Losing a top performer hurts, and it's an increasingly common issue in the modern workforce. A study by SAP and Oxford Economics revealed that one in five high performers are likely to leave their jobs within the next six months—and less than half are satisfied with their jobs.
Of course it is. But how can you actually do it?
Start by taking a step back and objectively analyzing the causes of voluntary turnover at your organization. Understanding why top performers quit is the first step you can take to prevent your employees from leaving for greener pastures. Luckily, you don't have to make these mistakes in order to learn from them.
What follows are 20 reasons top performers quit, and some steps you can take today to keep them on your team.
1. Their expectations aren't being met
Do you know what your top performers expect? The SAP and Oxford Economics study found that employees value competitive compensation, merit-based rewards, retirement plans, training, flexible work locations and schedules, vacation time, family benefits, education, and personal recognition from their higher ups.
Further down the list were items like amenities and health care. This isn't to say that an employee's access to health care isn't important—it's just not the strongest driving factor in retention of top performers.
Why is that?
Top performers often have a different set of expectations.
If your company isn't able to meet your top performers' basic expectations, another company could easily whisk them away. On the other hand, if your top performers are compensated well, rewarded for their contributions, have a great work-life balance, and feel appreciated, they're going to find very little incentive to leave your team.
2. They want to feel valued—but they aren't
Top performers tend to be dramatically more productive than their coworkers, and are often called upon to shoulder even more of the workload when times get tough.
One of the top mistakes managers make in talent retention is assuming that their star performers will be willing to share the pain during financially challenging times. If those employees' efforts go unnoticed or are taken for granted, they'll start looking for opportunities elsewhere.
Recognition and rewards can help to overcome this problem, but it's important to understand how different methodologies impact employee motivation. An "Employee of the Month" award or a year-end bonus is not going to keep your best employees on the payroll. In fact, it could easily backfire.
Recognition needs to be frequent, tied to specific actions, and culturally aligned in order to be meaningful.
Karie Willyerd mentioned in her recent Harvard Business Review article "What High Performers Want at Work" that "[t]enure-based or compensation strategies with little differentiation between high and low performers are likely to alienate your high performers the most."
3. They're not as engaged as you think they are
You may think your star performers are the most engaged; however, morale and engagement can fall among top performers, too.
A 2009 Corporate Executive Board survey found that "one out of three emerging stars felt disengaged from their companies." Another one in three "high-potential" employees reported not putting all of their effort into their jobs while 25% felt that they'd be looking for another job within a year.
How do you keep them engaged? Jean Martin and Conrad Schmidt shared the secret in their Harvard Business Review article, "How to Keep Your Top Talent":
It may seem obvious, but the solution is for senior management to double (or even triple) its efforts to keep young stars engaged. That means recognizing them early and often, explicitly linking their individual goals to corporate ones, and letting them help solve the company’s biggest problems.
4. Their professional development opportunities are limited
There's a tendency for business unit managers to want to keep their best performers to themselves. This is understandable, but it can also limit opportunities for employees that want to grow and develop professionally.
The development of employees should be a major goal for leadership. It's critical that their coaching, training, and leadership opportunities align with their current abilities and future plans. Encouraging and supporting employees' growth—while recognizing achievements along the way—is a win-win.
This sort of framework helps develop future leaders, increases engagement and satisfaction, and shows your top performers how much you value them. It could also make the difference between a star employee staying with your company and seeking opportunities elsewhere.
5. Their higher productivity goes unrecognized
According to the Harvard Business Review, top performers can be 400% more productive than average performers. That's a lot of productivity for one person, and your top performers are well aware of how much more work they're doing than everyone else. Are you?
Imagine doing four or five times more work than the rest of your team but no one seems to notice. Even worse, your coworker just received a $100 bonus simply because her name was pulled out of a hat as "Employee of the Month."
Would you continue putting forth the effort if your above-and-beyond work continued to go unrecognized?
