Contagious Quitting. A strategy to clean up your "C" players?

November 09, 2021

It’s Friday afternoon, and Johnny walks into your office. He tells you that he is resigning effective immediately. Your initial reaction was one of betrayal. How could he? After all the training and slack I’ve given him over the years. Then your higher self kicks in and you begin to smile. Wait a second, you’re thinking. I don’t have to deal with all his “stuff” anymore. From anger, you immediately find yourself on a mental conga line singing, halleluiah.

This is kind of like when your daughter tells you, she broke up with Johnny. First anger. How could he? Then the light goes on… I never did like Johnny, so you console her while you’re back on the mental conga line singing once again…. Halleluiah.

As the pandemic recovery advances and America gets back to work, It’s no surprise that there are labor shortages across many sectors of the economy. So it may sound counter-intuitive with the thought of losing employees these two questions.

  • Why does Johnny quit? He is unhappy, unfulfilled, or feels unappreciated. Bottom line, Johnny just doesn’t like working for you anymore. In essence, it’s no longer a good fit.
  • Why would you want an employee on the books that feels this way? Remember Johnny’s donwanttobeheritis, could be contagious. Chances are Johnny is groaning and moaning and spreading negative energy to your “A” players. If you are one of the talented ones on your team, who do you want to be around? Other “A” players. So the contagion goes far beyond Johnny’s dissatisfaction.

 According to Sigal Barsade, Professor of Management at Wharton School, the transfer of negative energy is infectious. Here’s what his research demonstrated.

 Group emotional contagion, the transfer of moods among people in a group, and its influence on workgroup dynamics were examined in a laboratory study of managerial decision making using multiple, convergent measures of mood, individual attitudes, behavior, and group-level dynamics. As predicted, the positive emotional contagion group members experienced improved cooperation, decreased conflict, and increased perceived task performance. Theoretical implications and practical ramifications of emotional contagion in groups and organizations are discussed.

 No surprise here. A culture of positive energy is a more pleasant place to work as well as being a more profitable business to own.

How does donwanttobeheritis, play out for the world’s largest companies? Consider Amazon.

Amazon's turnover among its hourly workforce is stunning, to say the least. In 2019 alone, Amazon hired more than 770,000 hourly workers but retained fewer than 150,000 of them. The employee exit has been so ferocious that behavioral science has a name for it. Contagious quitting.

At the surface, Amazon’s 150 percent annual turnover would appear costly. After all when employees leave there are several negative consequences including lost productivity, retention costs, and replacement costs.

Still, while those costs can be substantial, behavioral science supports the theory that contagious quitting can actually be a net positive for an organization in three key ways.

  • New Advancement and Leadership Opportunities. According to ADP, on average, employers will promote 8.9 percent of their employees annually, and those employees will receive an average wage increase of 17.4 percent.
  • Increased Harmony Among Co-Workers- As previously mentioned, Sigal Barsade's research indicated that team members who worked with enthusiastic co-workers were happier and more productive. The reverse was true. A rotten apple spoils the bunch.
  • Attitude Tune-up. To resolve the dissonance, research has demonstrated that after co-workers leave, the decision to stay is justified by a change in beliefs and attitudes. Like a music cadence, co-workers yearn for resolution.

 Employees in harmony with your culture will make a positive contribution to the four key business value drivers Personal Wellness (wellbeing), Employee Capital, Customer Capital, and Structural Capital (information and process).  The employees that are in dissonance with your culture will create inner stress and turmoil.

 You simply can’t afford to have someone who is not 100% committed to the success of the organization on your team. 

Lesson learned? Recognize the opportunity before you and remember, when the dust settles, your most engaged and loyal employees remain.

To help your employees remember hang up a sign which says: “No Vamping aloud.


Jaimie Blackman writes a monthly column for MMR magazine. This column appeared in September 2021.