How Employers Can Spot Potential Defectors–Before They Leave

Employee e-mails could offer clues to help businesses predict their staff’s departure long before any notice is given.

How Employers Can Spot Potential Defectors–Before They Leave
[Image: Flickr user Travis Isaacs]

Employers can predict if an employee will go rogue before any damage is done to a company, according to a group of researchers from Lancaster University. The U.K.-based team studied employees to see how their word choice and behavior change before leaving their job, and the results were compelling.


Study parameters

Fifty-four participants were placed in a six-hour simulated workplace where their behavior was closely monitored. Their task? Carry out a four-stage organized crime investigation.

At the start of the day, all 54 individuals were colleagues, but by the morning coffee break, 25% had been secretly offered 50 pounds (the equivalent of $84) to sneak information about their colleagues to researchers. As the day went on, incentives increased for insiders who provided additional information about their coworkers.

Noticing patterns

Researchers found subtle changes in employee electronic communications once the insiders went rogue. They noted that these changes in their behavior could help employers predict which employees may turn on the business.

For example, the insiders group used singular pronouns rather than plural pronouns in their e-mails, focusing more on themselves as opposed to the team. Their negativity toward the organization became more apparent, and their language changed, becoming “more nuanced and error-prone.”

Paul Taylor, professor of psychology at Lancaster University and one of the study’s authors, believes the changes reflect the cognitive impact of having to juggle the double identity of being a colleague and an insider.

In addition, the insiders reduced their level of mimicry of colleagues, a key part of cooperative interaction. According to researchers, this is indicative of inadvertent social distancing.


What this means for you

Observing the above cues, researchers were able to distinguish 92.6% of the insiders from their colleagues.

Taylor notes that the observed changes are important for employers. The study’s findings demonstrate how you can use language as an indirect way of identifying disgruntled employees who are about to go rogue.

Hat tip: The Conversation

About the author

Lindsay LaVine is a Chicago-based business and lifestyle freelance writer who's worked for NBC and CNN. Her work has appeared online in,,, NBC News, MSNBC, Yahoo, Business Insider, and Fox Business.