According to Brooks Holtom’s pioneering research on job embeddedness, employee turnover has as much to do with life outside the office as it does with money or job satisfaction.

When Brooks Holtom was in graduate school, his father received an offer for a promotion. The offer came with more money and an advanced role within his company, but it also came with a price: He would have to relocate with his family, including Holtom’s younger brother, a star high school baseball player and eventual class valedictorian.

Holtom’s father faced a tough choice. After much deliberation, he declined the offer for the sake of keeping his family rooted. To Holtom, now associate professor of management at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, this story has become much more than a family anecdote; it has informed and enlightened his own pioneering research on employee turnover and the development of the new construct of "job embeddedness."

At the time, Holtom was a doctoral candidate at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business, working with faculty members Terence Mitchell and Thomas Lee, two leading figures in turnover research. In addition to Holtom’s father’s story, both Mitchell and Lee presented personal anecdotes of their own; each man had spent his entire career at the university, despite offers to teach and perform research elsewhere.

Together, the three researchers began to question the existing methodology of job satisfaction models — models that focused on why dissatisfied workers leave a job. Building on existing research while simultaneously flipping the field on its head, the men used job embeddedness to ask a simple question:

Why do people stay?

Research With Roots

Do you own a home? Do you have school-aged children? Are you happy with your network of friends? With your church? Do you like your doctors and dentists? Have your season tickets to the local football stadium finally moved from the nosebleed seats to the lower level on the 50-yard line? Do you feel at home near the mountains or the ocean?

These questions, and others like them, have as much to do with a person’s overall contentment and well-being as how they feel about their work. But management researchers largely ignored them for decades.

The previous field-leading theories, including job satisfaction and organizational commitment, were and are valuable — so valuable, in fact, that people had been perfecting them since the late 1950s. Even with that value, though, Holtom estimated they left roughly 75 percent of statistical variance in turnover unexplained. In simple terms, something was missing.

"Reading all of those theories, I felt like the picture was incomplete," Holtom says. "They were exclusively focused on work and the job itself. But a lot of times, the question is not just, ‘Am I willing to leave this job?’ but ‘Am I willing to leave this community?’"

Holtom seized his chance to explore what was missing by going to work with Mitchell and Lee in 1996. At the time, Lee explains, the two longtime colleagues were looking to do something other than put "old wine in a new jug." They were looking for new wine and a new jug. They found it throughout the early 1990s as they developed what became known as the unfolding model of turnover, first published in 1996.

"One of the major precipitating reasons of why people leave is called a shock to the system," says Lee, explaining an important aspect of the unfolding model. "That is a jarring event that prompts thoughts of leaving. Our focus on shocks has resonated really well. The empirical evidence to date, across many nations, is very supportive of it."

Shocks include pregnancy, getting passed over for promotion, a death in the family, a change in marital status, or anything else that might cause an otherwise satisfied employee to rethink everything. Holtom elaborates further: "Most days we operate in status quo mode. Get up, get dressed, go to work, work on tasks. We’re not thinking about our job and whether or not we want to stay. People don’t always leave because of job satisfaction or dissatisfaction or a lack of organizational commitment. Instead, there are shocks, both personal and professional, that cause them to stop and think, ‘Wow, maybe I won’t be here for the rest of my life.’"

Holtom became a crucial part of the next academic leap forward for the research. The unfolding model showed that employee turnover extends beyond workplace factors alone. With that model gaining steam in the management field, he turned his attention to the next questions: What can we do to prevent these shocks from dislodging people? What are the factors that keep people embedded?

Lee says Holtom was crucial in turning those early questions into the job embeddedness construct, something that interests people in industry as much as people in the academy.

"One of Brooks’ greatest strengths is that he’s very aware of what is usable," Lee says. "He’s very insightful about what will work for practitioners. He kept us grounded."

For his doctoral dissertation, Holtom performed longitudinal research, meaning he gathered survey data on employees over time to follow their evolution within a company. He asked a range of questions that covered off-the-job and on-the-job factors. In total, he surveyed 700 employees at a chain of grocery stores, an industry with notoriously small profit margins, and 500 hospital employees, including nurses, a profession with a high rate of turnover.

Throughout the process, familiar responses started to emerge: My family is in the area. My mom does daycare. My friends from nursing school and I decided to work together. "Those things buffer the day-to-day trials at work, when you have family, friends, colleagues, and other outlets," Holtom says.

The resulting paper, "Why People Stay: Using Job Embeddedness to Predict Voluntary Turnover," was published in 2001 in the prestigious Academy of Management Journal and co-written with Mitchell, Lee, and other researchers. The paper related the brand-new job embeddedness construct to existing theories, such as job satisfaction. The results showed a positive and significant correlation between job embeddedness and job satisfaction, plus a negative correlation with searches for new jobs. In other words, the more embedded an employee was, the happier they were on the job, and the less likely they were to be looking for a job elsewhere.

Despite initial resistance caused by the sheer newness of the idea, the work received a breakthrough when Holtom’s paper was nominated as a finalist for Best Paper of the Year. Then a companion piece aimed squarely at business and industry practitioners, "How to keep your best employees: Developing an effective retention policy," earned the same accolade after publication in the Academy of Management Executive.

Job embeddedness was resonating with readers. In part, it earned Holtom the offer to join the faculty of Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business in 2002.

Perhaps telling for research that deals with community connections, Holtom’s hospital data came from a friend he met through church, Paul Tucker. Tucker, now retired, was CEO of Highline Community Hospital for nearly 30 years. When Holtom approached him about the project, Tucker saw the value instantly.

