Jamie Herzlich Newsday columnist Jamie Herzlich

Herzlich writes the Small Business column in Newsday.

Losing a valued employee can come as a surprise.

But it doesn’t have to, if management can effectively identify “pre-quitting” behaviors employees may exhibit before they leave, according to a study from researchers at Utah, Arizona and Florida state universities.

“Employees give off signs and behaviors that are predictive of their future voluntary turnover,” says Tim Gardner, associate professor of management at Utah State University’s business school and co-author of the study, released last fall in the Journal of Management.

Armed with this knowledge, managers may be able to head off an employee’s departure — or at least not be surprised when someone quits.

Gardner, along with Chad H. Van Iddekinge of Florida State University and Peter W. Hom of Arizona State University, collected data from 737 U.S.-based managers and pared down hundreds of pre-quitting behaviors to 13 core behaviors.

Among them, the employee:

  • Shows lower productivity than usual
  • Acts less like a team player than usual
  • Does the minimum amount of work more frequently than usual
  • Shows less interest in pleasing his or her manager than usual
  • Is less willing to commit to long-term timelines than usual

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So what do you do if your employee exhibits any of these behaviors?

If you suspect a top performer is about to quit, assess what kind of manager he or she has, and train, develop or replace managers who seem to be driving top performers out, Gardner says.

Also consider conducting “stay interviews” with employees you believe are at risk of quitting to see if they’re satisfied or there are any stress points, he says.

Barbara DeMatteo, director of HR consulting at Jericho-based Portnoy, Messinger, Pearl & Associates, suggests doing these with all employees routinely.

With new employees, conduct a stay interview at 30 days and then every quarter, she says. Once an employee gets to a year, do it every six to nine months, she says.

“It’s a check-in,” says DeMatteo.

Keep in mind any questions you ask in a stay interview should only be asked if the company is willing to do something about the issues employees raise, she says. For example, don’t ask if they’re happy with their wages if you’re not willing to give a pay increase, says DeMatteo.

Also consider why people quit in the first place.

A recent study by Glassdoor Economic Research found that employees who stagnate in a job too long are more likely to leave their employers rather than move to a new role within the company.

“While every employer is different, it’s important to have regular communication with employees about their career progression and opportunities for advancement,” says MaryJo Fitzgerald, community expert at California-based Glassdoor. “Even if employers are not able to promote employees into a new title, acknowledging an employee’s growth with additional responsibilities can help to retain workers.”

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Among the other key factors identified in employees’ decisions to quit was company culture.

“Employers shouldn’t underestimate the power of establishing (and then maintaining) good company culture,” says Fitzgerald.

Companies also need to focus on engagement, says MaryAnne Hyland, a professor of human resources management at Adelphi University’s business school in Garden City.

They need to identify the high-potential and high-performing employees and make sure they remain engaged, she says.

A lot of companies are using surveys to measure employee engagement, says Hyland.

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Managers should also have regular performance check-ins with employees and be trained to pick up on these pre-quitting behaviors, she says.

They also need to consider how they are interacting with employees.

“They need to engage in self-examination,” says Gardner.