How to Reduce Employee Turnover? 3 Academic Models to Learn and Steal From

Employee turnover is costly. Three academic models share strategies for reducing employee turnover inside your small or mid-size business.


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Employee turnover is a costly proposition for business. In a plentiful applicant market, replacing staff can be lengthy and expensive. In a tight applicant market it can have devastating effects on productivity and profit.

Creating an environment where staff is engaged with their company, work and peers is achievable. Some established motivational (and de-motivational) models can help reduce turnover and even engage and inspire staff.

Herzberg’s Motivation-Hygiene Theory or Dual-Factor Theory

Published in the 1960s, Frederick Herzberg’s “The Motivation-Hygiene Concept and Problems of Manpower” asked employees to describe periods in their life when they were happy or unhappy at work. The interview data collected led Herzberg to posit two main factors lead to job satisfaction:

Motivators: motivating factors include work that challenges, recognition for achievement, involvement in the decision making process, the ability to find meaning in one’s work and personal growth. These are all positive factors.

Hygiene: or maintenance factors, include salary, benefits, job security, status individual to the worker and business as well as overall business practices like company policies and management practices. While these maintenance items don’t provide positive satisfaction, their absence leads to dissatisfaction. Herzberg referred to these maintenance/hygiene factors as “KITA” factors (kick in the as**) meaning they either provide incentives or threaten punishment.

Under these Herzberg created four categories of employees:

  1. High Hygiene and High Motivation: Employees have few complaints and are highly motivated
  2. High Hygiene and Low Motivation: Employees have few complaints but they are not highly motivated. For them, the job is simply a means to get paid.
  3. Low Hygiene and High Motivation: Motivated employees have many complaints. They may love the work and its challenges but the company conditions are sub-optimal.
  4. Low Hygiene and Low Motivation: Non-motivated employees who have many complaints about their work environment.

Employee turnover prevention strategy

Organizations may use Herberg’s motivation and hygiene factors to find areas for improvement. Anonymous surveys can help determine satisfaction with the hygiene aspects. Managers can then assess and assign employees to one of the four categories. Of these, only the high hygiene/motivation category could be considered low risk for turnover. The remaining areas will require work to retain and engage staff.

Decreasing Turnover Using the Herzberg Model

Once employees have been identified and categorized under the model, proactive steps will need to be taken. Organizations will want to identify which employees pose the highest risk for flight and address their specific needs quickly to reduce churn.

In addition to improving KITA issues, like wages and benefits, providing all employees with a stronger voice in the company and revamping reward and recognition programing can address motivation factors that drive individual engagement and commitment. If organizations can address both the hygiene and motivational aspects, turnover should decrease.

McClelland’s Human Motivation Theory

David McClelland’s 1961 book, “The Achieving Society” identified three motivators he believed are intrinsic to humanity: the need for achievement, power and affiliation. He theorized each of us has all these traits, but one will be dominant. By identifying the dominant trait for individuals, he suggests, business can set goals, provide feedback, and find the best way to motivate and reward.

Achievement Dominance

These workers need to set and accomplish goals that are challenging. They make take some risk, but typically it’s calculated to attain their objectives. They enjoy regular feedback on their achievements and progress, but generally prefer to work alone or independently.

Affiliation Dominance

These staff members want to be part of a team. They want to be liked by everyone ad will typically go along with whatever the group wants to do. They prefer to collaborate rather than compete, and don’t like high risks or uncertain outcomes.

Power Dominance

These are leaders who control and influence their peers. They are competitive and like to win, even arguments. They look for recognition and status.

Employee turnover prevention strategy

Once you’ve identified the dominant trait in each employee, managers can set goals and provide feedback and rewards that capitalize on the way the employee likes to work and be perceived.

For achievement dominant staff members, provide challenging projects that are attainable. These employees are problem solvers; they thrive creating solutions. They may work best on their own, but can easily be paired with other high achievers.  When offering feedback, they want the truth unvarnished. They look for recognition of what they’ve accomplished as well as ways to improve.

