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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

3 Subtle Signs an Employee Might Be Jumping Ship

When I first started out as a manager, if you’d asked me what one tool I’d wish for to better manage my team, I’d have told you more headcount, or maybe better access to executives. Ask me a few years later, and hands down, that item would be a crystal ball.

After one of my best employees handed me his two weeks’ notice several years ago, I asked myself if I could’ve seen it coming. Were there warning signs? Could I have prevented him from leaving if I’d seen those signs? While I’ll probably never know, the experience did prompt me to pay closer attention to my employees’ habits and behaviors. And, when the inevitable resignation letter landed on my desk, I tried to trace a pattern.

While there are many telltale signs of an unhappy employee—absenteeism, tardiness, and negative attitude, just to name a few—here are a few more that aren’t so obvious. And, more importantly, what to do when you see them.

The Signs

1. They’re Ultra Efficient

Your top performers are doing great work every day, which makes this sign one of the hardest to spot. But, it’s one you should really pay attention to. Great employees care about their work, and even if they’re choosing to take their talent elsewhere, chances are they want to leave on good terms. That means they’ll do whatever it takes to make a great impression, right before they go. Outstanding projects suddenly get done, loose ends are tied up, and issues are resolved. It may sound like a manager’s dream, but if you find yourself surprised with your employees’ performance, they might be on their way out.

2. They’re More Active on LinkedIn

I’m sure they’re out there, but I have yet to meet anyone who loves networking. That means most of us rely heavily on LinkedIn as a substitute for networking the old-fashioned way. (Thank you, LinkedIn!)

So, when you see an employee constantly on LinkedIn, it probably shouldn’t raise any red flags. However, a sudden uptick in new connections, groups joined, or articles shared could be an indication your employee is trying to boost his or her social profile—and find his or her next big thing.

3. They Have Great Teeth

While most managers know to watch out for a slew of suspicious “medical” appointments, most of us wouldn’t think twice about a legitimate appointment. When your employee starts addressing health concerns that were just on the back burner before—think: the employee who avoids the dentist starts getting her teeth cleaned and cavities filled—you might have an issue. Many employees try to make use of their benefits before leaving, even if they’ll have comparable benefits at their next job. New employees avoid taking time off for appointments when they start a new job, so a steady stream of legitimate appointments could mean a resignation is on the horizon.

What to Do

This is important: Suspecting an employee is quitting is not the same as having a resignation letter on your desk. Although you may have the strongest suspicions, treating people as if they’re already out the door is a huge mistake. While there probably isn’t a whole lot you can do to prevent someone from leaving once he or she has accepted an offer, there’s a lot you can do to get some good out of an otherwise lousy situation.

1. Solicit Feedback

You probably should’ve been doing this from day one, but if you haven’t, it’s not too late. In fact, you may find an exiting employee is more honest and forthright with feedback than someone who isn’t planning on going anywhere anytime soon.

Find opportunities to ask your employee how you’re doing as a manager and how you can improve. For example, after your employee completes a long-term project (you know, because she’s uber-efficient these days), ask her how she felt about your involvement. Did you make yourself available for guidance? Did you drive anyone crazy with your micromanagement over a specific task?

Ask targeted questions about specific projects and tasks that will allow your employee to comment on your performance as a manager. Your employee is probably leaving for a number of reasons, and your management style—or lack of—might’ve been a contributing factor. Start soliciting feedback now, in the normal course of business, to learn as much as you can about how you can improve (and hopefully make your other employees think twice about jumping ship).

2. Cross Train

One of the most painful aspects of an employee departure is the loss of institutional knowledge. No matter how hard we try to document processes and procedures, some intel will naturally reside in your employees’ heads. Obviously, you can’t just come right out and say “I think you’re leaving, so can you train Bob on your day-to-day?” You’ll have to be a bit covert about this, but the good news is, it ends up being a good experience for everyone.

Find a less experienced employee—or one who just isn’t as experienced in a specific area—and pair him up with your soon-to-be ex employee. Have both employees take turns training the other on their daily responsibilities, and encourage them to suggest ways to improve the processes.

After a week or two shadowing one another, schedule a meeting with both employees, and have them walk you through what they learned and what they’d suggest to improve processes and procedures. Not only will you get valuable feedback from both people, but you’ll quietly transfer some of that hidden institutional knowledge to another employee.

3. Socialize

I’m a big fan of the afternoon coffee break, or better yet, happy hour. An exiting employee can be a font of useful tidbits about your team, your management style, and of course, your employee. Although you may be tempted to try to use these opportunities to sway your outgoing staffer’s opinion to your way of thinking, don’t do it. Instead, spend that time really getting to know him or her. Yes, this person’s probably leaving you soon, but that doesn’t mean you can’t stay connected in the future. Once you find ways to meaningfully connect, you give yourself multiple opportunities to stay in touch. And—who knows—your employee might hate that new job in six months, and those social interactions will help cement a bond that just might bring him or her back to your door.

Losing an employee pretty much always sucks. But, if you’re in touch with your team, you’ll pick up on these signs early. And, even if you can’t convince that employee to stay, everyone will walk away with a few lessons learned and a positive impression of each other.

Photo of man working courtesy of Shutterstock.