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Jack Dunigan


Two Little Words That Infallibly Predict an Employee’s Departure

Watch out when ‘we’ turns into ‘they’

Published: Thursday, October 22, 2015 - 13:47

I noticed the shift in vocabulary during a general meeting of department heads. The substitution of just two words signaled to me that a long-term employee was on her way out. In less than 30 days, she was gone.

There are often lots of signs that an employee or associate is leaving. Most people signal a break up before they actually close the door behind them. Some signs, however, are far from certain indicators of an impending exit.

People change habits all the time. Circumstances outside of the job may force them to vary when they check in for the day and when they clock out. Just about everyone gripes from time to time. Short vacations and the occasional day off may mean they are job hunting or interviewing, or it may not. Those things and more may hint at a change and they may not.

However, the specific use of two little words signals a shift in attitude, loyalty, and ownership. Their use infallibly predicts that an employee departure is imminent. I’ve seen it and heard it dozens of times in my own companies and those for whom I’ve consulted.

It goes like this: When someone is happy, when they feel like they fit in, when they have bought in to the company and its culture, they refer to it in conversations with customers, clients, and associates as “we.” “Yes,” they respond to a customer’s inquiry, “we carry that product,” or, “We can do that for you.” Ownership and buy-in affects a person’s perspective, inserting them into the picture as an insider.

When someone is considering leaving, though, their perspective changes. The soon-to-depart employee considers himself or herself to be out of the picture, no longer owning a piece of the company, its culture, or its objectives.

Then, that person who is heading for the door changes their vocabulary ever so slightly.

When the occasion arises in which the employee might have said, “we,” he or she says, “they.” As in, “they can get that for you,” or “they carry the product.”

Then, in conversations with other employees, the imminently departing person not only uses the word “they” when referring to the company or its departments, he or she also uses the word “you” instead of “we.” For example, the person might say, “You need to take care of this delivery issue.”

This is precisely what I heard vocalized by the person I mentioned in the first paragraph. She had been with the company for a long time; in fact, she was there when the company began. Over the course of time, things had grown and changed, however. One thing and then another happened that caused her to consider a divorce from her long-term relationship with the business. Soon she started referring to it as “they” and advising the powers that be that “you need to handle this and that” when the “this and that” had been her responsibility. At that point, she had transferred the problem to “you” and “them.”

You’ve almost certainly seen and heard this, too. Ownership is gone. The associate or employee may not have ever vocalized to anyone that he or she was thinking of leaving, but the use of two little words revealed it. Buy-in has vanished. The person may not actually vacate the premises for days, weeks, or even months, but he or she is already gone. At that point, it is almost certainly too late and too far to get that employee back.


About The Author

Jack Dunigan’s picture

Jack Dunigan

For more than four decades, Jack Dunigan has been leading, consulting, training, and writing. His experience is varied and comprehensive. His training and consulting clients are as varied as the Chief Justice of the Navajo Supreme Court to a top-rated campsite management company. But his advice is not merely academic. His blog, www.ThePracticalLeader.com, is focused on practical advice for leaders and managers of businesses, corporations, nonprofit agencies, families, organizations, departments, anywhere and anytime a person leads others. His latest book is Three Absolutely Necessary, Always Present Skills of an Effective, Successful Leader (CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2012).