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While 16% of Gen Z and Millennial employees left a job because of inadequate technology, many left the workplace due to inhabitable culture. Losing employees to turnover is never good - but it’s excruciating when one of your top performers decides to leave. Retaining top talent is vital for your team's and your business's success. But it’s increasingly difficult to do so these days.

According to a recent survey of 2,500 U.S. workers, nearly half plan to look for a job in 2023—including 60% of Gen Z workers and 56% of millennials.

According to SAP and Oxford Economics, less than half of high performers are satisfied with their jobs - and more than one in five is likely to leave within six months. 

Why do great performers quit? Why are so many top performers so unhappy in their current roles? If you don’t know why they’re leaving, you’re already behind in the battle to get them to stay.

Reasons why your high potential employees leave

Let’s look at the six simple reasons why your best employees quit.

1. You’re not meeting their expectations for benefits.

Your top performers value merit-based rewards and good compensation - that’s not so different from most employees. But they also know that they have the skills to get those needs met elsewhere if your company isn’t providing enough.

The SAP-Oxford study found that high performers valued certain benefits highly:

  • Flexible schedules
  • Vacation time
  • Retirement plans
  • Training

If you’re not providing a wide range of benefits that reward your highest-performing employees, they’re likely to look elsewhere for them. And they’re likely to find a good enough offer to tempt them to leave. This is the number one reason that good employees quit.

And if you’re hoping you can squeeze a few more years out of high performers with highly creative rewards because you don’t have the budget to pay them what they’re worth?

According to research from SHRM, that’s not going to work - your top performers want cold, hard cash, or extra vacation time.

For example, American Express offers flexible working arrangements to some employees, like top performers, to work on their schedule. And Salesforce offers extensive continued training and leadership development opportunities to build their internal talent teams and keep top employees.

2. They don’t find work engaging enough.

You might make the mistake of thinking that your top performers are engaged because they’re so productive and hard-working - how could they do all they do if they aren’t highly engaged?

But the truth is, they might be less engaged than you assume. And if you’re not making real efforts to engage them, that’s probably the case.

Why is it vital to engage high performers? Because their biggest enemy is boredom.

  • If they’re excelling at the job far beyond what anyone else on the team is doing, they might eventually get bored of doing the same tasks.
  • Or, if they’re surrounded by a stagnant work environment (or worse, a team full of underperformers), they can start to feel stuck and look around for another role on a team that’s more at their level.

Don’t forget to look at their managers to see if that’s a negative engagement factor. Behavioral statistician Joseph Folkman noted that employees who work for uninspiring and flawed leaders are only in the 9th percentile for satisfaction and happiness.

If your top performers are stuck with lousy managers and your organization doesn’t do anything about it, they’re going to be disengaged and starting a job search.

You can engage high performers by giving them more challenging and creative tasks and focusing on the “why.” That helps keep things fresh and exciting and prevents them from jumping ship to a more exciting shop.

3. Their career development is limited.

Your top performers know that they have plenty of exciting potential in their careers ahead of them if they’re at the right company.

Very little is more frustrating to someone performing at their peak and making outsized contributions to the company than repeatedly being passed over for promotions or languishing in the same role too long.

Another reason why good employees leave is if your best people don’t see how they can have a long and successful career at your company, they will be out the door in no time - because that’s a very discouraging feeling.

Are you noticing that there are few promotions for the top performers? This is what Forbes calls “the curse of competence.”

There are a few reasons for this - sometimes it’s just a matter of not enough spots at the top, but sometimes managers are reluctant to let the highest-talent people move on to a new position.

They’re afraid to lose someone making huge contributions to their department - but guess what? If you hold them back and don’t promote them, they will leave, and now they’ll leave the company as well as the manager behind.

Harvard Business Review found that one in five high-performers believes their aspirations don’t match the career path their company has planned for them, and one in four plans to leave within a year.

How can you help them progress in their career at your company?

  • It is vital to have regular career development discussions with them where you talk about their goals and how they can achieve them at your business.
  • Ongoing training is also highly valued by top performers - are you providing them with the opportunity to develop new skills?
  • If you have seen a pattern of high-performing employees leaving because of career path frustration, this is a place for your senior team to figure out how you can make room for growth for the people you want to keep.

4. They’re overworked and burnt out.

Did you know that a top performer can be up to 400% more productive than the average employee? That’s incredible but too many companies take advantage of this productivity in the short term and hurt themselves in the long run. 

If the reward for your best people being incredibly productive is to heap more and more work on their plate, that’s a recipe for dissatisfaction and burnout.

How are you rewarding this higher productivity in your top workers?

  • You should have options for compensation that acknowledge their contributions go above and beyond.
  • You should also look into flexible work options for them, so when they do an excellent job, they can have the option to take time off to recharge and relax. Raytheon offers compressed workweeks, job sharing, flextime, telecommuting, and more to attract and retain top employees.

Rewarding top performers adequately can be difficult in tighter financial times. However, SHRM found that it’s still vital, and there are ways to make it work - carve out a separate bonus or raise pool for top performers, give an additional merit raise in a year, or give a one-time lump-sum bonus.

Sure, it costs time and money to do this - but how much of both will your business lose if another high performer leaves?

5. They don’t have enough autonomy.

Top performers know they’re good at their jobs. They know they’re highly productive, they know they possess valuable skills, and they know they can be trusted to do their work on time and do it well. That’s why they really don’t like feeling micromanaged.

From your best to the not-so-great, all employees want to feel a sense of autonomy and purpose at work. And if anyone has earned the right to that, your high performers certainly have.

They don’t need someone hovering and getting in the way - they want to be trusted to do the work well and feel a sense of ownership, no obligation.

So how should you treat these valuable top performers?

  • Tell them what needs to be done and trust them to do it.
  • That can mean even giving them the option of a flexible schedule that’s not available to other employees - because, with your top people, you already know they’ll get their tasks done on time and with excellence.

Give them your trust, and you’ll get their loyalty. For example, Ritz-Carlton offers each employee the option to delight guests at the cost of up to $2,000 per day, with complete autonomy.

This boosts employee satisfaction, as well as customer loyalty. This goes for their work schedules, too - top performers highly value flexibility in when and how they work.

The Boston College Center for Work & Family says that workers who have more access to flexible work arrangements report greater job satisfaction, significantly better mental health than other employees, and are more likely to be committed to their employers.

6. They don’t feel valued.

Everybody wants to feel valued and appreciated at work - it’s a basic human need, and it’s why recognition is so vital in the workplace. And it’s especially easy to take what your top performers do for granted when they’ve been doing it for a long time - and making even hard tasks look easy.

This is one of the main reasons that good employees quit. If the only reward your top performers get for going above and beyond is getting more and more work piled on their plate - that’s not a reward. They don’t feel valued - they feel taken advantage of and unmotivated.

So how do you recognize your top performers? A yearly bonus isn’t going to cut it - recognition needs to be frequent and specific (and sometimes small) to make an impact.

If you’re only rewarding employees based on their tenure at your company or have a pay structure based on role, not the outcome, top performers are going to feel overlooked and undervalued. And then they’re going to leave.


Looking for the perfect way to engage and recognize everyone at your company, from your best performers to the new hires? Try Empuls now! Empuls is the complete employee engagement solution you need to motivate and retain your valued employees. Book a demo or start a free trial now.

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Kathleen O'Donnell

Kathleen O'Donnell LinkedIn

Kathleen is a freelance writer and employee communications and culture expert, with 6+ years of experience in corporate internal communications.