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Was the Great Resignation Something We Saw Coming?

Updated: Jun 27, 2022

It’s no surprise you hear the word “Great Resignation” everywhere you go. 4.4 million Americans quit their jobs in September and that number keeps growing daily. In fact, we are seeing a record high “quitting rate” in the history of employment, but what if this is something we could have predicted and what if the pandemic accelerated a revolution that was inevitable?

Surprisingly, it was something that was foreshadowed before it became so visible. For example, since 2000, the “Great Resignation” has steadily been building and becoming what it is today. The rate of employee resignation per month has gone up steadily over the past 21 years. Though, no one blatantly saw this resignation until a Texas A&M professor coined the phrase “Great Resignation” and warned that something was coming. So, being the curious types, we were curious why that is?

What we noticed was that many people have been avoiding the inevitable and the pandemic only escalated the problem. While the world was changing in so many ways that couldn’t have been foreseen, individuals were faced with uncertainty and devastation which caused them to reevaluate their personal lives as well as their careers. Meanwhile, their careers were posing threats to their personal lives, which created uncomfortable situations for a lot of people. These individuals decided to quit or change what they do completely.

Unfortunately, organizations were not aware that there was a big misalignment in what employees wanted and what they were offering. In many areas of the professional world, individuals were feeling consistently stressed, overworked, and/or robbed of personal time. In addition, they have been reevaluating how they are valued by their clients and customers (internal and external). Of course, people work to live not live to work. The outcome of work is building a financially secure life for themselves and their families. This goes for all demographics, age groups, and professions.

So, when people were faced with added stress from the pandemic, they faced many new situations. They faced layoffs or were questioning how secure their job was. They also worried about their own health and well-being. In many cases there were childcare issues and other individuals were worried about aging parents that were states or oceans apart; making people reconsider if they wanted to live where a job brought them or where their family and sense of wellbeing brought them. More and more individuals started to feel that their job should complement their life not the other way around.

All these issues were very real to individual’s pre-pandemic, but the pandemic made them more apparent and escalated problems faster than they would have in a normal situation. This caused a spike in the steady resignation numbers for the last 20 years, but accelerated the numbers over the last year in 2020.

What do we predict? Things are still going to change more than they already have. As the saying goes, there is strength in numbers. People who are not as spontaneous have been hearing about others who have made the leap. When one individual resigns from an organization, they become a catalyst for others to follow. What’s unfortunate is when one individual resigns and leaves a company it takes several months to get new talent in the door and especially right now. So, what can you do to prevent your employees from leaving?

Organizations that are open to listen to their employees will have more engaged teams and will retain employees. Here are some ideas to create an engaged environment:

Look at your talent management strategy. Evaluate the roles you already have. Step backward to evaluate where a role has served the company as well as the employee and then use forward thinking to evaluate what value the role brings not only to the company, but to the individual who joins the company or is in the role. During this look back evaluate employee happiness, actually ask your employees what they think of the role you are evaluating. Ask them what they see as their contribution to the company’s mission and/or vision? What do they see that is working and what do they see that can be improved? The most important part of this exercise is to look at the answers and implement changes that are recommended, but empower and engage the employees to make those changes.

  • Here is just a little taste of an organization that didn’t follow these ideas. I am fortunate to gain unique industry insights by working with and hearing from different individuals and organizations. A company I know had a critical position that was a key to their business. They needed a team of 10 people in one very specific role. This role was an underlying “glue” to the sales and business unit teams that helped drive revenue and build profit margins. These 10 people had a lot of work and responsibility on their shoulders and if the company lost one person, it would take months to find someone with the attributes and skills. It would take longer to get someone up to full speed, after training new team members to understand the company’s unique process. The position these individuals held was one that bridged one part of the company to another and if everyone quit, the company could crumble. Unfortunately, of the 10 people in that group 7 individuals left the position including managers. I am sure you can imagine the pain the company and the remaining team felt. As a quick fix the company had to offer retention bonuses to those who stayed and started hiring/training right away. Unfortunately, this could have been prevented, many employees came forward with concerns before this ever happened. These individuals shared how things could be more efficient and less stressful, but no on looked at the talent management strategy. If management would have really listened to their employees and considered how these issues were going to impact the business, they could have avoided the situation and not taken a huge step back.

