Overcoming the “I Quit” Culture: Why Are Employees Still Leaving in Record Numbers?

When you think of the employee experience and organizational culture, it's likely the first thought concerns things like improving the employee lifecycle or the employee journey through pay, benefits, work design, and experience of their leaders. It's not likely about the subtle and not-so-subtle conflict between generations. Yet, the multigenerational workforce is experiencing new gaps growing wider as time passes. One is the gap between Millennials and Gen Z and senior management, who are mostly Baby Boomers. Another is the gap between Millennials and Gen Z. The gaps are communication gaps and gaps in expectations of work, the workplace, and organizational culture. These gaps are contributing to the "I quit" culture and the continued Great Resignation

Why are Employees Ending Their Employee Journeys? 

The Hinge Research Institute conducted a study to help pinpoint why one in five employees changed jobs or quit in the prior year. Most of the employees were in the mid-career of their employee lifecycle. The eye-opening results uncovered a wide gap between senior management's perspective on the corporate culture and the perspective of mid-career employees, mostly Millennials.   

For the study, many mid-career millennials were in manager, supervisor, and project lead positions. Leadership positions were directors, senior directors, partners, and vice presidents. Senior executives were C-suite level, president, managing partner, founder, and principal positions. Following are some of the revealing results of the study.  

  • 24.7 percent were satisfied with the current company culture, and 32.5 percent were dissatisfied 
  • 48.1 percent of mid-career employees were dissatisfied with the company culture compared to 10.3 percent of senior executives 
  • 94.4 percent of employees dissatisfied with the company culture are actively seeking another job 
  • 51.2 percent of employees on the fence about the company culture are passively seeking another job 
  • 58.3 percent quit their jobs because they were frustrated with the leadership 
  • 53.3 percent quit their jobs because they wanted a better company culture 

Some of the other reasons employees switched or quit their jobs included work was unfulfilling (45 percent); wanted better work-life balance (36.7 percent); wanted a higher salary (36.7 percent); and didn't like co-workers or there was a non-collaborative team environment (30 percent). 

The employees who were dissatisfied with the culture said they were not treated with respect by peers (89 percent); were not comfortable sharing thoughts with leadership (88 percent); were not getting the experience to grow a career (84 percent); couldn't be their self at work (83 percent); found lack of transparency in leadership (79 percent); and believe there is unequal treatment of people of different genders, religions, and races (78 percent). A full 67 percent said they don't get adequate training.   

There are plenty of other surveys that support the Hinge findings. For example, LinkedIn's Global Talent Trends Report found that job seekers view almost twice as many job posts before applying, and the ones mentioning culture get more likes, shares, and comments. People are focused on flexibility and wellbeing and want to work in a human-centered company culture.  

An IBM study found that four out of five executives believed they were supporting the physical and emotional health of their workforce. Only half of the employees agreed. "To compete in a future defined by disruption and created by crisis, executives need to engage what's known as emotional intelligence or their emotional quotient (EQ)."  

Are Millennials and Gen Z at Odds with Each Other? 

There are differences between Millennials and Gen Z. For example, flexibility is an employee engagement strategy for younger employees, and Generation Z has specific ideas as to what flexibility and the employee experience mean in the "I quit" culture. In the Global Talent Trends Report mentioned earlier, the difference in engagement on a company post mentioning flexibility relative to the average company post was 77 percent for Generation Z and 30 percent for Millennials. In the same study, 66 percent of Gen Z wanted an organizational culture built on mental health and wellness, and 51 percent of Millennials wanted it.  

The oldest Millennials are now 37 years old, and they have moved into leadership positions. As Gen Z becomes a larger portion of the workforce, they are rapidly bringing their unique perspectives about organizational culture and the role of leadership into the workplace. Gen Z is even more activist than Millennials, so many are pursuing unionization and demanding organizational social, and not just environmental, responsibility. They are conscious consumers who deeply care about what their work produces. The global 2021 Multigenerational Workforce Study reports the following about Gen Z.  

