the decisions their friends make.

“When someone announces their resignation, there are usually questions from colleagues and friends at work,” she said. “‘Where are you going? Why are you leaving?'”

This Pied Piper trail won’t always lead people to better options, and Minshew advises workers to evaluate their companies with the hyperindividualized approach they might take to building relationships.

“The idea that someone would publish a list of the 50 best people to marry in New York is silly,” she continued. “Similarly, I think the best companies to work for is a bit of a silly idea.”

But logical career advice can’t always stop the contagion from spreading.

“There’s a bit of a sense of ‘taking this job and hustling it,'” Wells said. “If you’re at a company where people are all starting to leave, you’re like, ‘Why am I the last one sitting here?'”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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