Insight into Employee Promotions and Resignations from the Analysis of Networks
Companies are naturally interested in predicting which of their employees are likely to resign, and which are candidates for advancement within the organization. A paper recently distributed by researchers on arXiv.org, titled Promotion and Resignation in Employee Networks, suggests that techniques borrowed from the emerging field of network science offer clues about whether promotion or resignation is more likely for a given individual.
The researchers had the unusual opportunity to observe the behavior of all 104 employees of a particular company in China over a lengthy period, and they organized their observations into two distinct network models. One model (which I’ll call the social network) described employees’ patterns of connections on an online social networking platform that they used to share information about their families, entertainment, and leisure time; as on other platforms, employees could choose to “follow” another’s updates. Another model (which I’ll call the collaborative network) described employees’ electronic interactions within the company on work-related tasks, such as distributing or performing assignments and using or commenting on another’s files. During the period of the study, 25 employees resigned and 12 were promoted.
The researchers found that certain patterns of employee conduct on both the social network and the collaborative network helped predict which employees were likely to resign, and which were likely to be promoted. Among their findings, the larger the number of colleagues who had responded to the target employee’s working files in the collaborative network, the more likely that target employee was to be promoted; the more colleagues a target employee responded to on the collaborative network, the less likely the target was to resign; and the more followers a target employee had accrued on the social network, the less likely the target was to resign from the company.
Admittedly, these may not be controversial claims, especially when we look at employment relationships over the long term. It stands to reason that employees who find themselves marginalized socially and professionally within an organization would be more likely to seek employment elsewhere, and that employees who generate influential work product (based on how often it’s downloaded or prompts reactions) are more likely to be promoted. Nevertheless, the study’s analysis of these phenomena in terms of networks raises some interesting considerations.
One point is that a company’s senior leaders probably have a fairly limited and indirect role to play in some aspects of diversity and inclusion, simply because there are so few senior executives. This may be counterintuitive to those who tend to think of themselves as being in control of their organizations. But non-managerial staff outnumber supervisors and managers in most companies, and so an employer might do well to make sure employees understand the importance of their role in talent retention, especially talent drawn from demographic minorities. The more coworkers engage with and get to know a newcomer, the more welcome that newcomer will feel, and the more likely the newcomer will stay with the company – presumably choosing to invest more effort in company-specific professional growth, and choosing to work through and attempt to resolve their complaints within the company rather than simply departing. Diversity and inclusion training should take care not to overlook the obvious – that for colleagues to feel included, affirmative steps may need to be taken to integrate those colleagues into the company’s existing social groups. The most important contribution that executives and human resources professionals can make in this regard is to make clear that they support such efforts, and lead employees by example in trying to get acquainted with employees directly.
Further, managers and human resources professionals may want to pay attention to signals that an employee may be socially isolated, because an employee who isn’t well integrated social or operationally with the rest of their department or company might benefit from the right kind of outreach. Although this study was not equipped to distinguish correlation from causal factors, we know from ordinary experience that in some cases the right introductions can help put someone more at ease. As they become more comfortable at work, they’ll contribute more, and so start to put down roots within the company. In addition, this study suggests that such employees are less likely to resign if their roles are better integrated into the company’s operations, and they understand how they help the enterprise fulfill its mission.
It’s also worth paying attention to employees who are particularly well-connected. It seems to be something of a truism among network scientists that the actual networks that arise among members of an organization often bear no resemblance to the hierarchies and reporting structures nominally described on company organization tables; the real networks, of course, are where the action is. Employees who have become social or collaborative hubs within the company should be considered key recruits when we need to implement change within an organization; they’re not only the most likely to stay employed in the organization and become candidates for promotion, as this study found, but if they become early advocates or adopters of a new system, they may exert disproportionate influence over their peers, helping us effect necessary change.
Finally, and perhaps less obviously, this study may be a good reminder not to overstate the value of restrictive covenants and non-solicitation agreements. There may be situations where agreements prohibiting employees from soliciting customers or coworkers to follow them to a competitor are necessary, but it would be a mistake for the company to take such documents for granted or treat them in effect as insurance policies against certain kinds of business loss. Instead, it’s important to understand that whether an employee or customer is a flight risk will partially depend on how well they’re integrated into the organization’s collaborative or social networks, and that investing in those human ties is an important step in protecting the company’s social and economic stability.