Research and Advances
Computing Applications

How to Turn Around `turnover Culture’ in It

To stem the flight of valued IT professionals, recognize how the social contagion of changing jobs to overcome workplace dissatisfaction can infect even the most loyal and productive IT employees. Then listen.
  1. Introduction
  2. Shared Values and Beliefs
  3. Retaining IT Professionals
  4. Implications
  5. Conclusion
  6. References
  7. Authors
  8. Figures

The ability of organizations to retain their information technology (IT) staff has been a critical factor in the effort to achieve strategic business goals. When IT professionals leave an organization, not only is the number of them available for assignment to projects decreased, the professionals themselves often take specialized skills, tacit knowledge, and understanding of specific business operations and information systems with them. The exit of an IT professional who knows a project inside and out can delay or even prevent the implementation of a new technology or system. Ultimately, business opportunities may be lost when key contributors leave.

Turnover rates of 25%–35% have been reported in Fortune 500 companies over the past five years, while a supply-demand gap in the IT labor market conceivably exacerbates the IT-retention problem [2]. Not long ago, Fortune magazine reported that quitting a job in the technology profession had become an annual event, as the average job tenure in IT shrank to about 13 months, down from about 18 months in 1998 [5]. Turnover in IT has come to be so accepted that an IT manager recently confided that his subordinates “look at my career and think I’m a loser because I’ve pretty much stayed put in one place” [7].

The notion of turnover culture is emerging in the management literature and can enhance our understanding of what is happening in regard to turnover in IT. The management literature defines turnover culture as “the systematic patterns of shared cognitions by organizational or subunit incumbents that influence decisions regarding job movement” [1]. Said more plainly, a high turnover culture reflects the acceptance of turnover as part of workgroup norms. That is, an employee working within a high turnover culture is likely to believe that turnover is appropriate and perhaps even expected.

Whereas changing employers may be an effective career strategy for some individual IT professionals, most organizations strive to retain valued IT personnel. Accordingly, our purpose here is to draw your attention to the realities of turnover culture and explain how this perspective sheds light on the actions needed to retain valued IT talent. Accordingly, we explain the concept of turnover culture, how it develops, the levels at which it may operate, and its potential to specifically affect IT professionals. We also discuss the implications for IT managers.

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Shared Values and Beliefs

The general notion of turnover culture is grounded in research on organizational culture. Organizational culture has been widely studied by anthropologists and other organizational researchers and is generally defined as a set of values and cognitions shared by members of a social unit. These shared values are acquired through socialization and social learning processes as individuals experience membership in an organization. In addition to organizational culture, facet-specific constructs, including absence culture and service culture, have been defined to focus on certain aspects of the general organizational culture. Turnover culture is regarded as a facet-specific construct and, as such, emphasizes the reinforcing influence of social experiences on employee cognition and behavior related to turnover [1].

Researchers have identified two key dimensions of organizational culture constructs: direction and intensity [4]. Direction refers to the actual content, or substance, of the culture, reflected in the values, behavioral norms, and thinking styles it emphasizes. Intensity is the strength of this emphasis. Organizational cultures varying in intensity reflect differing degrees of influence on members; cultures varying in direction support different behavioral norms and thinking styles. Regarding direction of turnover culture, we use the term high turnover culture to refer to a culture that promotes turnover behavior and the term low turnover culture to denote a culture that discourages turnover.

How it develops. Turnover culture evolves in a manner similar to organizational culture, in that artifacts (such as stories, customs, information flows, and structures) are interpreted by and influence organizational members. When shared by an organization’s members, these artifacts ultimately transform into basic assumptions and mutual cognitive schema regarding turnover perceptions, intentions, and behaviors. These shared perceptions can intensify, as interaction breeds similarity; that is, as individuals become more emotionally attached to groups, units, or cohorts, they become increasingly compliant with established turnover norms, whether high or low.

Social learning theories, a loose descriptive term for a number of approaches emphasizing social and symbolic controls of individual behavior, help us understand and explain the development of turnover culture. For example, research on social cognition by psychologist Albert Bandura of Stanford University emphasizes the role of socially mediated antecedents and consequences of individual-level behavior. Recognizing that people are not autonomous agents, Bandura suggests that behavior, personal characteristics, and environmental events interact and influence one another. Central to the theory are vicarious processes in which individuals learn from attending to and modeling others’ behavior. Therefore, as related to turnover culture, employees learn prevailing attitudes and values about turnover norms by observing others in their work environments.

Research on social information processing theory by the late Gerald Salancik and Jeffrey Pfeffer of Stanford University sheds additional light on the development of turnover culture. Examining the role of environmental influences on employee perceptions and attitudes, it suggests that individuals evaluate their jobs based partly on the social cues provided by others. If colleagues make positive statements about their work, then the favorable aspects of the job become more salient to the individual, and perceptions of the work situation correspondingly become more positive. Similarly, frequent criticisms from coworkers negatively influence an individual’s job attitudes and perceptions.

