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Resignations and Employment Relationships — I Quit?

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I’ve been reflecting on the complex dynamics of employment relationships (ER) — let’s call them ERs because of the acronym’s somewhat appropriate onomatopoeia — and what it means when an employee resigns without giving notice.

i-quit-note-smallERs are tricky things, without a doubt. They are usually initially awkward, in that most ERs begin with a stranger needing to get to know others — at a more than leisurely pace — at least well enough to work toward common goals and outcomes.

An ER, unlike most relationships, is a legal relationship. It shares a latent litigiousness with two other common types of relationship: that between a client/customer and supplier; and, ironically, a marriage. Like the former but unlike the latter, an ER involves an exchange of money — although, well…no, let’s not go there.

Finally they are perilously unequal, though the inequality goes both ways, which many an employer may deny. Each party has what the other doesn’t — money on the one hand and skill, labour and attributes on the other.

ERs, if I may be as bold as to generalise, are an accident waiting to happen. They are deeply co-dependent, treacherously uncertain and whomever came up with the concept should be — or should have been — severely chastised and punished.

Having indulged myself in pragmatic scepticism, I should say I have been party to numerous (by a fair estimation, several dozen) ERs in my time. Albeit that I have only been in the so-thought less dominant role of employee three times, I have neither suffered nor, as far as I am aware inflicted, much if any ill effect.

By now, if you have read this far, you will have realised we are entering a veritable quagmire of complexity. As this is a blog post, not a thesis or doctorate, I should get to the point.

Why do employees quit and say see ya, I’m out of here right now — without working out the “legally” agreed notice time?

I’m not a lawyer, so I’m not offering a legal opinion. Nor am I, as I said, writing a thesis or doctorate, so I’m not citing research. Though I will allude to research I’ve read. If you want to verify it, Google is but a click away.

What I do offer is observation, experience and opinion: In short, the problem lies not with the E, but with the R.

We refer mostly to the E. We talk Employment, Employer and Employee. Seldom do we refer to the R: Relationship. But I’ve read about research that found that our overwhelming drive to work is social, not functional. So in any ER it’s the Relationship, not the Employment, that is crucial.

I also remember reading a blog post citing research findings that, when it came to job satisfaction, “acknowledgement” was what employees consider the most important. That’s another relationship-based need. In my experience, empathy, flexibility, appreciation, trustworthiness (competency, reliability and honesty), humour and well-boundaried but fun social interaction goes a long way to providing that acknowledgement.

When employees leave without giving notice, the ER has gone wrong. They need to leave quickly, I would proffer, because they have a strong discomfort with people or a particular person within the organisation, not the work they were employed to do. In my experience the discomfort usually builds over time, but can also be triggered quickly by a significant negative incident.

The lenses of leadership, diversity, complexity and change offer insight into how to minimise resignations without notice (RWNs) and enhance ERs and organisational culture. Capacity and clear intent in these four areas underlie the culture of any organisation.

Leadership

In my experience fair, transparent and generous leadership is crucial to maintaining healthy ERs. Not only from the top but also from throughout the organisation, leaders set the tone and guide the interaction between people and teams. When things go wrong and people leave, those in roles of leadership can only look to themselves, not to the resigning employee, and take responsibility for finding out where the cultural cracks are that caused the unresolvable conflict.

Leaders also need to be aware of the reciprocity of ERs, as I mentioned before. The attitude that “no one is irreplaceable” can very easily lead to an arrogance that values functions over people. A more useful attitude, which I keep in the front of my mind as an employer, is that people are, in fact, irreplaceable. It is jobs and their functions that are not irreplaceable. I have often applied flexibility to jobs because I place higher value on individuals than on a functional detail.

Diversity

I notice many organisations have a very narrow view of what diversity is. Usually it begins with acknowledging gender and ethnicity but, for the most part, stops there. Sexuality, age and religion may get a look in, but disability probably won’t, nor will more uncommon issues like transgenderism.

These issues and labels are not the true nature of diversity, as I’ve written about so many times before. They are mere categories that organisations choose either to represent or ignore. They may be the cause of conflict in ERs, but I think there are more subtle dynamics at play.

Differences in personal style, strengths, weaknesses, values and core beliefs are far more likely to create ER rifts, particularly if the organisational culture places more value on commonality than uniqueness. The unspoken “this is the way we do things around here” will soon marginalise anyone who doesn’t fit the cultural mould, eroding the ER.

Complexity

Relationships are neither simple nor complicated — they are complex. They are never-endingly dynamic and uncertain. They need constant nurture and attention.

My observation is that few organisations put time and value on relationship maintenance, particularly amongst groups. Meetings are only about work (Employment) and seldom about the people working (Relationships).

The organisations I’ve worked with over the years with the best cultures and ERs build regular personal sharing into meeting times and value social interaction outside of work.

Change

They say the only constant is change, yet most believe it happens only when intended. “Let’s change this, that or the other system, structure or procedure,” they say, “and, what’s more, let’s manage the change.”

No offence to any change managers reading, but managing change is like instructing the wind to blow in a certain direction. It’s futile. Whether it is intentional or the organic result of the passage of time, change needs to be acknowledged, observed and negotiated.

Responses to intentional or organic change will vary from individual to individual and from team to team. These responses need to be valued and respected, particularly the response that differs from the majority. Careful communication is needed to work through fears, disagreements and misunderstandings.

Conclusion

I am not naïve enough to believe RWNs can be eliminated. There will always be circumstances in which employees will choose to resign and leave immediately.

However, I do think RWNs are an important indicator of the healthiness of ERs and organisational culture. Anyone in a leadership position who dismisses it as the fault of the employee does so at their own — and their organisation’s — peril.

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Philip Patston began his career 25 years ago as a counsellor and social worker, and he is the founder of  DiversityNZ. Philip lives in New Zealand and is recognised locally and overseas as a social and creative entrepreneur with fifteen years’ experience as a professional, award-winning comedian. His passion is working with people when they want to explore and extend how they think about leadership, diversity, complexity and change.

          
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