‘I Want to Quit (My Career)’

If you’re an employer, “I want to quit” is probably the last thing you want to hear, but completely ignoring it is the last thing you want to do.

First there was the Gallup survey that came out in early June, which found the vast majority of American employees (70 percent) were either not engaged or actively disengaged with their work.

As if that wasn’t enough to raise red flags for employers who care about and are tracking employee engagement, a new Harris survey for the University of Phoenix in Arizona that was released Monday showed that more than half of U.S. employees want to change not only their jobs, but their careers. Apparently, only 14 percent of workers say they’re in their dream careers.

Some of you may not be surprised to learn this feeling is more pronounced among workers in their 20s (80 percent), but it’s certainly not specific to this demographic alone: Sixty-four percent of those in their 30s want to change careers and 54 percent of those in their 40s reported the same.

Is this the classic “grass is greener on the other side” syndrome? Maybe. Or perhaps it’s the fact that the unstable economic environment coupled with debilitating student loan debt coerced many graduates to scrounge up any kind of employment they could secure just to have a steady cash inflow. Consider that nearly three-fourths of those surveyed (73 percent) said they didn’t end up with a job they had originally anticipated when they were younger.

And before you go on a rant about how flaky millennials are, you may be surprised to learn that those in the upper echelons of corporate America are among those who want to sign up for a different career. Nearly half (43 percent) of C-level executives said they were somewhat interested in switching careers, while 26 percent expressed a stronger desire to do so.

Just to be clear, I’m not ringing the bell of doom and warning that all your employees are about to abandon ship. This is, after all, one survey and the sentiments reflected here aren’t necessarily universal. But it’s not a bad idea to treat it as a wake-up call.

The way I see it, employers have two choices. 1) They can go into ostrich mode and bury their heads in the sand until the storm passes. 2) They can open the door of their corner office, step outside and actually ask employees what they want and what it will take to make them love their jobs and therefore stick around.

Among the more simple yet practical techniques I’ve heard from my seemingly countless interviews with  practitioners on engagement, retention, development and succession planning is not waiting till an exit interview to ask A-players what would’ve made them stay. Because maybe your marketing head doesn’t want to quit his career and become a professional basketball player or an engineer at Google or Facebook. Maybe he just wants more of an active role in the research or finance departments – but you would never know that unless you asked.

Offering lateral moves and defining a clear career path for employees might not be the silver bullet when it comes to engagement and retention problems, but it’s a start.