Job Characteristics Contributing to Employee Turnover: Do Nothing and You Risk Losing People

employee turnover

Key points

  • Some job characteristics can contribute to employee turnover. If it is particularly challenging to keep a position filled, look at it from a job design perspective.
  • To identify roles for which turnover may be high, investigate these five job characteristics: task and skill variety, task identity, significance, autonomy, and feedback.
  • With some resources and ideas, you can screen for these roles and have a go at enriching them. Pay attention to how people talk about the job, and try changing these messages too.

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This Evidence Summary focuses on the link between job characteristics and employee turnover. For a broader overview of the main causes of employee turnover and how to deal with this thorny issue from an evidence-based perspective, check out this Evidence Summary.

A high employee turnover rate is costly for many reasons. The most obvious pain points are the costs caused by recruiting, selecting, onboarding and training replacements. So, once both HR and the direct manager invest time and effort to replace the employee who left, they want to make sure this won’t happen again. Do you have positions, teams or departments where employees tend to stay for significantly shorter periods of time than in the rest of the organization? In these situations, the characteristics of the job might contribute to driving people away.

The characteristics of a job matter

We used a recent comprehensive meta-analysis to look into the causes of employee turnover. In this Evidence Summary, we will focus on the findings about the job characteristics that can drive people away. These findings are based on data from up to 12,000 people and 16 different studies.

Screen by asking five questions

To see if the work itself might contribute to employee turnover, look at five relevant characteristics of the job. The higher a job scores on these criteria, the less likely the job holder is to leave it. Check out the following infographic:

employee turnover

To answer these questions, you need to learn about the activities and responsibilities the job entails and the conditions under which the role holder works. Usually, the easiest way to get this information is from the role holder. You can ask them the five questions to get a quick understanding of the positive and negative sides of the role. Another source of information can be from the manager of the target role. This quick insight on how likely the characteristics of the job will contribute to employee turnover is a good starting point in further focusing your efforts.

Dig deeper with tried-and-trusted tools

If the initial investigation raises a red flag, continue with a deeper diagnosis. For this, you can use readily available diagnostic tools with the employee or the manager. The Job Diagnostic Survey, for example, assesses the five relevant job characteristics through detailed questions. You can also look at the results of a job analysis, which give you an objective view of the job characteristics beyond any subjective perception of the job holder or the manager.

employee turnover

Take action by enriching the job AND changing the rhetoric

What if the job scores very low on all of these five points? Two causes can be at fault. First, the job is poorly designed, lacking autonomy and feedback, for example. However, a second cause is linked to perception of the job itself. People listen to what others around them are saying and may take on others’ perceptions of the role, instead of forming their own opinion of how the role really is. Colleagues might tell the employee that their job is unimportant or leads nowhere, so the employee “gets convinced” and actually starts to believe them. You can act on both the objective and the subjective cause to improve job characteristics and contribute to reducing turnover.

In the case of a poorly designed job, changing job characteristics is possible through job redesign or job enrichment. These are complex processes and you might want to consider getting help from a professional who specializes in job redesign.

The second cause requires focus on the perceptions which employees share throughout the organization, followed by a consistent practice of sending the right messages instead. Consider the whole employee journey: highlight the positive aspects of the job during the onboarding process, while goal setting, and at feedback sessions. Below you can find some ideas on where you can start to make changes:

employee turnover

Takeaways for your practice

  • Five key characteristics of a job can influence employee turnover: task and skill variety, task identity, significance, autonomy, and feedback. The more they are present, the less likely an employee is to leave the job.
  • For an accurate diagnosis of roles, use an assessment such as the Job Diagnostic Survey. You can use the results for other goals too, because this assessment gives you a comprehensive picture of what a job is like.
  • How other employees describe a job has an impact on the role holder. Start changing the messages that are sent around. Make an effort to send positive messages about the job, focusing on the five relevant job characteristics.
  • The changes you make now will have a lasting impression on the role. Acting on job characteristics will have a positive impact on whoever holds that position in the future.

This Evidence Summary focused on the link between job characteristics and employee turnover. For a broader overview of the main causes of employee turnover and how to deal with this thorny issue from an evidence-based perspective, check out this Evidence Summary.

Trustworthiness score

We critically evaluated the trustworthiness of the study we used to inform this article. We found that the design of the study was moderately appropriate (70% trustworthiness level) to demonstrate a causal relationship, such as effect or impact. This means that there is a 30% chance that alternative explanations for these results are possible, including random effects.

Learn how we critically appraise studies to assign them a Trustworthiness Score.

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Rubenstein, A.L., Eberly, M.B., Lee, T.W., Mitchell, T.R. (2017). Surveying the forest: A meta-analysis, moderator investigation, and future-oriented discussion of the antecedents of voluntary employee turnover. Personnel Psychology, 1–43.

Hackman, J. R., & Oldham, G. R. (1974). The job diagnostic survey: An instrument for the diagnosis of jobs and the evaluation of job redesign projects (No. TR-4). YALE UNIV NEW HAVEN CT DEPT OF ADMINISTRATIVE SCIENCES.

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  1. Pingback: Employee Turnover: An Evidence-Based Approach to a Thorny Issue • ScienceForWork