The Great Resignation: Reality or myth?

September 16, 2021 5:23 pm
Jill Geisler

Whenever I hear about trends with catchy names — even those that intuitively ring true to me — I do a little fact-checking. My latest probe: The “Great Resignation.”

I regret to tell my friends in leadership and management that the “Great Resignation” isn’t based on random anecdotes strung together and dubbed a phenomenon. There’s plenty of painful evidence to prove it is the real deal.

Signs of the “Great Resignation”

People are quitting their jobs in startlingly high numbers. A U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report says nearly 4 million Americans quit their jobs in June this year — a huge jump over last year.[1]

And a Gallup analysis says up to 48% — you read that right — 48% of workers are either looking for a new job or actively considering it.[2]

Managers, that’s a challenge.

What’s driving it

Some of it is pent-up demand for change. That’s the view of Anthony Klotz, a business school professor from Texas A&M who not only coined the “Great Resignation” term, he also predicted its arrival. Klotz saw that employees were sheltering in place during the pandemic, choosing not to leave jobs during such an uncertain time. Whether they loved their work or not, they weren’t about to risk their incomes or health insurance to make a switch.[3]

It makes sense that, as we began to see signs of pandemic recovery, people who were already itching for new challenges felt more empowered to make their moves. But so many more things happened during the pandemic that affected workers as never before. For example, employees:

  • Worked from home and discovered they liked it.
  • Recaptured time they would have spent commuting.
  • Helped educate their children in the safety of their homes.
  • Saved money they would have otherwise spent on vacations and dining out.
  • Experienced loss and grief.
  • Missed being with their extended families when COVID restrictions prohibited visits.
  • Learned new skills via online classes.
  • Kept greater distance from unpopular managers or irritating colleagues.
  • Thought about their futures and what really mattered to them going forward.

Any of these experiences may cause people to rethink their current jobs and ask themselves questions. Is my work truly rewarding? Could I do better? What are the economic consequences of a change? Should I work less and spend more time with family? Could I earn more and do a job I love?

Employees may also be reassessing you, their manager, and the culture over which you preside.

What leaders can do

Let’s assume that if you’re a leader reading this column, you’re among the “good ones.” You’re a continuous learner who cares about quality leadership and workplaces. Here are seven steps you can take right now to lessen the impact of the “Great Resignation” on your organization.

1.      Go on a listening tour. Let people know their input matters in this time of reassessment. Talk about their work satisfaction, their challenges and their aspirations.

2.      Be as flexible as you can when it comes to work arrangements, while still meeting reasonable standards for quality, productivity and service.

3.      Make workplace safety paramount as the delta variant continues to bedevil us. Advocate for and enforce COVID protocols to minimize peoples’ fear that their job may sicken or even kill them.

4.      Be especially sensitive to the abuse your customer-facing team may be enduring. Too often today, complaints about delays or errors escalate into ugly invective — whether it’s in a cafeteria, call center or helpline. Let your team know that the customer isn’t always right when they’re abusive, and create protocols for backup and de-escalation, even to the point of severing a business relationship with a bad actor or actress.

5.      Have a plan for each person you lead. The more valuable they are for their skill set, institutional knowledge, initiative, reliability and collegiality, the more you need to focus on retaining them. If they leave, you not only will have a hard time finding another such gem, but their departure can be a blow for overall morale.

6.      Assume that everyone on your team takes a moment to look at their own situation when other staffers move on — whether for the best or worst of reasons. Am I ambitious enough? Could I land a cool job like that? Is my job in any jeopardy? Work the room. Talk to people, so you can hear some dreams and allay some fears.

7.      Have a pipeline of potential hires. Today, good managers should assume that their people work with one eye on the door. They aren’t disloyal; they’re pragmatic. In a world that rarely promises people a job for life, or even routine raises, why would we think they should lock themselves in? Your best efforts might not be a match for a dream job elsewhere or a retirement accelerated by pandemic lessons. But your pipeline can keep you from lengthy gaps or hasty hires.

Turning the “Great Resignation” into a great opportunity

Finally, think of this as a moment for you and your fellow leaders to strategize on how to become – or remain – an “employer of choice.” What story can you and your employees tell with sincerity and specificity about your organizational culture, your pandemic learnings and your diversity, equity and inclusion in staffing. How about your pay, promotions and protocols?

Yes, even great workplaces see turnover. Some staff will leave to pursue a bright new challenge or take a well-deserved rest. But if they’ve left an “employer of choice,” they often will serve as some of your best recruiters — and help you turn a loss into a gain.


[1] “Job openings and labor turnover summary,” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Aug. 9, 2021, and “Quits levels and rates by industry and region, seasonally adjusted,” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Aug. 9, 2021.

[2] Gandhi, V. and Robison, J., “The ‘Great Resignation’ is really the ‘Great Discontent,’” Gallup.com, July 22, 2021.  

[3] “Anthony Klotz on defining the Great Resignation,” theversemedia.com.


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