The Truth Behind the Saying "People Don't Leave Companies, They Leave Managers"

Michael Glazer is a Tokyo-based Senior Consultant whose client work spans 15 countries across four continents. Learn more about Michael here.

We've all heard the adage that people don't leave companies, they leave managers. Just this week, I read this Harvard Business Review article that asserts this is as true today as it was back in 2013 when Gallup first published their findings.

While this saying is valid, it’s not the full story. We need to be careful here because pinning so much responsibility for involuntary employee turnover on individual actors within a company system can be misleading.
Studies have shown that there is a strong relationship between organizational justice and employee retention (or turnover). Here are three examples:

  • In a 1996 study in the Journal of Applied Psychology researchers found that employees who perceived their organization as fair were more likely to be satisfied with their job and less likely to consider leaving the company.
  • In 2009, a study published in the Journal of Business Ethics found that the perceived fairness of the processes and procedures used to make decisions is an important predictor of employee retention. This study also found that when employees feel that their workplace is fair and just, they are more likely to be satisfied with their job and less likely to leave the company.
  • And not surprisingly, there are other studies in the same two journals that find that real or perceived unfair treatment was a significant predictor of turnover intentions among employees.

In real life, I’ve heard clients and colleagues describe situations where they love working at their company but are fed up with an abusive or unfair manager. The employee tries to find allies within the company, such as an HR generalist, ombudsman, or higher-level leader. But, these would-be allies often take the side of the manager instead of the employee. As a result, the employee decides to leave because they feel that the company is unable or unwilling to restore justice.
Even more troubling is what happens to human beings when they are subjected to low organizational justice at work.
In a big 2015 meta-study, researchers at Stanford University found that “low organizational justice increases the odds of having a physician-diagnosed condition by about 50%”. They study also found that low organizational justice contributes more to self-reported poor mental health and physician-diagnosed health conditions than secondhand smoke exposure.
Think about that for a minute. You’re more likely to be healthier if you work in a smoke-filled office than if you work in a smoke-free office that has low organizational justice.
So, yes, managers have an important role to play when it comes to employee retention. But let’s be careful not to undervalue the role of executives and other leaders who have the influence and authority to ensure that their company’s processes and practices are fair for employees. After all, nobody wins if the humans who live and work in our companies are unwell.