For affiliation dominant staff members, integrate them into a team if possible and provide them with low-risk work. They don’t thrive well with uncertainty. They prefer balanced feedback, but are more open to correction that’s tempered with emphasis on their best traits. These are workers who are embarrassed being singled out, even for praise, in front of others. They want to be recognized, but privately if possible.

Employees whose dominant trait is power work best when they’re at the helm. They thrive on competition and do well with projects and goal-oriented tasks. They are influencers, and can easily convince others. These workers want direct feedback: they know their strengths and value. Keeping them engaged may require continuous challenges that include advancing their own career aspirations.

Decreasing Turnover Using the McClelland Model

This model creates specific ways to work with staff to assure their job satisfaction as well as their happiness with the organization overall. Managers will need to identify the supervisory tactics that ‘push the right buttons’ to keep these employees on staff and engaged. It can be tricky: larger groups may have a variety of personalities to deal with. These managers may need advice and assistance to meet individual needs in a diverse group.

Job Coupling

A publication by the African Journal of Business Management outlines Job Coupling as a retention strategy. This model includes two dimensions: “on-job-coupling” and “off-job-coupling.” They delineate three factors, linkage, fitness and sacrifice as key determinants in the reduction of turnover.

Linkage describes the informal and formal connections employees have with their organization and its people. These threads connect the staff member and their family to the organization with financial dependence, social networks, even psychological connections. These can include work and non-work friends, groups, communities as well as the physical work environment. The theory suggests the more linkages an employee holds, the more they are “bound” to the organization.

Fitness outlines how an employee perceives their own compatibility with the organization. Are their own personal goals and plans aligned with the culture of the business? Do their skills align well with the needs and demands of their position within the organization? Additionally, fitness measures their affiliation with others within their work group and community. The theory suggests employees who find fitness within the organization will show higher job satisfaction and reduced inclination to leave.

Sacrifice describes the price the employee would pay, financially, socially, career-wise and psychologically, if they left the organization. This could include more than their paycheck. Seniority that offers a wider benefits profile, being on track for promotion, or losing personal relationships and networks could be determining factors. The theory suggests the more sacrifices they would have to make; the less likely they may be to leave.

Employee turnover prevention strategy

Using this model to prevent turnover, business could look to provide staff with more opportunities to make deeper, more meaningful connections with the work and their colleagues. These linkages can help employees feel more allied with the organization, rather than being just another nameless employee. Are staff members part of the larger community, for example? Does their work include outreach opportunities or chances to provide volunteer services or work? They may participate in employee resource committees that add yet another link to the organization and its staff members. Providing as many chances to interweave the employee’s personal goals and aspirations with the organization’s can be key to stave off the desire to leave.

The fitness aspect may be closely akin to today’s employee desire for work/life integration. Employees who believe in their company’s corporate mission and social responsibility are better able to align their own beliefs to the work they’re performing. On a day-to-day basis, business will want to assure staff members are challenged, but not frustrated, by the work they perform. In the longer term, advancement should closely align with the employee’s own career objectives, and milestones should be set and met to assure the career trajectory is on track

Sacrifice may suggest putting employees in a position where they cannot financially or psychologically afford to leave, by providing wages or benefits that could be challenging to match in the marketplace. This may be a strategy that retains but it may be detrimental to engagement and commitment.

Decreasing turnover Using Job Coupling

The job coupling model suggests both the carrot and the stick are significant in retention strategies. Managers can work to develop more linkages and threads within and outside the organization that provide workers and opportunity to build alliances and networks. Professional associations, licensing and certifications can all be leveraged to enhance these. Assessment of each employee’s ability to perform their work successfully should be ongoing: but relationships and corporate social responsibility may be integral for employee retention.

As your organization works to reduce attrition, some or all aspects of these models may help increase engagement and longevity in staff members. A commitment to meeting the needs of staff members, in the work they do, the connections they have and the pride they have for their organization is key to retaining top talent.

This article is intended only for informational purposes. It is not a substitute for legal consultation. While we attempt to keep the information covered timely and accurate, laws and regulations are subject to change.


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