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Turnover culture

The final theme we identified in the literature on organizational culture and turnover is turnover culture. Rather than focusing on how culture or its fit with employees’ values impacts turnover, research and writing on the construct of turnover culture focuses on the extent to which turnover can become a normative part of organizational life and ingrained in the organization’s culture. Turnover culture has been defined as ‘the systematic pattern of shared cognitions by organizational or subunit incumbents that influence decisions regarding job movement’ (Abelson, 1993, p. 388). In such a culture, turnover in the organization is accepted as a norm and viewed as an appropriate or expected occurrence (Moore & Burke, 2002). Employees perceive the organization as one step in their career and assume that they will not remain there (Vardaman, 2013). Turnover in such an organization can be thought of as an artifact of its culture. A turnover culture develops when those artifacts ‘are interpreted by and influence organizational members...these artifacts ultimately transform into basic assumptions and mutual cognitive schema regarding turnover perceptions, intentions, and behaviors’ (Moore & Burke, 2002, p. 74). Thus, research on turnover culture addresses the artifacts and stories found in the organization, how individuals interpret these artifacts and how shared cognitions and assumptions about the organization evolve from these shared interpretations (Abelson, 1993).

A number of factors contribute to the development of a turnover culture. Abelson (1993) explained that leaders have a decisive role in shaping turnover culture. The leader’s behaviours and management style influence ‘how others perceive organizational events. It is this perception of organizational events through organizational incumbents’ interpretation of artifacts that affects turnover decisions’ (p. 346). Along with leaders, organizational issues and HRM practices can influence the turnover culture by impacting how people view the organization’s values. For instance, socialization processes shape how employees perceive organizational norms; those who do not fit into the values may feel alienated and leave. HRM practices of recruitment, promotion, reward and appraisal can also reinforce organizational values that relate to turnover (e.g., valuing internal vs. external promotion; Abelson, 1993). Environmental factors such as the economy, job availability and competition can also shape the turnover culture within an organization. The literature on turnover cultures has focused particularly on the culture in certain industries or occupations. For example, there may be a high turnover culture in IT occupations because many IT organizations employ college graduates, who leave after only a few years (Moore & Burke, 2002). They can do so because there is a high demand for IT professionals and those who leave are often treated as ‘heroes’ (Moore & Burke, 2002). North, Leung, Ashton, Rasmussen, Hughes and Finlayson (2013) also reported evidence of a turnover culture in nursing, noting that ‘nurse managers displayed an indifference to turnover, conveying an acceptance and tolerance of high turnover rates’ (p. 24).

The hospitality industry has perhaps received the most attention in terms of the presence of a turnover culture. Davidson, Timo and Wang (2010) argue that a turnover culture is found in the hospitality industry because of the low-paid work that requires little skill, unsocial working hours and little opportunity for advancement. Furthermore, because turnover is viewed as the norm in the hotel industry, people enter it with the belief that it will be a short-term position offering little scope for advancement. In a quantitative study of turnover culture in five-star hotels, Iverson and Deery (1997) found that a turnover culture was positively associated with intention to leave, routinization, role ambiguity, role conflict, work overload, resource inadequacy, negative affectivity and job opportunity, and it was negatively associated with job satisfaction, organizational commitment, co-worker support, supervisor support, distributive justice, job security, promotional opportunity and career development. They did not find differences between permanent workers and casual or part-time workers, suggesting that a turnover culture in the hospitality industry was not attributable to the disproportionate number of part-time workers, but instead is a more basic assumption that pervades the entire industry. In a final example of research on turnover culture in hospitality, Deery and Shaw (1997) performed an exploratory cluster analysis of questionnaire items covering a broad variety of constructs related to morale and organizational culture to better understand the content of the turnover culture. The analysis distinguished two forms of turnover culture: positive and negative. Employees viewed a positive turnover culture when quitting meant there was a better job available to them or when the demands of the organization were high. A negative turnover culture occurred when employees quit because they disliked their job and not because they had a better job opportunity elsewhere. Deery and Shaw suggested that employees perceiving a negative turnover culture may also have a hostile attitude to the job, even though managers may exhibit behaviours encouraging long-term commitment. This discrepancy in manager and employee perspectives, Deery and Shaw noted, may mean that a negative turnover culture is more often a subculture than the organization’s overarching culture.

In summary, although the literature on turnover culture is fairly limited, such an approach holds promise in understanding how employees think about, react to and communicate about turnover. Previous research by Harrison and Carroll (1991) suggested that, in general, the culture of an organization was robust to turnover rates; however, the research on turnover culture suggests that high turnover rates can be an artifact that can become embedded in the deeper layers of culture until it becomes an underlying assumption. More research is needed to demonstrate how turnover cultures manifest across the various levels of organizational culture (artifacts, espoused values and underlying assumptions; Schein, 1985), what the causal relationship is between turnover culture and turnover rates, and whether turnover cultures can be changed, particularly in the long term. Such research should help create a more holistic picture of turnover and aid in identifying more effective strategies for managing turnover (Abelson, 1993).

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