Take This Job and Love It? Print
Written by Eric McHenry   
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If you think that job satisfaction is the only reason you haven’t left your workplace, think again, say two UW business professors.

Image few years ago, Terence Mitchell was trying to recruit a professor he admired to the faculty of the UW Foster School of Business. Both of them agreed that the job was a perfect fit. But the professor wouldn’t budge.

“He said, ‘I’d love to come, but my son is a senior in high school next year, and I’ve got three doctoral students who are going to be finishing up in the next two years. I just can’t go anywhere,’ ” Mitchell recalls. “It didn’t have anything to do with the fact that he would’ve been more satisfied here than there. It was not a satisfaction decision. It was a ‘stuck’ decision.”

ImageMitchell was disappointed, but he wasn’t surprised. On the contrary, the recruit’s immobility was just one more example of a phenomenon Mitchell has spent the past two decades documenting: People often stay at their jobs, or leave their jobs, for reasons wholly unrelated to job satisfaction.

This may sound like common sense. But until Mitchell and Thomas Lee, both professors at the Foster School of Business, laid it out in a series of influential papers, it was completely lost on the leading scholars of organizational behavior.

The “standard model” in the study of job turnover had long held that people who dislike their jobs tend to move on when they find better ones, and that people who are happy where they are tend to stay there. Mitchell and Lee demonstrated that leaving is more often the result of what they call “shocks”—sudden circumstantial changes—than dissatisfaction, and that the departure is sometimes abrupt. Subsequently, they showed that staying has a lot more to do with “embeddedness”—the sort of personal connections that kept Mitchell’s recruit from coming to the UW—than with professional contentment. Their research has permanently changed the vocabulary of management research, and has helped make the UW one of the field’s epicenters.

There’s probably no place where two bigger names exist side-by-side,” says Carl Maertz, a professor of management at St. Louis University and an expert on turnover. “There’s no place where you’ve got two people who have made such huge contributions to the big picture. I don’t mean how many publications they have. There’s plenty of people out there, probably, with more pubs than they have. But they hit the home runs.”

In the world of business, turnover is both a timely and a timeless concern. Managers are always looking for ways to reduce attrition, because the cost of seeking, hiring, training and assimilating new employees is so high. One recent study determined that organizations lose 17 percent of their pre-tax income to employee withdrawal (a category that includes turnover as well as absence, lateness and withheld effort). Another estimated that the departure of a single experienced professional costs a management and consulting firm more than $1 million.

But the need to control turnover is about to become even more acute, as the baby boomers begin to retire. The American economy is now bracing for what Wendy Harman, 06, a visiting assistant professor of business at UW Bothell, has called “the largest brain drain the world has ever experienced.”

“Certainly within the last 20 years we’ve seen a refocus on the topic [of turnover], mostly because organizations are very concerned about keeping their best and their brightest, and the competition for talent is extensive,” Mitchell said in a recent podcast interview for an Academy of Management Web site.

Yet for the longest time, researchers seemed to be satisfied with a primitive and not very nuanced understanding of why people leave—the standard model.

Mitchell and Lee were two exceptions. By the late ’80s, both had become frustrated with the field’s stagnation. “People were doing the same thing over and over again,” recalls Lee, who is also associate dean for academic and faculty affairs. “They were trying to get incremental tweaks, squeeze more information, out of a very common-sense, statistically valid idea: If you are job-dissatisfied and you have an alternative place to go, you have a high likelihood of voluntarily leaving. And to me it was very frustrating. So I thought about it and I thought about it. And then in 1990 I got tenure, and I thought, ‘Gosh, this is a good time to take a chance.’ ”

Around the same time, the field’s methodology was being transformed by a new tool called “meta-analysis”—a way of synthesizing the results of multiple studies in order to get a highly accurate sense of the relationship between two variables. “We did meta-analyses on things like job satisfaction and turnover, and the relationships were awful,” Mitchell says. Knowing how satisfied an ex-employee had been with a job, they learned, gave them roughly a one-in-10 chance of knowing why that person had left.