  • 91 percent of Gen Z want their careers to have a social impact 
  • Their ideal working environment is positive, safe, friendly, supportive, diverse, transparent, relaxed, fun, and inclusive. 
  • They want leaders who are empowering, inclusive, supportive, open-minded, caring, role models, and accept criticism. 
  • 72 percent believe it will be challenging to work with and be managed by people from different generations, including Baby Boomers, Gen X, and Millennials 
  • 54 percent prefer a Millennial manager  
  • Biggest concerns about the workplace and their jobs include lack of purpose and respect, inability to drive impact, resistance to change, stereotypes, different mindsets of older generations, hierarchy, communication, cultural insensitivity, close-mindedness, old-school vs. new age misunderstandings. 
  • 70 percent say there are frequent conflicts due to a lack of understanding between generations 

Notice that Gen Z is very focused on organizational culture and leadership styles. The "I quit" culture for Gen Z is one in which leadership doesn't have soft skills, and the organization is not human-centered

i quit culture

Are Younger Generations at Odds with Older Management? 

toxic culture impacts all generations of workers. No company wants a toxic culture, but it can develop through leadership negligence. A toxic workplace is one in which employees don't have a voice, work for managers who violate their trust, can't achieve work-life balance because of work rules, aren't recognized or rewarded, and can't participate in an internal mobility process. Employees are second to customers. There is poor communication throughout the employee experience.  

The global 2021 Multigenerational Workforce Study found that 68 percent of Gen Z surveyed think Baby Boomers will be the most challenging to work with. The number goes up to 80 percent if employed. They believe Baby Boomers don't understand technology, are old-fashioned and resistant to change, elitist, and hierarchal. The number one challenges they face in the workplace are: 

  • Not being heard (lack of employee voice
  • Being underestimated 
  • Being labeled 
  • Not being able to drive positive change 

Millennials are sometimes at odds with Baby Boomers. The Multigenerational Study found that only 57 percent of Baby Boomers believe having four generations (Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, Gen Z) in the workplace makes it more productive. Millennials find the challenges in the workplace to be: 

  • Too many older generations occupying senior roles 
  • Outdated rules and procedures 
  • Lack of experience 
  • Office politics 
  • Being paid based on experience and not expertise 

Rachele Focardi conducted a lot of interviews for the book Reframing Generational Stereotypes. She quotes Mark, an executive, who says this about Gen Z, "They do not listen to us. They don't seem to appreciate the importance of life-long experience. They believe our ideas are out-of-date. They can come in quite strong with new ideas that are value-driven but often lack depth, yet they won't take no for an answer." 

Focardi says Millennials are also intimidated by Gen Z due to "Gen Z's confidence, ability to learn quickly, and ease with which they navigate new technologies…" Millennials fear it will be difficult to keep up. Millennials in mid-management are also worried that Gen Z will step into leadership roles much faster, interfering with their career plans.  

A study by Olivet Nazarene University on the relationship between Millennials and Baby Boomers found that 91 percent of Millennials believe Baby Boomers are loyal to their employers, and 60 percent of Baby Boomers believe that about Millennials. The reality is that 84 percent of Millennials and 75 percent of Baby Boomers are willing to quit their jobs. The reasons for joining the "I quit" culture are very similar. 

  • To make more money – Gen Y (38%), Boomer (29%) 
  • To advance career – Gen Y (28%), Boomer (30%) 
  • To escape a toxic work environment – Gen Y (20%), Boomer (27%) 
  • To find passion-driven work – Gen Y(11%), Boomer (9%) 

Thirty (3) percent of Millennials believe they are held back by an older leader, and 25 percent have quit their jobs because of an older manager or colleagues. Thirty-six (36) percent of Millennials say they quit because of a Millennial leader.  

Strategies for Moving from "I quit" to "I stay" 

In reading all these statistics, it might seem as if Gen Z is mostly at the heart of the "I quit" culture, but it is generational differences between all the generations that are creating a challenging work environment. For your leaders, the challenge is developing a respectful human-centered culture in which differences are leveraged and celebrated, and all employees have a strong voice.   

How can your leaders change the "I Quit" Culture? It's not as difficult as you might think to begin. The Hinge Research Institute study found that employees want their employee experience to include more human interactions. This is not surprising after a two-year pandemic in which so many employees worked remotely and were cut off from in-person interactions on a formal and informal basis. Though Zoom meetings were needed, they can't fully replace face-to-face meetings, proverbial watercooler conversations, stop by someone's desk interactions, and social gatherings.  

Following are eight ideas for changing the "I quit" culture to the "I stay" culture. 

Need some help turning "I quit" culture into "I stay" culture?

We're here to help you solve your unique needs. Our team of experts can help you implement the strategy that works best for your organization.

Think human interactions 

Hinge found that 40.9 percent of employees want in-person work-related social events. Coming in second was the availability of company performance metrics (31.6 percent), and third was reinforcing the company core values (31.6 percent). There were many other preferences listed, and a number of them involved human interactions, like weekly status meetings; a diversity, equity, and inclusion program; and free access to a mental health expert. Also important were employee shout-outs and notes of gratitude, a feedback portal, and a corporate social responsibility program.  

