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Why Do Good Employees Leave? Uncovering Inadvertent Retention Barriers

Employee retention is a critical issue in today's tight labor market. With low unemployment rates and many workers feeling empowered to move jobs, it has become increasingly difficult for organizations to hang onto their top talent. However, managers often unknowingly engage in behaviors and implement policies that make their best employees want to leave.

Today we will explore key reasons why organizations lose their high performers and provide practical recommendations on how leaders can counteract these retention threats. With thoughtful consideration of employee needs and strategic adjustments to company culture and practices, it is possible for any employer to thrive while keeping their valued people onboard.

Lack of Recognition and Appreciation

One of the primary drivers of employee dissatisfaction and resignations is a dearth of acknowledgment for work well done. Recognition and showing appreciation are basic human desires that also strongly influence workplace motivation and loyalty. When employees feel their efforts are overlooked or taken for granted, they naturally start wondering if the grass may be greener elsewhere. Research shows that frequent, specific, and personalized recognition significantly boosts employee engagement levels (Czarnowsky, 2008).

In many organizations, recognition practices are sorely lacking or inconsistent. Leaders may be so focused on goals and deliverables that they forget to pause and acknowledge individual and team accomplishments along the way. Managers also err by only recognizing top performers while overlooking solid "B players" who form the backbone of the company. To counter this, leaders should implement regular, systematic recognition programs that appreciate contributions across all performance levels. Some effective options include:

  • Monthly "employee of the month" awards that highlight top work through nominations and votes from peers.

  • Quarterly lunch celebrations to recognize departments or teams that achieved key initiatives.

  • Regular "shout-outs" in company newsletters, emails or meetings to publicly thank individuals by name for their efforts.

  • Recognition walls or displays featuring photos and bios of award winners in high-traffic areas.

The healthcare industry provides a great example of the positive impact of robust recognition. Nursing, in particular, suffers from high burnout yet clinicians stay in roles where they feel valued through regular programs acknowledging their compassion and lifesaving work. Consistent recognition keeps these essential employees engaged and committed to their organizations.

Uncompetitive Compensation

In today's tight labor market, compensation is a primary consideration for job seekers and a frequent pain point for current employees. When comparable companies are paying more for similar roles, talented individuals will start job hunting if their wages do not keep pace. Even for loyal, long-tenured employees, inadequate annual raises can foster dissatisfaction over time that triggers exit plans.

Organizations often underestimate the importance of competitive pay or fail to regularly benchmark themselves against industry standards. Managers may also show favoritism in compensation decisions that demoralizes high performers. To address uncompetitive salaries as a retention risk:

  • Conduct annual market salary surveys and adjust pay scales as needed based on objective data, not just budget constraints.

  • Review individual salaries against peers doing similar work to ensure internal pay equity.

  • Set clear criteria for performance-based raises and bonuses to reward top contributors in a transparent way.

  • Consider additional compensation perks like flexible schedules, education stipends or retirement plan matches that complement cash pay.

The technology sector provides a relevant case study. Companies like Google established a reputation for industry-leading pay to attract and keep the best engineering talent. Even during lean years, these firms maintained compensation competitiveness through perks versus cutting salaries. As a result, voluntary turnover remains lower than at peers with a lower total rewards philosophy.

Toxic Culture and Poor Leadership

A poisonous organizational culture undermines even the most talented employees over time. Toxic elements may include political infighting, a lack of trust between leaders and staff, or inconsistent, arbitrary decision-making. Such environments breed uncertainty, stress and decreased motivation at work. They also reflect poorly on senior management abilities. When the root issues are poor leadership or cultural toxicity rather than isolated managerial problems, turnover can spike across entire departments or the entire company.

To counter a toxic culture as a retention threat, drastic measures may be needed:

  • Conduct an anonymous employee survey to understand cultural problems, not just surface issues.

  • Commission an outside assessment of leadership team dynamics and management practices.

  • Replace ineffective senior leaders who contributed to or tolerated the toxicity.

  • Launch a company-wide culture change initiative with diverse input and accountability.

The automotive industry offers a poignant example. A mass exodus from a once-iconic brand was traced to a toxic culture enabled by aging leadership stuck in old ways. Only after ousting non-responsive senior executives and bringing in fresh outsider perspectives did employee attitudes and retention start improving through a multi-year cultural transformation effort.

Lack of Growth Opportunities

Employees, especially ambitious high performers, want opportunities to continuously build new skills and advance their careers. When organizations fail to provide learning, development challenges and the potential for promotions, top talent will seek outlets elsewhere for self-improvement and career progression. Even minor perceptions that their careers may stall can trigger exit plans.

Formal training budgets are often among the first cuts in tough times. Additionally, companies may promote solely from within narrow functions versus considering internal transfers. To counter stagnation as a retention threat:

  • Invest a minimum percentage of payroll annually into ongoing learning and development initiatives.

  • Conduct skills assessments and create individual development plans tied to promotions.

  • Advertise internal positions company-wide before external hires and encourage job rotation.

  • Promote a growth mindset and support continuing education/certification programs.

Tech giants epitomize strategic learning cultures that drive retention. For example, Microsoft maintains one of the largest corporate university systems with hundreds of training programs. Employees continuously expand their knowledge through mentorship, global assignments and leadership development as their careers advance. Such robust opportunities keep top performers engaged for decades.

Overwork and Burnout

Constant overload and failure to enforce work-life balance also deplete even the most dedicated employees over the long haul. Unrealistic performance expectations and an always-on culture breed physical and emotional exhaustion, diminishing motivation, productivity and job satisfaction. Persistently high-stress roles inevitably lead effective workers to reassess their situations.

To avoid overwork as a silent retention killer:

  • Establish core working hours and enforce flexible schedule policies fairly across roles.

  • Rotate high-pressure assignments and mandate vacation time be fully used each year.

  • Monitor workloads closely and reallocate work proactively before burnout sets in.

  • Cultivate a culture where self-care is supported and times away from devices are respected.

The healthcare industry again provides a cautionary tale. Chronic physician and nurse burnout plagues hospitals, despite their compassionate missions. Only through focused interventions like limiting hours, increasing staffing and banning pagers after hours have some systems started gaining an edge in retention. Consistently supporting work-life balance remains a retention imperative.


In today's economy, retaining top talent requires constant vigilance and proactive steps to understand and address the many reasons that drive even satisfied employees to consider new opportunities. By recognizing individual contributions, providing competitive total rewards, fostering a respectful culture with engaged leadership, supporting ongoing learning and growth, and enforcing reasonable work-life practices, organizations can counter the most common threats to retention. With an effort to understand employee realities and make thoughtful adjustments accordingly, any company in any industry holds the power to become an employer of choice for their most valued people. Retention success starts at the top with leaders committed to keeping their best employees onboard for the long run.


  • Czarnowsky, M. (2008). Learning's role in employee engagement: An ASTD research study. Alexandria, VA: American Society for Training and Development.


Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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