Best of TLNT 2017: Surprise! Most People Leave Companies, Not Managers

Editor’s Note: It’s an annual tradition for TLNT to count down the most popular posts of the previous 12 months. We’re reposting each of the top 30 articles through January 2nd. This is No. 27 of 2017. You can find the complete list here.


For decades we’ve been telling leaders this one thing about employees and retention. We’ve said it so much, it’s actually become ‘common’ knowledge we take for granted. It’s this one phrase:

Employees don’t leave companies, they leave managers. 

Have you used this phrase? Of course, you have! Everyone in HR has used this!

New research has come out from IBM’s Smarter Workforce Institute, Should I Stay, or Should I Go? that has actually proven our common knowledge is wrong:

  • Contrary to many media reports, only 14% of people left their last job because they were unhappy with their managers.
  • The biggest work-related reason (cited by 40% of respondents) for leaving is because employees are not happy with their jobs.
  • Almost as many people (39%) left their last job for personal reasons such as spouse relocation, child care or health issues.
  • One in five (20%) workers left because they were not happy with their organization.
  • 18% left due to organizational changes which had caused a great deal of uncertainty.

This isn’t some small study of a hundred employees. IBM looked at data from 22,000 employees!

So, why has this concept of employees leaving managers become so wildly accepted and popular amongst HR leaders and pros?

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You won’t like this answer: We liked using this reason for employees leaving because it meant it wasn’t our problem. I mean it was our problem to help fix, but it wasn’t our fault. It was those stupid managers!

So, we’ll coach them up. Give them soft skills training. Talk down to them like their children, and help them become “leaders.” IBM didn’t actually say this was the reason, this is my own reasoning. It’s just super comfortable to give this explanation to why we have high turnover.

The reality is if employees leave there are likely numerous reasons all of which are probably centered on a bad employee experience. They were unhappy because of something. It might have been because they were working for a crappy manager, but it also might be they just made a bad fit decision in the job they chose to accept, or culturally, the fit wasn’t good with your organization and the employee.

One thing is certain. Employees, the majority, don’t leave managers. They leave your freaking company. That’s not our manager’s issue, it’s all of our issue. Today’s challenge? Stop using this phrase and start taking ownership of your employee turnover!

This was originally published on The Tim Sackett Project.

Tim Sackett, MS, SPHR is executive vice president of HRU Technical Resources, a contingent staffing firm in Lansing, MI. Tim has 20 years of HR and talent background split evenly between corporate HR gigs among the Fortune 500 and the HR vendor community ? so he gets it from both sides of the desk. A frequent contributor to the talent blog Fistful of Talent, Tim also speaks at many HR conferences and events. Contact him here.


6 Comments on “Best of TLNT 2017: Surprise! Most People Leave Companies, Not Managers

  1. I contend that a manager has the most significant impact on the happiness of employees. If one dug deeper on the #1 reason in this survey, the manager equation would be prominent. I have managed groups that were similar to other groups in the company. My managers had the same job as others around the country. I would guarantee that the managers with whom I worked and encouraged would have a much higher happiness rating than most around the company.

    1. Well, there was a separate option of “Unhappy with my manager” in the survey, which kind of nulls the arguments of hidden agenda embedded into other optiions of the survey. I can personally relate to first two options. Sometimes organization does not give enough options for moving in your career and reasons may vary between from “not seen capable” to “no growth in the company to enable career growth”.

  2. It would be very difficult to make a case that everything below the 40% number didn’t contribute to the 40% number.

  3. Interesting. If we go by the results it seems people leave
    1) Unhappy with the job (What does this mean? What factors go into this answer?)
    2) Personal reasons (What does this mean? What factors go into this answer?)
    Only 20% seem unhappy with the organization aka, “your freaking company”….Did I misunderstand something?

    As JE said, it seems that the factors below the personal reasons were contributing factors of the top two.

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