Toxic Spill — How to rethink, not rebrand, the Great Resignation.

May 20, 2022
4 min read
Photo by Brian Kyed on Unsplash
“The weather today is partly angry, leading to resignation and ultimatums.”
— Chuck Palahniuk

HR. Human Remains. Human Reorganization. Human Recrimination.

These are cruel descriptions for a function that has spent years rebranding itself — from Personnel to Human Resources to Talent to People Teams. Depending on where you sit, “we’re from Human Resources and we’re here to help” is good or bad news. 

Oft-maligned, HR sat in the nerve center of pandemic response.

The overnight switch to remote work could not have happened without them, or IT. While IT provided the infrastructure, HR steadied the ship, and became the goto resource for connection and guidance.

No wonder CHRO’s are touted as the next generation of CEOs.

Alongside the switch to remote work, a tumult of social issues and the steady swing to hybrid work, HR leaders face a persistent challenge — the great resignation.

Rebranding the Great Resignation won’t make it go away.

It must be human nature to rename things we don’t like. That might explain the switch from Personnel to People teams and the inclination of everyone, everywhere, to rechristen the Great Resignation. The “Great” part is kept, it’s the “Resignation” part that changes. 

Great... Aspiration (Whitney Johnson), Attraction (Aaron de Smet), Catalyst (Otto Berkes), Exploration (Mike Clementi),  Opportunity (Jennifer Rotmer), Re-engagement (Anne Chow), Reprioritization (Oren Barzilai), Rethink (Ranjay Gulati),Return (Ben Laker).

All of which makes me feel I should come up with another noun.

But I won’t. 

What all the renamers have got right is that the “Great Resignation” requires a fundamental rethink of how we, and HR, approach work. (Prize to Ranjay Gulati for sticking the landing).

The Great Resignation is partly a rethink of the meaning of work.

Richard Florida framed the period after the 2008-09 economic meltdown as the “Great Reset.”

As the world lurched from financial crisis to global pandemic, the World Economic Forum grabbed that “reset” appellation and stuck it to their 50th Annual meeting in 2020. Klaus Schwab, the founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum said, “the pandemic represents a rare but narrow window of opportunity to reflect, reimagine, and reset our world.”

Partly that’s a reflection of the rise of stakeholder capitalism.

We hear it all around us — a growing drumbeat of purpose-driven companies and brands.  Putting “purpose” at the core of your strategy, using it to engage employees, or uncover your Ikigai. The sentiment that’s beautifully summed up as, “Stuff, we love stuff. And there’s some really great stuff out there. But I doubt any of us will look back on our lives and think, ‘I wish I had bought an even thinner TV.’”¹

That moment in time, struggling with the new mores of remote work, gave us time for reflection. According to Gartner, “65% of employees say the pandemic has made them rethink the place that work should have in their lives.”² Consequently, ADP has found that “71% of workers are contemplating a major career move this year.”³

That’s relatively new data, but the trend has been there for a while.

The Great Resignation is nothing new.

People are voting with their feet. 

Joseph Fuller and William Kerr, Harvard Business School professors who work on the Future of Work project, noted the longevity of the trend. “What we are living through is not just short-term turbulence provoked by the pandemic but rather the continuation of a long-term trend.”⁴

Let’s dig into that trend a little.

The U.S. Department of Labor and Statistics releases its “Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey” every month. It measures a few factors; key among them “Openings rate” — the percentage of job openings in the labor market; “Layoffs rate” — the percentage of workers involuntarily separated from their jobs; and “Quit rate” — how many people voluntarily resigned from their jobs. 

Translate that to how you might feel about the labor market.

“Openings rate” might translate into how you fancy your chances of getting a new job. “Layoffs rate” might be the general threat of losing your job; “Quit rate” might translate into how many people you know — or how likely you are — to go and find a new job.

The lines are working on the side of the employee, not the employer.

With the exception of a pandemic blip, the economy has been strong since 2008. Opening rates — job opportunities — have climbed; layoff rates have remained low, and surprise, surprise, voluntary quit rates have climbed. 

The story repeats in tech sectors of the economy. 

You work for a company that is either in tech, is rechristening itself as tech, or is investing heavily in digital transformation. People are needed. There’s a recruiting gap in  [blank]tech — adtech, martech, fintech, biotech, medtech, insurtech, cleantech (the list goes on) — areas of surging competition.

These are the demarcation lines in the war for talent.

It just takes one trigger.

Your next car purchase might be triggered by the end of a lease, an accident, or an ad. So it goes with the decision to quit a job. Something puts you in search mode, ready to begin the labor of switching from one job to another.

It’s more likely it’s dissatisfaction that moves you.

“You get to a point where the littlest things irritate you, and you know it’s time to start looking for your next move.” says Michelle Hancic, Head of People Science, APAC, at LinkedIn.

Data tells us that toxic work cultures are driving the great resignation.⁵

A toxic corporate culture is 10x more likely than compensation to trigger attrition, according to research from Donald and Charles Sull. 

Culture starts with you.

Leaders shape the culture around them. From policy decisions to little interactions — every choice makes the work (and workplace) more rewarding, or less satisfying for others.

The clearest strategy to lower turnover? Better leadership.

This is the next challenge for HR. Not re-christening the great resignation, but de-toxifying corporate culture, rethinking the work of distributed teams, and equipping leaders to lead.

Gavin McMahon is a founder and Chief Content Officer for fassforward consulting group. He leads Learning Design and Product development across fassforward’s range of services. This crosses diverse topics, including Leadership, Culture, Decision-making, Information design, Storytelling, and Customer Experience. He is also a contributor to Forbes Business Council.

Eugene Yoon is a graphic designer and illustrator at fassforward. She is a crafter of Visual Logic. Eugene is multifaceted and works on various types of projects, including but not limited to product design, UX and web design, data visualization, print design, advertising, and presentation design.

¹ Expedia Super Bowl 2022 TV Spot, ‘Stuff’ Featuring Ewan McGregor. ISpot.Tv.
² C-Suite: Redesigning Work for a Hybrid Future. Gartner, Inc., 2021.
³ People at Work 2022: A Global Workforce View. ADP Research Institute.
⁴ Fuller, Joseph. “The Great Resignation Didn’t Start with the Pandemic.” Harvard Business Review, 23 Mar. 2022.
⁵ Sull, Donald, Charles Sull, and Ben Zweig. "Toxic culture is driving the great resignation." MIT Sloan Management Review 63.2 (2022): 1-9.

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