A great way to engage employees is to co-create your business with people. Employees will become invested in the organization and its mission. This opens the door for innovation and for employees to help the company grow, while taking the competitive edge in the market.

  • Seeing this first hand, I worked with a company that was driving a new initiative that was cutting edge. I presented someone to the company who had a different background than they would have originally considered for the role. This role was very important to the company and the person who joined the team had to be capable to drive very specific results. After a couple of interviews, the leadership saw great potential in the individual who became the final candidate. This person shared their vision of what was possible for the company while leveraging their experience and discussed this in the interview. This individual has continued to co-create with the company and is driving a really important and innovative, revenue generating initiative. This individual was well respected at their past company, but the person saw the possibilities to make an impact in the world with the new company. They saw that their expertise would be welcomed and after a year with the company, they continue to share how amazing the company and the role is to them.

It is important to step in the shoes of employees. Most individuals come to work feeling like they are a part of a family. They want to feel included and that their opinion is valued. After all, in a family that is cohesive everyone can speak their mind/peace and feel heard and included. If your “family” dynamic at work does not feel this way, people will opt out of working for you so they can find an organization where they do feel like their “family” appreciates them. A family that appreciates each other, understands each person’s unique contributions to the family and can imagine walking in the other family member’s shoes to see the world a bit like they would.

Really listen to employees. You know when you talk to someone and you can tell they didn’t hear you, because they were thinking about what to say next or they are only thinking about what is important to themselves? Well, that happens in companies quite a bit. Employees will share ideas with leaders and then many times if the leader doesn’t hear an aligned idea with his or her or their own ideas, they turn a deaf ear to it.

But listening should not only happen when it comes to the task at hand. It is also important to engage employees, by respecting them as a person on the team and as a person who has a whole other life outside of work. Really getting to know people helps to make every individual feel less like employee number “fill in the blank” and more like they are part of something where they are heard and respected.

The result, we all become committed to each other’s success because we know others have our best interest at heart and we in turn feel the same.

Focus on diversity and inclusion as you would naturally in your own life. If you are like me, I love having a discussion with my friends and family where I learn new things and I hear new ways of thinking. I step away from great conversations learning something new or growing from something I didn’t know - I didn’t know.

Diversity gives us a chance to learn from others different experiences/ideas. These are things we may not have experienced ourselves. Being inclusive of others’ ideas or differences helps to open our eyes to possibilities we didn’t know were even there. If you hear the words in your mind, it is “my way or there is the highway” or something similar you are definitely not being inclusive.

The feeling of not being included actually leaves individuals of all backgrounds feeling undervalued and unappreciated. For those of us looking for a career and not just a job we tend to enjoy work where we feel valued, where we can contribute and make a difference. If we know we are included we will stay and feel confident in our work, knowing we are respected for our ideas even if they don’t fit the norm or status quo.

So, is the “Great Resignation” the norm? For now, it seems to be consistent. Though things have been building up over 20 years, clearly the current climate has accelerated the change in the workforce. Though there are companies that think they just need to ride it out and people will come back to work, they need to realize though that is possible it’s not set in stone. Many employees have faced the “life is too short syndrome” and have reevaluated work life balance. The term work life balance has been in public eye for years, but employees are now redefining what that actually means to them.

Looking at the research, people have options. Pew research states that 10.3 million Americans currently earn money as gig workers (at the time of this article, December 2021). That 23.2 million people earned money as gig workers over the past year, in 2021. And 58% say the income they earn via gig work is essential (at 23%) or important (at 35%) to meeting their basic needs.

Bloomberg also recorded that the number of prospective businesses filing formation paperwork was almost 25% higher in 2020 than in 2019, quoting a Census Bureau analysis of federal tax documents.

Also, according to census data just over 4 million new business applications were filed from Q1 to Q3 of 2021. Which is way up from previous years.

There are more options than ever for talent to “leave” the traditional workforce. So maybe it is time to not be the “traditional” or status quo workforce. The first step includes listening and recognizing things are happening in the world of work that are foreshadowing the future of the employee.


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