Employee Engagement
8 min read

Why your best employees are leaving and how to stop it


Fresia Jackson

Lead People Scientist, Customer Education, Culture Amp

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Turnover: it’s an important metric for any organization’s health and one that executives across the business often scrutinize. If you feel confused answering questions like, “why are employees leaving,” you’re not alone. It’s hard to know what’s right when the research is flip-flopping, suggesting one minute that employees leave because of managers, and the next, that’s not the case. We at Culture Amp have even weighed in on this debate in the past. If your head is spinning, don’t worry. Ours was, too. 

So we undertook our largest study on employee turnover to date, aiming to provide some much-needed context around these challenging questions. We found that:

  • There are 3 key reasons employees leave
  • When it comes to keeping managers, inclusion is most important
  • Employees that you want to keep most are more likely to be vocal about their dissatisfaction
  • If you want to predict who is going to leave, you should just ask them

To find these insights, we analyzed the survey responses of over 300,000 employees who voluntarily exited over the 15 months prior to COVID. We compared both their exit survey responses as well as their engagement survey responses before leaving. Then we incorporated other characteristics we knew about the individuals, like their tenure, manager status, and if the People team considered their exit to be regrettable. We busted some long-established myths – no, employees don’t leave because of managers – and found insights that no one has reported on before. Let’s dive in. 

There are 3 common reasons employees leave

When comparing those who left to those who stayed, there were 3 key reasons they left:

  • Career growth: Employees who left were less favorable on the question “I believe there are good career opportunities for me at [Company].” Additionally, a lack of Growth (in their career or development opportunities) was selected by 1 in 3 employees as a top reason for leaving at the time of exit.
  • Role expectations: Unsurprisingly, they were also less favorable when asked if “I am happy with my role relative to what was described to me.”
  • Inclusion: Those who left were less likely to feel like they belonged at the organization.

On average, those who left were 7 points lower on these questions than those who stayed on.

Grouped bar chart titled "favourable scores: stayed versus exited”, showing favourability scores for employees who stayed or left compared to benchmark for each of three questions. The first question is Career Growth: “I believe there are good career opportunities for me at [Company]”. Scores: Stayed  64, benchmark 62, Exited 56. Second question is about Role expectations: "I am happy with my current role relating to what was described to me." Scores: Stayed 77, Benchmark 76, Exited 71. Final question is inclusion: "I feel like I belong at [Company]”. Scores: Stayed 79, Benchmark 78, Exited 71.

💡 Insight: Your employees are likely not leaving because of their manager, but rather because they feel like they aren’t growing, their role is misaligned, or they don’t feel included at the company.

The same reasons were cited by the employees you want to keep most

While turnover is always difficult, we recognize that not all turnover is created equal. So we looked at 3 key attributes (tenure, manager status, and if their exit was marked as regrettable) to identify employees who have the largest impact when they leave. For each, the same 3 questions mentioned above came up front and center, with a few notable differences.

Career growth was important no matter the tenure

When your most tenured employees leave, they take years of historical knowledge with them, making their departures particularly difficult. Some might assume the need for growth changes over an employee’s tenure. But by looking at the reason cited by employees at the time of exit, we found growth was the number one reason across all tenure groups. This was true for early leavers (those who left in under 1 year), tenured folks (those who stayed for over 4 years), and the in-betweeners. Importantly, growth meant a range of things, not only formal role progression. Many employees cited learning and development opportunities and the desire for stretch projects.

💡 Insight: To keep your employees, no matter the tenure, determine what growth means for each of them. 

To keep managers, make sure they feel included

When a manager leaves, it can completely change the dynamic of their team. And it can take longer to hire their replacement than it would for an individual contributor. We found that for managers, the Inclusion aspect was even more important. Managers who left were:

  • 9 points lower on “When I share my opinion, it is valued” than managers who stayed
  • And 11 points lower on “Perspectives like mine are included in decision-making at [Company]”

Perhaps this is because of the classic middle management paradox: managers need to lead and follow. If they don’t feel they can be a good representative or taken seriously while advocating for their team, they choose to go somewhere else. 

💡 Insight: To stop manager turnover, be sure to ask managers (and everyone!) if they feel like they have a voice and are included in decision-making.

Employees whose exit was marked as “regrettable” were even more honest

For about 10,000 employees, the People team had flagged their exit as “regrettable.” This definition varies by company but generally means the individual was high-performing and the company wishes they could have retained them. Surprisingly, we found that these employees were much more honest in their dissatisfaction than those who exited and were not marked regrettable – a full 10 points lower in overall favorability. 

