Is Turnover Contagious? Yes – And Here Are 5 Reasons That’s A Good Thing

Kris Dunn Kris Dunn, Managing People

People hate it when other people cough or sneeze near them.  The reason is pretty simple, right?  WE DON’T WANT TO CATCH WHATEVER YOU HAVE, FREAK.

We’re quick to say no to other people’s physical maladies.  We’re much less quick to say no to what researchers have called emotional contagion.

What’s emotional contagion? Click through on this link and you’ll see a study that shows we pick up cognitive baggage from others without even knowing it, of both the positive and negative variety.

People routinely “catch” each other’s feelings when working together in groups. It’s not surprising that this influences your employees’ moods: what’s more surprising is that it significantly influences their judgment and business decisions as well, usually without anyone having a clue about what’s going on.

One area that’s routinely viewed as a negative form of emotional contagion is employee turnover.  You know the drill – someone announces they are leaving, and all of the sudden there might be a rush to the door. People ask, “what’s wrong?” and its cousin, “should I be moving as well?”

Which brings us back to the question in the title – Is Turnover Contagious?

Of course it is.  But instead of viewing it as a bad thing, let’s view this organizational form of a head cold as an opportunity.  Here are 5 reasons why emotional contagion in the form of turnover (or employees thinking about leaving) is a good thing for your company and you as a manager:

1–A single employee announcing their intent to leave causes you to take stock of your team.  If you believe turnover is contagious, then you surely are taking stock of who might be next to be on the market.  Taking stock is good, it forces you to stack rank those on your team.

2–Taking stock of your team allows you to think about your salary cap.  In sports, a salary cap is the max amount of money a team can spend on players.  You have a cap as well – it’s called your budget.  Taking stock of your team when someone announces they are leaving causes you to think about if there’s a different way you should be allocating $$$ to those that remain, and that’s healthy.

3–Some people may need to leave, but contagious turnover is not kind.  Let’s face it – if you have 10 people on your team and one leaves, everyone gets a bit of the emotional contagion of contagious turnover.  Too bad the ones you’d like to see leave are immune to coming down with the turnover bug.  Turnover forces you to think about who you’d like to see leave, but you immediately understand that they probably won’t.  That’s a call to performance management action if you understand the risk.

4–The threat of contagious turnover should cause you to do the reorg you’ve been thinking about.  Note that I spelled reorg with a small “r,” because I’m not talking about layoffs, I’m talking about a refresh of responsibilities and who does what as a part of your team.  Sometimes a refresh of work is all that’s required to get people through the head cold that is contagious turnover.  Think of this as a team shot of vitamin C that you administer when you hear the first sneeze.

5–Turnover is a call for you to talk to the people who matter most on your team.  Should you talk to everyone?  Sure, but a lot those folks can be covered in a group setting talking about the change.  For your highest performers, the people you can’t live without, you need to have a 1:1, address the turnover and rapidly move to talking about them.  Give them new assignments, money if you are so moved and any other artifact you see fit to make them feel the love.

Turnover is contagious.  But turnover is also a gift – a gift that’s a call to action for you to wake the hell up as a manager and start moving cheese, money and other items as necessary to interrupt the pattern and avoid being the victim.

Get out of the fetal position when it comes to turnover.

Feed the cold, starve the fever, people.

Kris Dunn
Kris Dunn is a Partner and CHRO at Kinetix, a national RPO firm for growth companies headquartered in Atlanta. He's also the founder Fistful of Talent (founded in 2008) and The HR Capitalist (2007) – and has written over 70 feature columns at Workforce Management magazine. Prior to his investment at Kinetix, Kris served in HR leadership roles at DAXKO, Charter and Cingular. In his spare time, KD hits the road as a speaker and gives the world what it needs – pop culture references linked to Human Capital street smarts.