Adapted from an original article in the Harvard Business Review.

Most business owners have been there. One of your most valuable staff “unexpectedly”quits and you’re left wondering if you might have spotted the signs. But despite what you may think, we know very little about whether certain cues or signs exhibited by employees can predict whether they’re about to quit.

Recently however, HBR reported on a study carried out by Timothy Gardner and Peter Hom, which purported that it was possible to spot certain “pre-quitting behaviors” when someone was considering leaving. The study was inspired by work carried out by evolutionary psychologists David Buss and Todd Shackelford who showed that romantic partners give off cues that indicate whether they are committing infidelity, and research showing how American football players read their rivals’ behaviors to decide how they will act after the ball is snapped.

Their initial inquiries of managers and employees yielded over 900 different pre-quitting behaviors. But these behaviors were consolidated in to the following 13 common pre-quitting behaviors shown below:

1.Their work productivity has decreased more than usual.
2.They have acted less like a team player than usual.
3.They have been doing the minimum amount of work more frequently than usual.
4.They have been less interested in pleasing their manager than usual.
5.They have been less willing to commit to long-term timelines than usual.
6.They have exhibited a negative change in attitude.
7.They have exhibited less effort and work motivation than usual.
8.They have exhibited less focus on job related matters than usual.
9.They have expressed dissatisfaction with their current job more frequently than usual.
10.They have expressed dissatisfaction with their supervisor more frequently than usual.
11.They have left early from work more frequently than usual.
12.They have lost enthusiasm for the mission of the organization.
13.They have shown less interest in working with customers than usual.

Maybe, the most interesting take-away from this second phase of the research were the behaviors that did not survive our screening process. Note that the 13 key behaviors do not include “wearing dressier clothes to work,” “leaving a resume on the printer,” or “missing work for doctors’ appointments more frequently than usual.” These and many similar behaviors, which have entered into managers’ folklore of key signs of impending departure, were rarely observed or did not statistically hang together with the core behaviors representing a general predilection to quit.

The final part of the study investigated how accurately the 13 core pre-quitting behaviors predicted future voluntary turnover. A large sample of managers, all employed with different companies, used the 13-item survey to describe recent behavioral changes by a randomly selected subordinate. Then, 12 months later the managers were contacted again to see if these employees were still employed or had voluntarily quit. The result? The more an employee exhibited the 13 pre-quitting behaviors, the more likely she was to quit in the following twelve months.

More specifically, when they rated an employee based on each behavior (1 = strongly disagree; 2 = disagree; 3 = neither agree nor disagree; 4 = agree; 5 = strongly agree), those with an average score of 4.2 or higher had an expected probability of turnover two times the typical employee. Other factors can affect whether someone leaves an organization, of course, but a score this high suggests the risk of turnover is high enough to warrant attention.

So what should you do if one of you employees is exhibiting any of the 13 pre-quitting behaviors?

For managers, the advice is to focus on retaining star employees in the short-term. Thinking in terms of the turnover risk of specific employees allows you to invest your time and resources into those employees who create the most value and are actually at risk of leaving.

If you would like to discuss how to build a strategy to improve your employee retention, please give Simon a call on (440) 385-6737.