In the table below, you can see this pattern for the 3 main drivers of attrition. The favorable scores of employees marked as regrettable exits were low enough to be placed within the bottom 10th percentile of our global benchmark data.

Horizontal bar chart showing the percentile favorability range for three questions, along with favourability scores for employees in three cohorts: regrettable exit, exited non-regrettable, and stayed. First question is career growth: "I believe there are good career opportunities for me at [Company]”. Favourability range is from ~40 to ~85, approximate scores are:  regrettable exit, ~10th percentile: exited non-regrettable, ~35th percentile: stayed, ~55th percentile. Second question is Role expectations: “I’m happy with my current role relative to what described to me.” Favorability ranges from approximately ~60 to ~90. Scores are Regrettable, well below 10th percentile: Exited non-regrettable, ~40th percentile: Stayed, ~52nd percentile. Third question is inclusion: "I feel like I belong at [Company].” Favorability range is from approximately ~65 to ~90. Scores are: regrettable exit below 10th percentile: Exited non-regrettable, ~24th percentile: Stayed, ~55th percentile.

💡 Insight: If you have low scores on your Engagement survey, it can be easy to question who the unfavorable folks are. This research indicates they might be the very employees you most want to keep!

The best way to predict who is going to leave? Just ask them 

Of all the questions we looked at, the most predictive by far was our future commitment item – “I see myself still working at [Company] in two years’ time.”

  • Those who strongly disagreed were 2.7x more likely to leave than those who selected other response options. This effect was twice as strong for regrettable exits since they are more honest about their intentions!
  • Those who disagreed were ~2x times more likely to leave than those who were neutral or agreed.
  • And even those who were neutral were 50% more likely to leave than those who agreed.

This result is consistent with our 2017 findings here.

Stacked bar chart showing percentage proportions, titled "I still see myself working at [Company] in two years’ time." The chart shows responses to the question in the title from those who subsequently left the company, compared to those that stayed. Responses from those that left the company are as follows: strongly disagree 49%, disagree 39%, neither agree nor disagree 31%, agree 24%, strongly agree 22%.

💡Insight: Asking your employees if they intend to stay at the company is the best way to predict attrition. Use the proportions above for a rough forecast. 

They’ll also tell you why they plan to leave

In our exit survey, employees are asked for the top reason they chose to leave. We found the reason selected at the time of exit was highlighted in their Engagement survey responses months before. 

  • Regrettable employees who selected “Manager” as their key reason for leaving scored below the bottom 5th percentile on the Management factor in their Engagement response. This was a full 29 points below regrettable employees who did not name their manager as a reason for leaving.
  • Similarly, employees who selected “Leadership” as their key reason for leaving scored below the bottom 5th percentile on the Leadership factor.
  • A similar signal was found within the compensation question “I believe my total compensation is fair, relative to similar roles at other companies” 
Horizontal bar chart showing the percentile favorability range for three factors, along with favourability scores for employees who left, in two cohorts: Key reason for leaving, and Not key Reason. First factor is Compensation: "I believe my total compensation is fair, relative to similar roles of other companies”. Favorability range is from ~35 to ~75, approximate scores are: Key Reason for Leaving, well below 5th percentile: Not key reason, ~26th percentile. Second factor is Leadership: Favorability range is from ~45 to ~90, approximate scores are: Key Reason for Leaving, well below 5th percentile: Not key reason, ~24th percentile. Third factor is Management. Favorability range is from ~65 to ~90, approximate scores are: Key Reason for Leaving, far below 5th percentile: Not key reason, ~35th percentile.

💡 Insight: If employees are vocal about their dissatisfaction on particular topics and the problem isn’t addressed, they will leave because of it. 

Take your first step

Based on our research, you can be confident that:

  • Your employees will tell you if they’re planning to leave
  • They’ll let you know why they’re planning to leave
  • The employees you most want to keep (regrettable exits) are even more honest with their feedback 

However, our research was easy since employees were flagged as regrettable by the People team. Unfortunately, this only happens once an employee leaves. To get ahead of the curve:

  1. Include performance rating as a filter in your Engagement survey results so that you can see how your high-performing employees’ experiences may differ. 
  2. Be sure to ask the most predictive questions. Both by asking directly, “I see myself still working at [Company] in two years’ time,” and indirectly by covering Career growth, Role expectations, and Inclusion.

If you do, you just might be able to stop your high-performing employees before they make that pivotal decision. 

At Culture Amp, much of these insights around engagement-related turnover are already embedded within our product. We do the heavy lifting to make it easy for you to identify turnover risks and improve their experience before it’s too late.


Want to learn more about how Culture Amp can help you retain employees?

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