"This made a lot of sense to me," he says. "Any organization that values who they are and what they are is obviously interested in anything they can do to reduce turnover and make their people happier."

The Big Picture and the Bottom Line

What makes employees happier? Holtom’s work suggests the answer truly is a combination of community and organizational factors. His first two job embeddedness papers laid those factors out clearly and established the groundwork for future research.

Holtom describes a matrix, with three variables under both community and organizational headings: fit, links, and sacrifice.

Under the organizational heading, the three variables include the following:

• Fit: How comfortable is an employee in this job? How comfortable is that employee with the organization’s values and culture? Does the employee’s skill set match the job’s duties?

• Links: Does the employee have a good relationship with co-workers? What about superiors or reporting employees?

• Sacrifice: Does the employee enjoy perks or benefits? Does the employee find the work interesting and stimulating enough that leaving it would be a sacrifice?

The community variables are similar:

• Fit: How comfortable is an employee in this city or region? Are there cultural or sporting opportunities that fit his or her interests? Do the area’s values and politics match the employee’s?

• Links: Does the employee have a spouse? Children? A church group or other social network? Family in the area?

• Sacrifice: If the employee feels a proper fit in this community, would it seem like a sacrifice to leave it? All of the variables above may come into play.

Holtom’s first Academy of Management Journal paper showed that each of these six variables displayed a statistically significant relation to turnover in at least one of the two employee samples. But it is important to note that his research also paired job embeddedness with job satisfaction and several other traditional measures. The result was a holistic analysis of employee turnover.

To many human resources managers and top-level administrators, the results confirmed their common sense with systematic thoroughness. Tucker, for example, says he always valued the employer-employee link and made it a point to know the faces and day-to-day work of Highline Community Hospital’s thousands of employees. And he wanted his employees to share that value.

"Brooks’ research was really a confirmation of what we thought we knew — but you don’t really know until you verify it," Tucker says. However, the benefit went well beyond confirmation. Based in part on Holtom’s research, Tucker says, Highline developed an employee prescreening questionnaire with both community and organizational factors in mind. Tucker’s goal was to reduce the cost of the hiring process, as well as weed out potential employees who would not be a good fit, thereby reducing the even more expensive turnover process.

Holtom feels good about providing such real-world value. In fact, his Academy of Management Executive paper offered tips for managers on how to improve embeddedness in employees. "Retention cannot be accomplished purely through money," it reads. "A host of on-the-job and off-the-job factors must be considered when developing a retention plan." For example, the paper recommends organizations provide mentors for new hires, as well as ways to recognize accomplishments for employees who go above and beyond their job descriptions. It also offers tips such as recruiting from local markets, where people already are more likely to feel a proper fit and have extensive community links. In addition, companies wishing to increase retention may offer financial incentives, such as help with a down payment on a house.

In other words, Holtom’s research process is a two-way street; he gets a wealth of data, and his partners get actionable advice for reducing turnover. The latter also is what connects his management work with that of his finance faculty colleagues.

"The cost of turnover is material," Holtom points out. "Labor is the number one expense in a lot of industries. This is real, and it is millions of dollars on the bottom line."

An Idea That Resonates

On its own, offering better prediction models for turnover would be an impressive accomplishment. But it turns out that job embeddedness goes even further.

"We have found that job embeddedness not only predicts who will stay and who will leave, but it also predicts the best performers," Holtom says, referring to 2004′s "The Effects of Job Embeddedness on Organizational Citizenship, Job Performance, Volitional Absences, and Voluntary Turnover," also published in the Academy of Management Journal and co-written by Lee, Mitchell, and colleagues.

Using data from 1,650 employees of Citibank, Holtom and fellow researchers fine-tuned the construct and used it to measure even more variables. The results showed that employees with higher levels of community embeddedness were more likely to stay and less likely to be absent from work. Likewise, those with high on-the-job embeddedness were more involved in organizational "citizenship" behaviors and typically were rated better by their supervisors.

"They do things that are above and beyond the call of duty," Holtom says, "like volunteering, bringing cards and gifts for co-workers’ birthdays, welcoming new people, and other things that create a better work environment."

Publishing with other groups and individually, Holtom has taken job embeddedness research in other directions, too. Research in 2006 examined best job embeddedness practices among Fortune 100 companies. A 2008 paper showed that the principles carry over to multiple European nations. A 2009 paper applied the construct to larger groups of employees — collective embeddedness — instead of individuals. Then in 2010, in the Journal of Vocational ­Behavior’s "When two theories are better than one: The buffering effects of job embeddedness on negative shocks," the academic cycle came full circle with a paper that combined the unfolding model with job embeddedness.

Perhaps more important, other management researchers, independent of Holtom and his colleagues, have validated their results and begun to use the construct on their own. It has shown up in India, Japan, and China, and it has crossed over into other fields such as applied psychology, too. A recent draft of a meta-analysis paper also identifies 40 studies from the published research on job embeddedness. The results are standing the test of time and proving to be sustainable.

Holtom continues to move forward with it, too, of course. Current projects examine what he calls the "dark side" of embeddedness; he is examining whether there is a point when employees become too complacent and stop performing at a high level — essentially the opposite of the Citibank findings. In addition, in another project in partnership with Navy Federal Credit Union, he is refining his data-gathering­ methods. Using Web surveys, he now checks in with employees on a monthly basis rather than yearly.

His goal in all cases is to improve the construct and its applications as well as improve its usability for the industry practitioners who apply it to their businesses.

"I am interested in doing things that make a difference in the business world," he says. "Theory without application is useless to me." w

Leave a Reply