These theories elucidate the influence of attitudes and behaviors of others on individual employees’ decisions to quit or to stay. Communication patterns and information flows are therefore expected to play a vital role in the development of turnover culture. Indeed, reports from one study indicated that the more similar coworkers were to each other (such as occupying similar positions or roles in communication networks) the more likely they would arrive at the same decision to leave or stay [8]. In effect, the study showed that turnover patterns are not independently distributed in organizations but are influenced by informal communication relationships. The researchers ultimately extended the snowball analogy to explain their findings, suggesting that turnover itself breeds more turnover, given the enduring effects of social networks and negative effects on the workers who remain.

Ultimately, the development of turnover culture can be viewed as a process of social contagion, denoting a spontaneous spread of affective and/or behavioral reactions among individual members of a group or social collective. A contagion results when a behavior or its effect is instigated by “initiators” functioning as models by displaying for observers the general form of the act and the positive consequences resulting from it. Behaviors tend to be most contagious for observers when high-status models exhibit the behavior and appear to experience positive consequences [12]. Within this framework, turnover by highly regarded employees is likely to trigger a social contagion process that can lead to a high turnover culture.

As discussed, turnover culture is grounded in organizational theories emphasizing the influence of social processes on an individual’s beliefs and decisions regarding job movement. It captures an important workplace reality—that the attitudes and behaviors of fellow IT professionals affect individual workers’ decisions to leave the job or stay.

Levels of operation. The management literature suggests turnover culture can operate at industry, organizational, and workgroup levels. Turnover culture at the industry level implies that a particular turnover culture may be common across companies within a specific industry. These companies may adopt similar philosophies and practices related to turnover and, as a result, a high or low turnover culture may become common within that industry. Turnover culture at the organizational level refers to beliefs and attitudes shared by individuals within an individual organization. Organizational philosophies and management approaches regarding turnover are inclined to differ between organizations; as a result, turnover cultures are likely to vary from organization to organization. Turnover culture at the workgroup level applies to individuals within an organizational unit (such as a department or project team). The workgroup level is consistent with views of organizational researchers who contend that different subcultures often exist within the same company and who view this mix of simultaneous subcultures as a natural by-product of organizational differences in level and function [4].

We contend that turnover culture may also operate at the occupational group level; that is, it can exist within an occupational group (such as IT professionals) across organizations. IT employees from different companies meet through professional associations, conferences, training classes, and graduate programs at universities, as well as social, community, school and church functions. Attitudes and norms regarding turnover within the IT profession can spread through these interactions. Moreover, articles regarding IT turnover and the IT labor market in publications commonly read by IT professionals can contribute to turnover culture at the IT occupational group level.

Any labor market for a particular occupational group may contribute to turnover culture within that profession. For example, strong demand for IT workers is often enough to trigger individual IT employees to change jobs, possibly inspiring a high turnover culture. Similarly, soft labor-market demand would suppress the urge to move and possibly contribute to a low turnover culture within an occupational group.

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Retaining IT Professionals

The figure here outlines the role of turnover culture in an individual’s decision to leave; the dotted lines reflect that an IT professional’s job satisfaction, perception of job alternatives, and intention to leave the present job are influenced by the levels of these same sentiments expressed by IT colleagues and friends, as well as by turnover behavior exhibited by these referent others. The IT professional’s turnover attitudes and behavior are also influenced by other sources of information regarding the labor market and movement of IT workers, including trade magazines, newspapers, and headhunters. The solid lines represent the potential effect of the departure of one IT professional on the attitudes and behaviors of other professionals.

Bottom line, the network of connections in the figure reflect the nature of turnover culture—that turnover beliefs and behaviors spread naturally through normal, often informal, communication channels. These information flows exist in virtually any work environment and need to be acknowledged and dealt with. For managers striving to retain IT staff, the occupational and workgroup levels of turnover culture are likely to be of primary interest; that’s why we consider turnover culture at these levels in more detail.

Turnover culture in the IT profession. The marketability of job skills likely contributes to a high turnover culture within an occupational group, such as IT. At any given time within the IT profession, some skillsets are more marketable than others. In today’s environment, skills associated with, say, network and database management (such as in Oracle database administration) and with enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems (such as those from PeopleSoft and SAP) are in demand. In some ways, management practices may actually contribute to a high turnover culture for such professionals. For example, paying top dollar for contractors to work alongside IT staffs boldly calls employees’ attention to the marketability of certain skills and the potential for their own movement to other organizations.

