When a Colleague Leaves for Another Career

When a Colleague Leaves for Another Career


by Tracy Anderson, Bocconi Department of Management and Technology

An employee's decision to leave a company not only affects that employee's own career, but may also have a meaningful impact on the future of others who remain at the company.
In the past, having a successful career often involved working your way up through a hierarchy of jobs within a single company. Today, however, careers typically span organizations. Individuals now entering the labor market expect to move between employers over the course of their careers, like many of those before them.
Employees move between organizations for many reasons. Some move for personal reasons that are not work-related. Others are seeking career opportunities and rewards that are not available – or, at least not easily accessible - within their current organization. A new job with a new employer may offer fresh challenges and opportunities for learning and development. At least to start, however, those who make such moves may struggle to perform at their previous levels.  They lack both the knowledge of their current setting and the established relationships with colleagues that can aid performance. Yet in spite of this, moving between employers can be a route to securing greater pay.

Much research has considered and provided evidence of such consequences for the individuals who move, but what about those who are left behind? What are the implications of mobility for the careers of the employees who remain in the organization after others have moved on? Early work that considered this topic highlighted how such movement can create vacant job positions and reduce the numbers competing for future job opportunities. Where this is the case, the employee mobility may increase the opportunity for promotion among those on the same organizational career ladder who stay.

The creation of traditional job vacancies may be less common and less relevant than it once was, as organizations become less hierarchical and work becomes more project-based. This is not to say that the careers of employees who remain are now less affected by others leaving, however - in fact, there is reason to believe that the repercussions of employee mobility may be felt more widely today.

Employee mobility disrupts the social network within an organization. Colleagues who previously relied upon those who have now left for help, expertise, advice, and support in the workplace may suffer. They may struggle to maintain their level of job performance, which may hinder their progression. They may feel less supported and therefore less committed to the organization, potentially prompting thoughts about leaving themselves.

The increasingly collaborative nature of the workplace means that these disruptive consequences of employee mobility may be felt across the organization – not just by those on the same career ladder.  Many employers are trying to break down organizational barriers and encouraging their workforce to develop collaborative relationships that span departmental, functional, and geographic divisions. This is done in the hopes of enhancing knowledge sharing, creativity, and innovation but, as a result, the effects of employee mobility are no longer confined by these divisions.

It is not all bad news though. While employee mobility has negative consequences for those who stay, there are positive consequences too. The disruption of the social network can have an upside. It can prompt those left behind to seek out and forge new relationships with others in the organization. This can stimulate learning and knowledge recombination that may not have otherwise taken place. And that can be beneficial both for the employees who are left and for their employer.

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