Add as many socialization opportunities as possible and make sense. For remote workers who can't visit the office periodically, conduct virtual social events. They include virtual happy hours, online team events, and virtual retreats.  

Leaders should assess their own wellbeing and perspectives 

Senior leaders need to assess the state of their own wellbeing. It's difficult to fully care about others when personally not in a state of wellbeing. A Deloitte survey of C-suite executives in four countries found that 70 percent of the executives were seriously considering joining the "I quit" culture to find jobs that enabled them to support their own wellbeing. Executives have issues with things like work-life balance, fatigue, poor mental health, feeling overwhelmed, loneliness, and depression.  

At the same time, C-suite executives underestimate how much employees are struggling with wellbeing. For example, 89 percent of executives believed employees were satisfied with their physical wellbeing, while only 65 percent of employees said the same. Eight-four (84) percent of executives believe employees have mental wellbeing, while 59 percent of employees said so. A big gap between how employees see executive concern about their wellbeing and how executives think their employees believe they care was revealed too: 91 percent of C-suite and 56 percent of employees. 

Address employee holistic wellbeing by asking 

The perspective of many employees changed during the pandemic. They became more focused on holistic wellbeing. Offering new benefits and higher compensation with no other organizational changes is not enough. The Deloitte survey found that 68 percent of employees said improving wellbeing is more important than career advancement.   

Ask employees what is important to them, and determine what is possible. It could be a four-day workweek, hybrid work week, flexible work arrangements, adding support services, revising workflows, and/or increasing training. You can ask in many ways, including conducting employee surveys and at meetings.   

Add more dialogue opportunities. Executives and employees should have regular conversations about wellbeing. Storytelling about the wellbeing or lack of that employee experience is important because it adds an honest and transparent element to the dialogue.  

Recognize the focus of younger generations is already changed  

Recognize that Millennial and Gen Z leaders and executives are already prioritizing wellbeing and work-life balance. The Deloitte survey found that 88 percent of Millennials and Gen Z executives have taken steps to help employees disconnect compared to 65 percent of Baby Boomers. Ninety (90) percent of younger leaders are increasing their focus on wellbeing benefits, and 71 percent take breaks during the workweek, compared to Baby Boomers at 54 percent and 53 percent, respectively. Baby Boomer leaders can utilize the younger leaders as role models.   

Train your leaders in what flexibility really means and focus on results 

Leadership training remains critical. The pandemic hit quickly and unexpectedly, and this led to the quick implementation of new Human Resources policies without much consideration as to whether they would work post-pandemic. Not it's time to step back and rethink them. Many companies are facing pushback as they ask employees to return to the office. These employees consider the return to full-time onsite pre-pandemic schedules as a return to inflexibility and more stress due to the need to reorganize the work-life schedule yet again.  

CNBC talked to several C-suite executives. Colleen McCreary, chief people officer at Credit Karma, believes employees want work flexibility more than hybrid schedules. At her company, employees and managers set their schedules. They are not dictated by senior management. "If my kid has soccer on Thursdays and I have to be in the office all day on Thursday and can't get him there, that may be hybrid, but it's not flexible and isn't working for me," McCreary says. "We're trying to empower employees and teams to take responsibility for what works for them rather than wait for us to set it."   

"I was very old-school in the beginning, thinking that we're all going back to the office," said Ellen Kullman, former CEO of DuPont and now CEO of Carbon. But after she sent her entire workforce of approximately 500 people to work from home, she realized not only that productivity didn't suffer, it actually improved. "Finance was closing the books two days faster than when they were in the office," she says.   

Leaders must keep up and are using digital technology tools to track performance and maintain quality communication. Giving workers autonomy over their schedules doesn't release companies from all decision-making, of course. Software and digital platforms that give organizations visibility into the entire workforce — who's in the office, occupancy trends, who's vaccinated — are vitally important as well. Without that kind of system and strong communication standards, I think companies are going to be handicapped when it comes to adapting to a more flexible model," says Jonathan Fishman, founder of BizyDev, a business development firm.  