For many IT professionals, headhunter inquiries seem to validate such marketability. An IT manager participating in a recent university-sponsored practitioner roundtable on the issue of retaining IT professionals said the norm among IT workers is that you should be receiving headhunter calls, and if you aren’t, there’s something wrong with you. For IT professionals with specific skillsets, even IT professionals in toto, strong labor market demand stimulates the movement of individual workers and can contribute to a high turnover culture within the IT occupational group.

Turnover culture in IT workgroups. We view an IT workgroup as an organizational unit that includes a staff of IT professionals. Management practices can contribute to turnover culture in IT workgroups; for example, offering compensation and rewards significantly inferior to those offered by other organizations for the same type of work can trigger employee movement and contribute to a high turnover culture within an IT workgroup. The sentiment “why work for peanuts when there’s real money to be made?” can spread through the group, infecting even those who prior to taking on this perspective were perfectly satisfied in their jobs.

Moving mid-career IT workers aside and bringing in recent college graduates to work on new technology and development projects can also contribute to a high turnover culture at the IT workgroup level. Recent college graduates tend to command lower salaries than IT professionals who have been with the organization awhile and are often familiar with new technologies the organization may want to incorporate. Displacement from desirable projects may lead mid-career workers to look for job opportunities elsewhere or for alternative career opportunities outside IT.

Depending how they are managed, a turnover culture may develop among the newly hired college graduates. Norman Matloff of the University of California, Davis, whose views are frequently cited regarding software industry hiring, has charged that a desire for cheap labor is at the heart of managing IT human resources and that recent college graduates are a primary source of cheaper labor [9]. Recent graduates are typically single and, presumably, more willing and able to work hours of overtime without being constrained by family responsibilities. Such an IT human resource (HR) management strategy was recently acknowledged by a hiring manager in a Silicon Valley firm: “You work the young ones for five years and then replace them” [9].

Along the same line, persistently overloading IT professionals with work (at any stage of their careers) is likely to contribute to a high turnover culture in IT workgroups. Research shows that IT professionals experiencing work exhaustion report significantly stronger intentions to leave their jobs [10]. Exhausted professionals have described work environments in which “management places unrealistic and arbitrary goals on us, then refuses to hire anyone to help” [10]. If work overload and exhaustion are common within the workgroup, IT professionals are likely to have observed others experiencing the problem and successfully resolving it by leaving their jobs. Work overload and exhaustion can therefore contribute to a high turnover culture in IT workgroups.

Ultimately, a high turnover culture in IT workgroups is a real concern for managers because it can impede progress toward corporate goals. For example, if IT professionals working on ERP projects consistently depart within a year of receiving ERP training, the organization’s implementation efforts are likely to be severely hampered. This scenario would be expected to increase both the workload and frustration levels of the remaining workers, further exacerbating a high turnover culture.

Romance of turnover. Finally, a high turnover culture at any operational level could involve a romance of turnover, or the over-glorification of the act of leaving. Departing IT professionals are often treated as heroes—for finding a way out. And often only the most positive aspects of the departing employees’ new jobs (the factors that made them leave their old jobs) are shared with coworkers and friends. The actual consequences to the former employee, good and bad, may never be known to those left behind. As a result, observers could romanticize turnover as the ultimate solution to problems and issues encountered by IT professionals. A romance of turnover may enhance perceptions of the acceptability and outcomes of turnover, ultimately acting to perpetuate and strengthen a high turnover culture.

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Traditional turnover research has tended to focus solely on individual-level variables and, consequently, has produced a narrow view of the turnover picture. The concept of turnover culture represents a valuable perspective for understanding how turnover can breed more turnover. Decisions to leave can spread like a social contagion, especially in a favorable labor market. Although this contagion may operate at the industry level and probably at the occupational group level as well, managers are likely to possess the greatest potential for influencing turnover culture at the workgroup and organizational levels. Accordingly, this is where we focus our discussion of practical implications for IT managers.

An employee working within a high turnover culture is likely to believe that turnover is appropriate and perhaps even expected.

Consider the ramifications to an organization experiencing a high turnover culture. In addition to estimates of expenses incurred when an employee is lost (as much as $150,000 each time one leaves an IT consulting firm [9]), additional, less-quantifiable consequences are likely in a high turnover culture. Over 30 years ago, political and social economist Albert O. Hirschman, in his classic treatise on “exit” and “voice,” noted that when exit is an easy alternative, the use of voice to right problems in an organization tends to atrophy [6]. The organization loses valuable comments and suggestions from the workers who exit and, as a result, the employee voices needed to push the organization to correct a situation may be lost.