High performers are driven to excel, but they want to be recognized. If their contributions aren't recognized in your organization, they'll excel in someone else's.
6. They're not getting the feedback they crave
In addition to wanting to be recognized for their outstanding contributions, your top performers want feedback. While no one really craves negative feedback, your star performers want to know what they can do differently or better—and they definitely appreciate positive feedback.
In addition to wanting feedback, they want it regularly. Most employees resent having to wait a year or more for a performance review that may focus on no-longer relevant issues, and your top performers are no different.
To avoid this problem, consider ditching the annual review in favor of more frequent and spontaneous feedback.
Be generous with praise and merit-based rewards.
7. You failed to engage their creativity
Research has shown that “meaningful creative work can increase work satisfaction and engagement, and by extension, employee performance and retention.” Empower your employees to tap into their creativity when solving problems at work.
Ask employees who carry out repetitive work processes what adjustments would make their work more engaging and their workdays more interesting. Include engineers and customer success teams in copywriting brainstorming sessions.
By offering your employees the latitude to express their creativity, you may find that novel solutions to common problems surface more frequently.
8. You didn’t keep your promises to them
If you don’t keep your promises to your employees, you can’t reasonably expect them to keep their promises to you. When a company fails to follow through on the terms it negotiated—either by neglecting to give an employee the job title they were promised or worse, not honoring the employee’s agreed-upon salary and benefits—it's not only breaking a promise, it's breaking the bond of trust that keeps employees on the team.
In her Inc. advice column, Alison Green tells a reader who has repeatedly been passed over for promised promotions and raises that they should start believing what their boss has been telling them, “both through their actions and their words: They do not plan to stick to that original promise they made you.”
Make it a habit to review an employee’s role in the organization. Have their responsibilities shifted enough to warrant changes to scope of their job description? You won’t know until you ask.
9. You don’t give them enough autonomy (read: you’re micromanaging them)
Once your employees know what tasks they’re responsible for, your role as a manager is to make it as easy as possible for them to complete those tasks. Sometimes that means getting out of their way.
Employees want to feel a sense of ownership and autonomy over the work that they do. We talk about alternatives to micromanagement at length in our Guide to Modern Employee Performance Management.
Autonomy inspires action, rather than coercing it.
Employees want to feel that they're participating in a task willingly, not because they're obligated to do so. Your highest performers are already inspired to act; they need to know that you trust their judgment by giving them more ownership of their work.
10. They’re not surrounded by high performers
If you want to get better at tennis, you have to play against someone better than you. If your employees seek professional development—and they probably do—they’ll want to be surrounded by peers and mentors who are experts in their fields.
But expertise has little value if engagement is low; as Joseph Folkman remarks in Forbes, employees who work for “uninspiring” leaders are “only at the ninth percentile in terms of satisfaction and commitment.”
If you don’t have engaged high performers to mentor and inspire your employees, you’re more likely to lose them.
11. They don’t see paths for growth
Engaged high performers also serve as guideposts for other employees who want to grow with your company.
Consider that if your company values internal promotions as a continued investment in employees and a consistency of vision as departments grow, this also communicates to newer and entry-level employees that they can expect to change roles and grow within the company.
12. They’re overworked
Burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It can lead to detachment and unhappiness that affects job performance, personal relationships, and health. Burnout can happen to professionals in any field and industry and it affects employees and managers alike.
To promote work-life balance at all levels of your company, plan inclusive outings for employees to bond and recharge and consider adding mental health days to your sick day policy.
At minimum, make sure that your policies don’t prevent people from taking the time they need to stay healthy.
13. Your attendance and remote work policies are limiting
Employees who are given more control over how they approach their work often find a better way to do it. With modern communication and collaboration tools like Slack and Asana, it's no longer necessary to have everyone in the same room, or even the same time zone, to get work done.
Offering shift workers flexible scheduling policies can optimize for productivity. Flexible schedules and work from home (WFH) policies for salaried workers can relieve stress around scheduling doctor’s appointments, planning home repairs, securing child care, and addressing other responsibilities outside of work.
