The Employee Engagement Cliff Explains Why Many New Hires Quit

Recruiters generally do a great job of pitching candidates. It’s pretty typical for new hires to start their job bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and brimming with hope.  

But new data reveals an employee engagement cliff, a phenomenon whereby the engagement of employees drops every year for about five years following their hire. 

Across a sample of more than 30,000 employees, Leadership IQ found that the percent of highly engaged employees drops from about 37% to 22% over the first five years, while the percent of intensely disengaged employees increases from 16% to 32%.

For anyone tasked with recruiting and persuading candidates to join their company, it’s pretty important to know that there’s a good chance that your optimistic new hire is likely to sour in the first few years of their tenure. This is akin to a great salesperson selling a lousy product. Sure, the salesperson closed tons of new business, but they know that lots of those clients aren’t going to give great testimonials in a year or two.

What can recruiters realistically do to address this? 

Of course, in an ideal world, you would simply fix the underlying problem. You would persuade managers to focus on engaging their employees even after the honeymoon period has ended. In fact, given the data, you would ideally persuade managers to give some extra attention to employees with two to five years of tenure.  

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But that’s not always possible, so we need to get creative. First, it’s a good idea to talk to some of the people you recruited a few years ago. Since you now know about the employee engagement cliff, figure out what types of frustrations and demotivators people experience after a few years on the job. Also, ask them directly which parts of the job are inconsistent with the pitch they received during their recruitment. To put it bluntly, you’re assessing where you oversold the candidate.

Second, once you know some of the biggest problems that your recruits are likely to face a year or two after their hire, you could start incorporating a dose of reality into the recruiting process. You don’t want to scare away the entirety of your candidate pipeline, but a dose of honesty could help a candidate mentally prepare for life on the job. It will also chase away a few candidates who were virtually assured of being miserable shortly after taking the job.

It’s also worth taking a hard look at your recruiting data. You may find, for example, that candidates coming through employee referrals are less likely to experience the engagement cliff because their friends warned them ahead of time about some of the job’s difficulties. Or you might find that your employee referral pipeline is nonexistent because employees with three years of tenure are so disengaged they’re unwilling to refer anyone.

Finally, most recruiters don’t have much authority over employee engagement initiatives. However, after you’ve done some of the digging recommended above, you may find that you’ve gathered enough evidence to start persuading an executive or two about the need to better engage employees who’ve exited the honeymoon period and are starting to tumble down the engagement cliff.

Mark Murphy is the CEO of Leadership IQ and a New York Times bestselling author. His books include Hiring For Attitude, Hundred Percenters, HARD Goals, and Managing Narcissists, Blamers, Dramatics and More. Mark’s groundbreaking leadership studies have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Fortune, Forbes, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, and U.S. News & World Report. Mark has also appeared on CNN, NPR, CBS News Sunday Morning, and ABC’s 20/20. He’s trained leaders at the United Nations, Harvard Business School, Microsoft, Mastercard, and hundreds more.

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