Before the pandemic, Amazon’s turnover among its hourly workforce was roughly 150 percent a year. In 2019 alone, Amazon hired more than 770,000 hourly workers, but retained fewer than 150,000 of them. And their problem of attrition has gotten only worse in the last year.
Amazon is suffering from what behavioral scientists call “contagious quitting.”
Amazon is not the only major organization facing a bout of contagious quitting. As North America recovers from the Covid-19 pandemic, labor shortages across industries and sectors have empowered workers to quit their jobs in hopes of landing a better job.
Common wisdom is that contagious quitting is costly for organizations, in terms of lost productivity, separation costs (e.g., manager’s retention attempts), and replacement costs (e.g., HR staff time).
While these costs are real, research in behavioral science suggests at least three ways that contagious quitting can actually benefit an organization. Leaders can use these three silver linings of contagious quitting to offset potential costs and get back on track post-pandemic.
1. Increased Opportunities for Promotion and Advancement
The departure of employees leaves a wide range of vacant leadership positions. Thus, the employees who stick around after contagious quitting has subsided will have an increased chance of promotion and advancement within the organization. As illustrated in studies by the ADP Research Institute, organizations are more likely to promote internal employees for management positions than external candidates.
From a behavioral science perspective, we know that individuals have a fundamental need to achieve respect and admiration at work. The need to be respected at work is so fundamental to our core psyche as a human that it is viewed as a basic psychological necessity–akin to how hunger and thirst are a physical necessity.
For example, when people are presented with a choice between being a “small fish in a big pond” or “big fish in a small pond” at work, people prefer the former. The desire to have respect and admiration at work–to be a big fish–can even lead people to accept a lower salary to maintain their relative standing and the psychological rewards that come with it.
2. Reduced Negativity Among Co-Workers
Before voluntarily departing an organization, employees tend to become negative and disillusioned. And they aren’t silent about this dissatisfaction, venting to co-workers and airing their grievances along the way. They may even begin to exert less effort, believing that they have very little to lose by slacking off.
The problem with these employees’ negative energy and disengagement is that one employee’s negative emotions can ripple through a team, turning happy employees into cynics.
As an illustration, in one clever experiment, undergraduate business students completed a managerial exercise within teams. Unbeknown to these students, there was an actor embedded within each team that either acted enthusiastic or irritable. Team members who worked with the enthusiastic actor were happier, more cooperative, and fought less–while teams with the irritable actor had the opposite outcomes.
A classic case of how a single bad apple can spoil the whole bunch.
3. Enhanced Need to Rationalize Staying in the Organization
When co-workers leave, employees who stay often question whether they too should leave the organization. No one wants to be stuck on a sinking ship, right?
Research reveals a surprising consequence of sticking-it-out when co-workers leave: the need to justify one’s decision to stay.
As humans, we have a need for consistency. When individuals hold two beliefs or attitudes that conflict, an unpleasant state of discomfort is created. This is the state of cognitive dissonance. To resolve the unpleasant dissonance, we change our beliefs and attitudes to be more consistent with one another.
When co-workers leave, we begin to question whether the organization is a desirable place to work. This creates a discrepancy. How can individuals simultaneously choose to stay at an organization and hold the belief that it is an undesirable place to work?
While quitting is one way to resolve the discrepancy (change the behavior to fit the attitude), another way is to convince oneself that the organization is a great place to work (change the attitude to fit the behavior). Studies have shown that employees who choose to stay at an organization after co-workers leave justify their decision to stay by telling others they are more committed to the organization and satisfied with their job.
Understand Human Motivation and Save a Sinking Ship
In April 2021, Jeff Bezos committed Amazon to becoming “Earth’s best employer.” Through leveraging the silver linings of contagious quitting, now is the time for the famous billionaire to act on this ideal. The same is true of any leader trying to prioritize a new people strategy post-pandemic.
A workforce that survives contagious quitting is positioned to include your most engaged and loyal employees. Protect yourself and your business and recognize the opportunity in front of you.
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