The result? The Boston College Center for Work & Family reports that “[w]orkers who have more access to flexible work arrangements report greater job satisfaction, significantly better mental health than other employees, [and] are more likely to be committed to their employers.”
14. There's too much red tape
“Whether it’s an overzealous attendance policy or taking employees’ frequent flier miles,” writes Dr. Travis Bradberry in Huffington Post, “even a couple of unnecessary rules can drive people crazy.”
Your top performers love their work and the people they work with—and they might even believe in your company’s mission. But if there are too many hoops to jump through to collaborate across departments or too many boxes to check to get a promotion, they’re wise to look elsewhere.
Opaque business practices and seemingly useless policies can interfere with your employees’ ability to get stuff done, impacting their sense of accomplishment and day-to-day motivation.
Look around: has your company fallen prey to unnecessary corporate bureaucracy? The Muse offers a number of helpful ways to deal with organizational bureaucracy but remediating it should be a long term goal.
15. They don’t have the right tools
The value of having the right tools for the job cannot be understated. Imagine you’re a designer who works primarily in an expensive design software suite. Your department doesn’t adequately budget for tools, so you’re working with last year’s version of the software and you’re frustrated because projects take longer than they should and your manager’s expectations haven’t changed.
Here at Bonusly, we’ll often ask each other, “Is there anything blocking you from getting your work done?”
If a new or improved tool removes the roadblock—whether that “tool” is hardware or software, an ergonomic seat or noise-canceling headphones—the effect of the fix can be felt almost immediately.
16. Your employer brand has blind spots
Have you seen what your employees are saying about you on Glassdoor and Twitter? You can learn a lot about your company culture from candid (and verified) third-party reviews and chatter on social media.
17. They found out what their peers are earning
Wage transparency is becoming increasingly important to employees. If your employees spoke candidly to one another about their salaries, would they be shocked to find out what their peers earn?
While social norms tend to discourage frank conversations about pay, Deborah Jacobs points out in Forbes that “[i]f your company tries to keep you from comparing salaries or benefits with colleagues, it may be breaking the law."
In New York City, employers are now prohibited from asking questions about salary history in accordance with new laws enacted to mitigate minority wage gaps.
If your top performers leave after they find out what their peers are earning—either because they’re making significantly less or more than those around them—then it’s time to reevaluate your payroll practices.
18. You don’t provide managers with adequate training or support
People leave managers, not companies. Or so they say.
A “mind-boggling 70% of an employee’s motivation is influenced by his or her manager,” according to Dr. Travis Bradberry, a world-renowned expert in emotional intelligence.
The quality of your manager training and development should be as high as the work you expect them to produce. Notably, if your managers are high performers, they still need your support.
19. Taking PTO is difficult or discouraged
On average, how many vacation days do your employees take each year? In a Glassdoor study of over 2,000 American workers, participants reported using only 51% of their allotted time off in the past year.
Asking your employees to stay late might sound benign—“We’re at a really pivotal moment right now and we need your help!”—but routinely underestimating how long projects will take and pressuring employees to change their personal schedules to accommodate work can promote a toxic work environment.
20. Your company’s vision is inconsistent at best
“What talented person wants to spend his or her time and energy in support of something undefined?” asks Lolly Daskal, President and CEO of Lead From Within.
Your company’s vision should be a rallying cry for employees, a sentiment that you communicate at the very start of the hiring process through to the end of the employee life cycle. To communicate your company’s vision more effectively, start by analyzing your employee value proposition.
To retain your top performers and keep them happy, you need to understand their motivations, their likes and dislikes.
These are just a few ways you can work to keep your top performers happy, and keep them on your payroll. It's important to understand that although these tips may be effective in a general sense, the better you understand your employees, the better you'll be able to zero in on the areas that will have the greatest impact.
Need some more ideas for keeping your top performers on the team? Check out our Employee Retention Ideas and Examples.