Train your leaders to focus on results instead of counting hours. For flexibility to work, there must be guidelines on how to work with remote employees, clear work-life boundaries, and policies and leadership that ensures people working offsite are fully included in things like promotion opportunities and socialization when possible. Train your leaders to be emotionally intelligent and especially empathetic. They should be able to recognize signs of burnout, stress, and unhappiness. Leaders need skills in: 

  • Cross-generational team building 
  • Empathy 
  • Collaborative decision-making 
  • Developing shared vision and shared purpose because clearly defined and reinforced values give all team members the ability to connect work to organizational goals 
  • Creating space for generations to interact 
  • Multigenerational non-hierarchical teams 
  • Active listening 
employee experience

Reassess leadership communication skills and the organizational communication system 

To overcome the "I quit" culture, clear communication with employees is needed, and your leaders need accessibility. The IBM survey found that 67 percent of executives believed they were clearly communicating with employees during the pandemic, and only 50 percent of employees agreed. Fifty-seven percent of executives said they implement a feedback system for employees on work practices, and only 42 percent of employees agreed.   

LinkedIn developed the LiftUp! Initiative. Management began a dialogue early in the pandemic with a simple question, "How are you?" According to LinkeIn's VP of benefits and employee experience, Nina McQueen, LiftUp! Focuses on "self-care, support for parents, and fostering social connections, with a few surprises and delights along the way." This innovative initiative offers things like a global wellbeing day off, a conversation with Matthew McConaughey, random acts of kindness for others, online shows with music, workshops, RestUp! Week (company-wide shutdown), and more.   

Asking "How are you?" is asking for feedback. Employee feedback systems, like surveys and apps, give employees a voice. But your leaders must be skilled in communicating with a multigenerational workforce that may have a hybrid or fully remote work schedule. Too many employees are being excluded from day-to-day communication, and that breeds unhappiness. Your leaders need to be asking, "What can we do to create more positive employee relations?" This direct questioning approach is generally unfamiliar to Baby Boomers.   

The recruitment software company Lever reports a survey revealed that 65 percent of Gen Z workers will leave their companies within a year. Thirty-seven percent of Gen Z say they will leave because they don't feel comfortable discussing their career opportunities with their managers and 33 percent believe the company doesn't encourage promotions. Gen Z is experiencing low morale. Frequent internal communications about things like job openings contribute to an inclusive culture in which even younger employees feel valued in the organizational culture. Performing an organizational communication assessment can reveal the gaps.   

Encourage the generations to learn from each other 

Learn from younger generations. It's difficult changing leadership styles after decades. But Baby Boomers need to be open to learning from the younger generations. They can learn about things like thinking outside the box, compassion in the workplace, technology, self-care, flexibility, creativity, work-life balance, smart working, and inclusion.  

Reverse mentoring contributes to positive workplace culture and employee experience. Millennials and Gen Z can learn from Baby Boomers, including things like critical thinking, problem-solving, loyalty, professionalism, life lessons, responsibility, planning, respect, and experience.  

Include generational diversity in D&I initiatives  

Include generational diversity in diversity and inclusion initiatives. Without a commitment to generational diversity, there will be unhealthy competition, high turnover, lack of teamwork, lack of mutual respect, and plenty of discord.   

The 2021 Multigenerational Study found that employees believe the following could improve intergenerational collaboration.  

  • Cross-generational awareness sessions 
  • Multigenerational teams 
  • Bonding activities and informal gatherings 
  • Sharing 
  • Building a culture of appreciation 
  • Diversity & Inclusion ambassadors 
  • Social events 
  • Random meetings with a virtual tool like Donut 

Connecting from Top to Bottom 

This is a lot of statistics and information. If it had to be summed up in a few words as to how organizations can build a workplace culture that supports a multigenerational workforce, it would be this: "Offer more flexibility, and pay close attention to and address employee mental health and all that involves." The "I quit" culture is one in which employees believe they don't have a voice, no matter how young or old they are, and managers don't care about their inter-generational conflicts as long as the company makes a profit.   

The older generation believes that the younger generations need to follow their lead in management style. The younger generations believe that the older generation is too rigid and no longer a good fit in the modern workplace. You can start building an organizational culture that embraces all generations by adding opportunities for employees to transparently and authentically express their voice without fear of backlash as part of their employee experience.   

A survey reported by Bloomberg involved 72 executives employing 400,000 people. It found that 63 percent of them said millennials are most likely to quit, and 32 percent said Gen Z was more likely. Either way, it is a large turnover rate. The past two years have highlighted "a growing disconnect between head office and their frontline," said Mark Williams, EMEA managing director at WorkJam, the software company that carried out the survey. "Employees don't feel heard and appreciated."   

The bottom line is this: Changing the "I quit" culture is about connecting people.  

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

About the Author Walter Orechwa

Walter is IRI's Director of Digital Solutions and founder of UnionProof & A Better Leader. As the creator of Union Proof Certification, Walter provides expert advice, highly effective employee communication resources and ongoing learning opportunities for Human Resources and Labor Relations professionals.