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Employees are quitting, sometimes without other offers. What can companies do to retain staff?

Empty chairs and desks in an office.
(ShutterWorx via Getty Images)

The pandemic has forced many to reevaluate what they want out of life, and for some, that has meant leaving their jobs.

For businesses looking to retain those workers, it will probably take more than simply raising wages to prevent a rush to the exits, according to a study released Wednesday by management consulting firm McKinsey & Co.

Offering a raise can make the difference, but the report finds that the “Great Attrition” can actually become the “Great Attraction” for companies that can also make employees feel valued in other ways.

“After basically a 15-month isolation, we are seeing workers saying, ‘This just has to matter more,’” said Bill Schaninger, a senior partner at McKinsey in Philadelphia and coauthor of the report.

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Employers in California and the U.S. are scrambling to fill jobs as the dust from the pandemic begins to settle. Just don’t call it a labor shortage.

The report found that 40% of the more than 5,770 employees surveyed said they were “at least somewhat likely” to quit in the next three to six months. More than half of employees who already left their jobs said they did so because they didn’t feel valued by their bosses or organizations or because they didn’t feel “a sense of belonging at work.”

In contrast, employers surveyed said they believed their employees left because of compensation, work-life balance and poor physical or emotional health.

The findings were based on two surveys of employers and employees across multiple industries in the U.S., Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and Singapore. The employer survey included 250 talent managers from a variety of companies.

Perhaps more concerning for employers is that 36% of survey respondents who quit their jobs in the last six months left without having a new job. In the U.S., that figure jumps to 40%.

That means these workers didn’t necessarily leave because they got a better offer somewhere else. Instead, it’s a sign that employers don’t understand how hard the pandemic has been for their employees, the report said.

“Most employers believe this is an economic issue largely around compensation,” Schaninger said. “The data most certainly does not support that. [Compensation] is an easy lever to pull. It’s also incredibly transactional.”

Higher wages are important to many workers, but companies looking to stem the exodus also need to really listen to employees about what they want and include them in the process, the report said.

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”The good news for every company: They actually have a choice here,” Schaninger said. “There’s something here around the ties that bind humans together.... When you make it all about the check, none of that stuff is there.”

For instance, employers should ask themselves whether they shelter toxic leaders, if company benefits are aligned with employees’ priorities and whether career paths offer enough opportunities to grow and advance.

That type of career growth was important to Phoenix resident Nicole Poppell, who worked for a mural painting company for three years and felt she had reached the end of her road there. She quit her job in January and by August had launched her own company, Mural Mates, a professional mural painting company based in Phoenix and the San Francisco Bay Area.

Poppell said she had been planning and saving to start her own business and felt that the time was right.

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“This whole pandemic has forced a lot of people into asking the question, ‘What do I want to be doing, and what does my life look like in five to 10 years?’” she said.

If her former company had offered her some kind of future in leadership or an opportunity to grow more with the company, Poppell said, she would have stayed.

“I definitely felt like they could have used my value a little more,” she said.

Since she struck out on her own, Poppell has done five murals and several commissioned pieces, and she has picked up some freelance work.

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“I really love the autonomy and the flexibility of working for myself,” Poppell said. “Ever since quitting ... I felt so much more like myself.”


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