All Articles Leadership Management What can one manager do about the Great Resignation?

What can one manager do about the Great Resignation?

The Great Resignation isn't about lazy people avoiding work, which offers hope to leaders looking to keep their people and survive this difficult era of work.

8 min read


What can one manager do about the Great Resignation?

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The Great Resignation is sometimes portrayed as a rebellion of entitlement or laziness, especially as US labor participation remains below pre-pandemic levels and companies across sectors struggle with hiring and retention.

But recent months suggest that attitude and negative incentives aren’t the only factors. After all, extended federal unemployment benefits and the federal eviction moratorium have both expired, and yet the immediate impact on job-seeking appeared to be minimal.

And even if you discount those factors and say, “Well, employees have more leverage right now,” you’d think companies could simply raise wages or offer somewhat better benefits. But while higher wages are probably having some effect, they don’t seem to be enough.

Here’s the good news, at least for SmartBrief on Leadership readers: If the problem was lazy, entitled workers, there wouldn’t be much point in trying to be a better leader and manager. Command-and-control would once again be king, if not something more punitive.

So let’s operate as if the Great Resignation isn’t just people quitting and sitting at home. Thankfully, there is at least some evidence for alternative explanations. For example:

  • Public-facing, low-paying jobs are being disproportionately affected, largely because of COVID-19’s continued threat.
  • Quits rates are at record levels, but 2019’s quits rate was already near a 20-year high
  • There are fewer workers — permanently — because older boomers are retiring, whether by choice or because they were let go.
  • There are fewer workers — temporarily — because married people are holding off, preferring to rely on one income and reduce their worries about COVID-19, child care costs, and so forth. 
  • There are fewer workers — temporarily and maybe permanently — because people are starting their own businesses at higher rates.
  • People who shifted to remote work because of COVID-19 don’t necessarily want that life forever, but they don’t want a blanket return to the worksites, commutes, benefits and structures of February 2020.

People are leaving jobs they already didn’t like

As Jack Kelly of Forbes writes:

“Roughly 40% of the jobs that people quit were in the restaurant, hotel, travel, bars, warehouses, manufacturing and healthcare sectors. These folks contend with long, constantly changing hours, rude customer behaviors, low wages and high stress.”

These industries are admittedly grappling with a lot, as the pandemic caused direct, long-term harm even before they had to worry about staffing. But note even though these businesses are complaining about workers, they aren’t sitting around doing nothing. If they want to stay open, they need to adapt. Manufacturing is just one industry aggressively trying to source workers.

Meanwhile, the quits rate is not just about lower-wage or lower-skills jobs. Coveted “digital talent” is looking to job-hop for better opportunities — and they’re generally staying within the same industry, according to Boston Consulting Group. Those quits aren’t a protest against work — they’re people exercising their leverage.

People with options are exercising them

Speaking of leverage, a Barclays analysis suggests that the decline in US workforce participation can be entirely explained by married people staying home

Did married people suddenly embrace one-income families? A few, sure. But many more of these married folks have a financial cushion and have reasonable worries about COVID-19, child care and other issues. 

Another reason fewer workers are available for established businesses is because new-business startups have increased over the past couple of years, whether you look at federal tax ID data, sellers on Etsy or users on Upwork and similar job platforms. Again, some of these entrepreneurs were forced into the role by job loss, but surely not all of them.

People on the outside, but not necessarily by choice

This is a category that presents huge short- and long-term implications for employers and leaders, although the fixes are not necessarily solvable by companies alone. 

For example, caregivers unusually stressed and pessimistic, as a Boston Consulting Group survey recently found. And that’s not just in the US — German and Japanese caregivers who work are also increasingly worried about their well-being, job performance and their career prospects.

So, you’ve got millions of prime-age working people who are opting out or operating at half-speed, and they have legitimate responsibilities that supersede work.

Another group that’s exiting the workforce, not always voluntarily, is boomer-age retirees. Many of them were forced into their current situation by layoffs or underemployment, but regardless, they are a huge chunk of the workforce that’s no longer showing up to work. 

COVID-19 spurred older workers (55+) to retire, which is not in line with other recent recessions, Pew Research Center reports. Those workers (probably) aren’t coming back, and considering older workers’ routine stories of ageism, it’s not clear many employers are seeking 55-and-older staff. 

As Kelly writes:

“Ageism takes a toll. Hiring managers presume that the older workers don’t possess the current tech skills. They also falsely believe that workers of a certain vintage will not get along with the younger generations and try to take control.”

What does this mean for you?

Our official position at SmartBrief on Leadership is that people want to do right by others and want to improve themselves along the way. We also acknowledge that good intentions aren’t sufficient — good processes and the ability to learn from trial and error are also key qualities for leaders. And third, people’s initial failures are rarely because of poor morals, effort or grit. And so a deeper understanding of the shortcomings must be obtained.

To that last point, if you’re struggling to hire or retain people, you’re not condemned. And the game isn’t over. So what can you do?

You can’t enact policy changes on workplace conditions or caregiving, and you can’t wipe away the pandemic by yourself. But at the simple level of a manager with a team, you have a responsibility to do better for your employees. Many of them are unhappy, or at least dissatisfied. They’re looking for work to be a part of their lives, not the dominant force that impedes everything else. And, frankly, if they are less exhausted and stressed, they can probably give you more productivity without as many hours — at least in some situations.

So, here are a few things you and I can do as managers:

  • Train your people. This applies to onboarding and going forward, and especially for new-manager onboarding. Hopefully, this runs through an organization-wide initiative, but if not, be the knowledge base your people need, and encourage them to do the same for others
  • Talk with your people, listen, and ask more questions. You can’t address all their problems, but you can figure out how to help each individual — and get some problem-solving tips from them, too
  • Keep striving to communicate better. This is a job that’s never done, and communication isn’t any easier when you’re stressed, overworked or trying to manage several communication platforms and locations
  • If you lose people, don’t lash out. Departures can snowball, especially if the remaining employees feel they are on a sinking ship. Instead, embrace the people who remain and help them grow. 
  • Look for the opportunity in the problem. This is a time to try new things, to learn the hard truths about what your organization does best and what it could do better. Dare to ask, “Why do people like being here?” And if you can’t find an answer, well, all the more reason to change.

That being said, this “opportunity” comes out of tremendous loss, stress and pressure. And while none of these challenges is impossible, the journey will be very difficult. There’s no sugarcoating that. 

But that’s how work is today — you can’t set and forget strategy, you can’t place a moratorium on technology purchases, you can’t defer compliance, you can’t look at birth rates and retirement rates and expect recruiting to be easy. And so it is with retention and employee engagement. 

The good news, again, is that you aren’t dealing with nothing but lazy and indolent people. Good managers, good cultures and thoughtful, malleable and repeatable workforce management policies will give your organization — or even just your team — a fighting chance of getting through this.

As I wrote in April: “The problem of fixing work isn’t going anywhere. That is your ultimate challenge, not where you clock in.” Start today, and make it better than yesterday. Repeat, repeat and repeat again.


James daSilva is the longtime editor of SmartBrief’s leadership newsletter and blog content. Contact him at @James_daSilva or by email.