To Quit or Not to Quit?

黃健輝 | CHENG, Cecilia

Deciding to leave a job and actually leaving it are not the same thing. Whether the intention to quit translates into real turnover behavior—known as the turnover intention–behavior link—is strongly affected by cultural values, find HKUST researcher Kin Fai Ellick Wong and a colleague. Their research answers a question that has long plagued organizations: if employees are happy with their jobs, why do some leave?

When employees leave their organizations, they first form the intention to quit (turnover intention) and then take the plunge (turnover behavior). Simple as this process may seem, say the researchers, “turnover intention is not necessarily a reliable predictor of turnover behaviour.” After all, they remind us, “a hypothetical intention is less important than an actual turnover decision.” Employees who plan to quit may realize that the risks outweigh the benefits when the time comes to leave.

Further complicating the link between turnover intention and behavior, write the researchers, “many employees leave their organizations for reasons other than feeling dissatisfied or having better job alternatives elsewhere.” Shocks such as pregnancy or spousal relocation may force their hand. In other cases, employees who feel closely connected to their organizations may stay “despite feeling dissatisfied and intending to leave.”  

Despite this complexity, we still know little about the factors that influence the conversion of turnover intention into actual turnover behavior. “Research has overlooked what is probably one of the most important factors,” the authors tell us, “namely cultural values.” As cultural values reflect the wider, enduring beliefs and perceptions of a society or region, they have a big part to play when individuals make life-changing decisions—such as quitting a job. “There is an emerging need for a cross-cultural and multilevel understanding of voluntary employee turnover,” write the researchers.

Rising to this challenge, they analyzed data on more than 200,000 employees from 18 nations worldwide. “Employees from countries with diverse cultural values are likely to behave differently,” they found, “including when making actual turnover decisions.” In individualistic countries such as the U.K., the cultural value ascribed to assertiveness encouraged employees to follow through on their decision to quit. However, the link between turnover intention and behavior was strongest in countries with large imbalances in power, such as China and Malaysia, “presumably because employees tend to refrain from expressing their job dissatisfaction to their superiors.”

These findings have crucial implications for human resources managers seeking to avoid the tremendous costs associated with employee turnover. “The problem can be tackled in part by adaptation to specific cultural values,” say the researchers. In countries in which power is unevenly distributed, managers should provide “more channels for employees to air unfavourable job attitudes or grievances.” In cultures that prioritize communal goals, building a collaborative and supportive work environment can help to retain talented staff. Above all, the researchers stress, “managers must sharpen their cultural awareness.” It is difficult to imagine more timely advice in the ever more connected and diverse world of business.


Associate Professor