It’s complicated, an employee’s decision to leave a job — even more complicated than previously believed, Texas A&M University researchers conclude after conducting research on when job searches result in turnover.

As expected, turnover was higher when employees had lower levels of embeddedness and job satisfaction and higher levels of available alternatives. What wasn’t expected, or previously explained, was that there is more complexity to the process than believed, and specifically, that these factors play a key role in whether search behavior actually results in the decision to quit.

Wendy Boswell

Embeddedness means how attached someone is to his current environment, says Mays Business School faculty member Wendy Boswell, who collaborated on the research with fellow faculty member Ryan Zimmerman and doctoral candidate Brian Swider. The trio examined factors that may help explain under what conditions employee job search effort may most strongly (or weakly) predict subsequent turnover.

“How tied you are to not only the place but also the community — if you own a home, your spouse has a job there, you belong to a church or are involved in schools, determines how much incentive it takes to get you to leave,” Boswell explains.

“Fit” is also important — whether the values of a community (as well as the organization) align with the individual’s — and characteristics such as metropolitan versus small-town, or urban versus industrial. “The practical implication for an employer is to know who is really vulnerable to leaving, then going and intercepting those high performers — retention isn’t “one size fits all,'” explains Boswell.

Ryan Zimmerman

The culture of the organization and community also carry great weight in the decision, Swider says. “Say I’m working in New York City and a job opens in a small southern suburb. Whether I pursue that opportunity depends on my personal preferences,” Swider says. “It could be the opportunity I’ve been waiting for or it could sound like a nightmare.”

Employers do a poor job of predicting impending turnover, Swider says. These findings suggest that there may be a number of factors interacting to influence employees’ turnover decisions, indicating greater complexity to the process than described in previous prominent sequential turnover models.

Boswell explains the assumed process: An employee experiencing job dissatisfaction searches for alternatives, evaluates them against his current position, then either quits or stays put. But, often times, employees search and don’t leave. Online applications make it easier to search and even apply for positions, but the likelihood of an employee actually accepting another position depends on his level of enmeshment or “stuckness” as well as how important it is for the person to leave and whether he or she even has the opportunity.

Brian Swider

“The more of these attachments you have, the more likely you are to want to stay somewhere,” Boswell explains. “It used to be the defined benefit plan, but now it is all these other factors that you might have to sacrifice if you were to leave.”

The key for an employer to stay ahead of the turnover, Boswell says, is to know his or her employees. “Are they satisfied, embedded, on the fence?” she says. “Are they flight risks? If so, and if they are top employees, you might be wise to invest in trying to retain them.”

For more information, contact Swider at or Boswell at

“Examining the job search – turnover link: The role of embeddedness, job satisfaction, and available alternatives,” by Brian W. Swider, Wendy R. Boswell, and Ryan D. Zimmerman, was published in the March 2011 issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology.