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Study: just thinking about quitting a job could have an impact on work performance

Aug. 31, 2016

Just the thought of leaving your place of work could have some effect on your behavior, even before you go.

christopher o.h.l. porter

Christopher O.L.H. Porter, professor of management at the IU Kelley School of Business Indianapolis | Photo By INDIANA UNIVERSITY

A paper recently published in the Journal of Applied Psychology considers what can happen between the time a person decides he would like to leave a job and when he actually leaves. Researchers sought to answer whether turnover intentions predict behaviors at work.

"As much as we'd like to think that turnover intentions lead directly to turnover, in reality, that's not always the case," said Christopher O.L.H. Porter, a professor of management at the Indiana University Kelley School of Business Indianapolis. "Someone might think about leaving a job but might not have the opportunity to leave, or it might not be the right situation for him to leave. This research flips the way we think about turnover by looking at attitudes and beliefs and subsequent work behaviors that are affected as a result of thinking about quitting."

The article, "Examining the Effects of Turnover Intentions on Organizational Citizenship Behaviors and Deviance Behaviors: A Psychological Contract Approach," is co-authored by Porter along with Ke Michael Mai, the lead author, of the National University of Singapore; Aleksander P.J. Ellis of the University of Arizona; and Jessica Siegel Christian of the University of North Carolina.

The researchers studied two groups of employees: one at a retail pharmaceutical chain in the United States and the other at a state-owned telecommunications corporation in China.

The primary hypothesis for both studies was to determine whether turnover intentions would predict certain types of behavior at work, including behavior that goes above and beyond the requirements for the job -- often called organizational citizenship behavior -- and deviant behavior that could have a tendency to hurt the workplace.

"We believed we would find that when people have stronger turnover intentions, it reduces the level of their relational investment with the company and increases their belief in the transactional nature of their employment," said Porter. "On the other side of that, if people's turnover intentions are weaker, they are willing to invest in the relational, as opposed to the transactional, aspects of their exchange with their company."

So what can employers take from this research? Porter said supervisors should work to understand employees' attitudes and how they perceive their workplace while they're still working there, rather than during an exit interview.

"First and foremost, employers have to understand that turnover is not necessarily the most direct result when people decide they want to leave the workplace" Porter said. "There are all these things -- both positive, like helping others -- or negative, like undermining the employer -- that can happen between the time an employee thinks about leaving and the time he does leave. Employers must work to keep employees who are planning to leave engaged in positive behaviors. They must also anticipate and offset the negative behaviors that are likely to result when employees do not plan to stay."

"Ideally, an employer would do everything it could to try to keep people's intentions to remain with an organization high. That's not always practical, but that would certainly be a first step," said Porter. "If that fails, or in situations in which turnover intentions are typically high, putting up strong controls and making consequences explicit and visible can mitigate people's engagement in deviant behaviors.

The researchers advocate that employers be more proactive in dealing with turnover intentions.

"One of our key findings was that turnover intentions themselves can hurt organizations," said Porter. "Too often, companies focus solely on actual turnover. Our work clearly shows that companies need to address intentions and understand that the consequences of turnover intentions are greatly affected by who those employees blame for wanting to quit."

Understanding whether employees are considering leaving -- and why they are considering it -- may be the key to keeping productive and engaged employees, maintaining a workforce, and lowering turnover.

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