In a tight labor market favoring employees, workers can opt for the neatness of exit over the messiness of voice: “Why raise your voice in contradiction and get yourself in trouble as long as you can … remove yourself entirely from any given environment should it become too unpleasant?” [6]. Hence, incorrect situations (those not aligned with corporate goals) may go uncorrected in a high turnover culture because employees have begun to view exit as a simpler, more expedient, and more viable solution than exercising voice than to share feelings and ideas, in the hopes of improving their work environments.

Frequent exits can also disrupt employee development efforts. Tim Stone, a product manager in a global technology company, noted in his personal communication with one of the authors that constant job movement can reduce the level of personal responsibility felt by individual workers. By not staying on the job long enough to observe and experience the ramifications of their work and decisions, IT professionals may not feel or understand the effect their actions really have on the overall organization. Without such feedback, individuals miss important opportunities for performance improvement and to learn from mistakes. Loyal IT employees are the first to point out that, in environments where job-hopping is common, they are left behind to deal with the fallout from workers exercising their mobility. This never-ending cleaning up after others can perpetuate a high turnover culture, as previously loyal IT professionals tire of dealing with the fallout and decide to exercise their own mobility.

Along the same line, a high turnover culture can contribute to a recently identified paradox in the movement toward managing organizational knowledge. Some HR-management practices in IT (such as placing a hiring focus on specific skill sets and recent college graduates) work directly against the goals of organizational knowledge management [11]. They can displace an organization’s mid-career IT professionals from key, leading-edge projects; ironically, these workers possess the most extensive and valuable tacit knowledge. Researchers and consultants focusing on organizational knowledge encourage managers to pay careful attention to the management of tacit, as well as explicit, knowledge, because tacit knowledge enables the organization to learn faster and develop more creative and valuable insights than its competitors. Unfortunately, a high turnover culture, particularly one that encourages mid- and senior-level workers to leave, can thwart corporate goals involving creation, protection, and management of organizational knowledge.

What to do? Results from a study of IT personnel practices in 32 organizations in the U.S. elucidate the importance of defining and articulating an IT HR strategy. Moreover, organizations are encouraged to shift their focus from myopic HR remedies (such as one-time inducements or bonuses) to more holistic HR solutions [2]. They are therefore encouraged to contemplate systemic solutions that comprehensively address the retention of valued IT personnel through such basic elements as the management of workloads, assignments, rewards, and training and development.

In a systemic HR strategy intended to curb the development and spread of a high turnover culture, managers should begin by dealing with workgroups rather than the entire organizational work force. This strategy implies that improvements in turnover culture within workgroups can yield an improved turnover culture at the organizational level. For managers, the key is twofold: improve communication channels and address unresolved issues felt by the workgroup.

These tactics are in line with Hirschman’s views on exit and voice, noting that when one mechanism (such as exit) becomes predominant, use of the less familiar mechanism (such as voice) requires its power be discovered or rediscovered [6]. Managerial practices to improve communication and address primary concerns of valuable IT employees are needed to reestablish the effectiveness and viability of voice. In the interests of curtailing a high turnover culture, IT professionals need to discover (or rediscover) voice as a viable means through which they alleviate job problems and initiate improvement and corrections in their work environments.

For IT managers, listening is very likely the first step toward correcting problems. Listening alone may help retain the IT professionals whose biggest gripe is that their ideas are ignored [3]. Bruce Fern, an IT retention consultant at Integral Training Systems, Half Moon Bay, CA, was quoted in Computerworld advising managers to be on the lookout for quiet people who start complaining and for complainers who become quiet. The latter may have stopped complaining because they’ve given up on their jobs and are looking for something better [3]. Also, managers can use improved communication channels to point out the advantages of staying with the organization (while working to make these advantages realities).

Rather than throwing still more money at the retention problem, in the form of burgeoning bonuses, extraordinary benefits, and bulging salaries, these recommendations point to the need for managers to include IT professionals in the formulation of turnover solutions. Organizations experiencing a high turnover culture need to listen to their IT staffs and begin creating direct responses to the dissatisfaction IT professionals actually experience in their jobs (such as adjustments to workload and assignments), as opposed to simply buffing up the job’s extrinsic accoutrements. The key to diffusing a high turnover culture lies in good communication with and active management of valued employees. As noted by retention expert Bev Kane in a Fortune magazine article, most people don’t quit because of money; they quit because of bad bosses [5].

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Practitioners and researchers alike need to incorporate turnover culture when seeking to understand, manage, and predict the turnover of IT professionals. This relatively recent construct promises to enhance our understanding of how individual turnover decisions are influenced and how tendencies for job movement spread through workgroups, companies, and even professions. Besides illuminating the values and beliefs of IT employees in regard to turnover, attention to turnover culture can lead to a more accurate and comprehensive picture of how managerial practices and social networks influence the turnover of IT professionals.

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UF1 Figure. Key communication flows related to an IT professional’s departure.

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