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Employees ready to quit might behave badly before heading out the door

Company leaders recognize the high costs of staff turnover, but might not know that employees who want to quit have a price tag, too.

The behavior of those employees – for better or worse – is the subject of a study by Jessica Siegel Christian of the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School and Ke Michael Mai of Sungkyunkwan University, Aleksander Ellis of the University of Arizona and Christopher Porter of Indiana University. Their findings are published in the Journal of Applied Psychology in the paper “Examining the Effects of Turnover Intentions on Organizational Citizenship Behaviors and Deviance Behaviors: A Psychological Contract Approach.”

“When employees are dissatisfied, they might not leave the firm right away because of a bad economy or poor job mobility, but problems can arise when they, in their minds, are already ‘out the door,’” said Christian, clinical assistant professor of organizational behavior at UNC Kenan-Flagler.

When employees are thinking about leaving, they focus more on short-term economic issues and transactional exchanges and are less engaged in ongoing relationships. The result is lower levels of “good citizen” behavior – such as “going above and beyond” on projects and helping co-workers – and higher levels of bad behavior – such as a work slowdown, absenteeism, slacking off or stealing. These effects were much stronger when reasons for wanting to leave were caused by issues under the firm’s control.

The research team offers a unique perspective about how the intention to quit affects employees’ behavior before they actually leave. They used field data from two diverse samples of working adults – employees from a large drug retailing chain and a large state-owned telecommunications corporation in China – to test their model.

“Turnover can benefit an organization, especially if marginal performers leave, but our results suggest that even for employees the organization wants to let go, negative consequences to the turnover process need to be carefully managed,” said Christian.

Organizations can focus on techniques to better manage their behaviors, such as taking immediate disciplinary actions because such actions focus on the short-term economic or transactional view held by employees. They also could examine the reasons for leaving that are under their control, explore ways to address those reasons why employees plan to leave, focus on “embedding” employees more through socialization efforts and peer referrals, and monitor their behaviors and their financial implications.