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Advanced Human Resource Studies Report

(October 21, 2008)  Surprisingly little is known about why high-performing employees leave for other jobs. Insight into their decision is of great interest to companies targeting retention efforts at this desirable group. Cornell professor John Hausknecht and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (Charlie O. Trevor) and Harrah's Entertainment (Michael Howard) surveyed some 2,500 hospitality employees-hourly, salaried, and managerial-to look for answers.

The researchers found that highperforming employees leave for different reasons than do low performers. Low performers are generally discontent with the job-typically the hours, the work load, and absenteeism policies-while high performers are attracted to opportunities elsewhere, both for advancement and the higher pay it brings, and to better use their skills. Higher pay is important for all employees, but it is more important to the high achievers, who are more likely to expect to be rewarded well for their good work.

One surprising finding was that the supervisor is a major motivator for leaving, for both low- and highperforming employees.

The researchers thought that high performers would be insulated from problems with a supervisor, but this effect was much weaker than expected. It was, indeed, the most important source of discontent for low achievers, but low employee performance apparently is not the only reason for conflict with a supervisor. The supervisors themselves can be the problem-whether insensitive, incompetent, or just incompatible, the supervisor ranked just below insufficient pay, advancement opportunities, and skill utilization as the reason high achievers leave.

The team also tracked employees to see if their old performance was related to the degree of pay and advancement opportunities on the new job. For high performers, the shorter the time in the old job, the more money they made in the new one. The researchers suggested that the hiring organization may view those who accomplish much in a shorter time as fast learners with greater natural ability and potential.

Findings held in the salaried and managerial job categories and for all gender and ethnic groups, with the exception that high-achieving nonwhites did not attain comparable salary improvements. Highperforming hourly workers did not differ from low performers in terms of salary and advancement improvements in the new job.

Not examined in the study was causality: whether factors such as long or difficult work schedules or high work load created low performance, or whether employees who cited these factors as a reason for leaving were less competent to begin with. Strict absenteeism policies did seem to negatively affect only low-performing employees, and this was identified by the authors as a positive consequence to the organization.

One implication of the study for HR managers is that an investment in salary, advancement opportunities, and utilization of skills is an important area to emphasize in targeting retention efforts for the highest achieving employees. And across the board, better training for supervisors is key. They are responsible for so much of the immediate work environment for all employees that their relationship with the staff is a major driver of whether they stay or go.

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