Why Employees Leave: Is It Managers or Companies? | Bonfyre

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Why Employees Leave: Is It Managers or Companies?

4 min

With the current skills shortage in full swing, it’s more important than ever for businesses to retain highly-specialized, top performing talent. For many, that requires finding out why employees leave the company voluntarily.

Voluntary employee turnover will always be inevitable in some degree. Over the years, a popular expression caught on as a way for HR managers to make sense of why employees leave an organization by choice. Maybe you’ve heard it:

“People leave managers, not companies.”

The logic follows that if employees who are highly skilled–and even high-performing–voluntarily leave the company, the reason must have to do with the leadership style of their immediate manager. But how much truth there is to this sentiment is questionable. Managers who lead with fear and disrespect are no doubt liabilities to the company, and absolutely contribute to voluntary turnover, but are they really its primary cause?

In this installment of the Bonfyre Breakdown, we’re taking a look at recent research to see if this classic expression really explains why employees leave.

Why employees leave managers, not companies

It’s easy to understand why this expression exists in the first place. One of the most valuable and important professional relationships an employee can have is with their direct supervisor.

Our immediate supervisors are one of the figures we interact with most at work, and they have a large influence over the tenor of the work environment. How we perform our work, how much work we complete, and how we ultimately feel about our work is all affected by the leadership styles of our supervisors.

It should come as no surprise that supervisors, managers, and leaders that do their jobs well get the most out of their workforces. Research shows that when managers lead with values like trust, authenticity, and integrity, employees are more likely to engage in their work and partake in company advocacy. In fact, a 2016 SHRM study found that the relationship between employees and their immediate supervisors is a top condition for employee engagement.

The opposite is also true. Leaders and supervisors that are bad at managing people routinely undermine the performance of both their teams and individual employees. And critically, a recent survey from The Harris Poll and talent firm Yoh actually does corroborate the wisdom of HR professionals. Bad managers may often be the reason for why employees leave.

The results of the 2018 report show that regardless of job satisfaction, 53% of the employees surveyed would consider leaving their role if managers showed disrespect for employees in lesser positions. Disrespect is far from the only toxic behavior driving employees to look for greener pastures. Breaking promises (46%), overworking employees (42%), and creating unrealistic expectations of employees (42%) are all identified as top contributors to voluntary employee turnover.

“In short, regardless of current compensation, benefits, workplace location, or office perks, having a poor manager could lead many employed Americans to explore other career options,” Yoh concludes.

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Why employees leave companies, not managers

Bad bosses are bad for business, no doubt about it. We know that, at the very least, poor leaders will make otherwise satisfied and talented workers want to leave their positions. The question still remains of how often that intent converts to action.

For example, a late 2018 Monster poll revealed 3 out of 4 workers have had toxic bosses at some point in their careers. Toxicity, here, refers to unsavory characteristics like micromanaging, exhibiting power-hungry behaviors, incompetence, and “never being around.” But can we chalk 75% of voluntary employee turnover to bad bosses?

Not if the Smarter Workforce Institute, IBM’s workforce research division, has anything to say about it.

In 2017, the firm published Should I Stay or Should I Go?, a coyly titled deep dive into the contemporary workforce’s voluntary turnover trends. Sure enough, IBM did find that bad managers can take some of the blame for voluntary turnover–but with one big caveat. Toxic bosses were not the top contributing factor for employee attrition. Not by a long shot.

Instead, the number one reason employees leave came down to job satisfaction–40% of the 22,000 employees surveyed by IBM reported being “unhappy with the job” as the primary reason for voluntary turnover. Respondents cited “personal reasons,” which IBM describes as including spouse relocation, child care, and illness, as the second highest factor, narrowly falling under job dissatisfaction at 39%.

So how often do toxic leaders cause employees to leave? According to IBM, only 14% of respondents cited their voluntary turnover as the result of being unhappy with a manager.

Related: Calculate the costs of your employee turnover

So why do employees really leave?

Even in wake of evidence contradicting the claim that people leave managers, not companies, it’s hard to say the expression is certifiably discredited. The fact remains that in some cases, bad managers really are the reason why employees leave. While it may not be advisable to throw out this particular bit of wisdom entirely, HR managers should take a close look at the circumstances surrounding voluntary turnover in their organizations.

Regardless of whether employees leave due to bad managers, job dissatisfaction, or some other shortcoming of the company, these are all symptoms of poor or underdeveloped employee experiences. Recently, fellow Gather Around editor Lisa O’Malley dispelled the millennial job hopping myth for our blog. In that piece, she explains how employee experience is intrinsically tied to the reasons why employees leave by choice.

The employee experience ultimately communicates to employees how they are valued, recognized, and prioritized within the company. Great employee experiences make employees want to stay and grow with the company. Bad employee experiences will, among other things, create a talent churn and repellant company reputation. What employers may not understand, however, is that employees start assessing the employee experience on their very first day of work.

“When a new hire starts at a company, they’ve already started building expectations,” O’Malley writes. “As they maneuver through onboarding and learn about their duties and the culture, they also start sizing up the company.”

First impressions are important. If an employee can tell from day one that their role is unengaging or that their supervisor is toxic, you can bet they’ve already started calculating the minimum amount of time they need to spend with the company before they can leave.

Yes, sometimes employees do leave managers. Other times they leave companies and unengaging roles. But above all else, bad employee experiences are why employees leave. So if retaining your best talent is your top priority, it might be time to take a good hard look at your company’s employee experience strategy

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