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Much ink has been spilled over the dramatic rise in resignations during the pandemic. Often, the discussion is backward-looking, focusing on potential causes that could be pushing workers to leave their roles in search of something better.

A recent survey by Muse aims to inform the discussion in a different way by examining workers’ reactions after they start a new job. They found that in most cases, workers aren’t as pleased as they expected to be. Specifically, they discovered that 72% of the 2,500 workers surveyed experienced “Shift Shock,” defined by Muse CEO Kathryn Minshew as “that feeling when you start a new job and realize, with either surprise or regret, that the position or company is very different from what you were led to believe.” Additionally, they found that:

  • 48% would try to get their old job back if they felt Shift Shock at a new company

  • 29% said their Shift Shock encompassed the job and the company

  • 41% would give a new job two to six months if they felt Shift Shock as a new hire

  • 80% said it’s acceptable to leave a new job before six months if it doesn’t live up to your expectations

 

Explaining Shift Shock

To better understand how to respond to Shift Shock, businesses must clearly understand what’s causing it. There are at least three general explanations, each of which has different implications for how companies should adjust their talent recruitment and retention strategies.

Grass Is Always Greener Syndrome

In a recent Pew Research Center study, about half of respondents who quit their jobs for a new role reported that they are now earning more money (56%), have more opportunities for advancement (53%), have an easier time balancing work and family responsibilities (53%), and have more flexibility to choose when they put in their work hours (50%).

These data points suggest that some workers may be experiencing Shift Shock despite their new jobs being better in several significant ways. If the job isn’t causing the problem, what is?

One possibility is that employees’ career moves have been motivated, at least in part, by a desire to obtain what they don’t have, both when they looked for new jobs and when they get them. In each case, the grass seemed greener than it actually was, making the drawbacks of the old job seem less problematic and the benefits of the new one appear less valuable.

Nostalgia

Nostalgia is a nearly universal phenomenon where an individual longs for the good ol’ days: a time associated with pleasant events, people, or things that are no longer accessible in the way they previously were.

Theorists studying nostalgia believe that the positive feelings individuals experience during instances of nostalgia are misleading. In other words, they don’t accurately portray how good the earlier period was or how positively they felt about it at the time.

One of the reasons for this is known as the fading affect bias, and it's why memories associated with negative emotions tend to fade more quickly than those related to positive ones. As Professor of Philosophy, Psychology, and Neuroscience at Duke University, Felipe De Brigard tells the New York Times:

It’s a coping mechanism. You have to carry your past with you. If a memory hurt every time that you recalled it as much as when you experienced it, that would be unbearable.

This bias can lead one to feel good about or nostalgic for times they didn’t really enjoy in the first place. When it comes to comparing one’s current job to their older one, the fading affect bias can lead employees to misremember how they felt and incorrectly identify the relative value of each job. Ultimately, they may end up dissatisfied with their current role because their brains have misrepresented how good the last one was.

False Advertisement

While many employees who recently changed jobs report that their new roles are better in many ways, this isn’t the case for a substantial portion of job switchers. For example, according to a Pew Research Center poll, only 42% of workers who changed jobs feel they have better benefits, and about one-in-five say their benefits are worse.

If those who quit during the Great Resignation feel significant aspects of their new jobs are worse, this might explain their regret better than nostalgia or the grass is greener syndrome. The question arises, though, why did workers expect more than they got.

In an attempt to attract and retain talent in a market where workers are demanding increases in pay, benefits, purpose, value-alignment, and brand significance, employers may feel pressure to describe their offerings in a way that will appeal to talent, even when that description is misleading or not entirely accurate.

From the employee's perspective, inadequate job descriptions are relatively common. According to one study, only 36% of candidates say they are provided with clear job descriptions. Moreover, the lack of clarity can continue well beyond descriptions in job advertisements. In a study from Kununu, an electronic recruiting company, 23% of participants reported having been misled during an interview. Three out of 10 felt it was difficult to receive information about the day-to-day experience for the specific job they were applying for.

Without a complete and accurate picture, employees may be set up to be disappointed with what they find.

 

Takeaway

As is often the case, there is no single correct explanation. The Great Regret is likely due to a variety of factors.

With that said, there are adjustments employers can make as the Great Reshuffle continues. To start, they may want to relax their focus on the consistently high resignation rates, as part of it is likely due to factors beyond their control. As employees look to change their roles, psychological mechanisms may be skewing their views of their current jobs and the possibilities available to them.

At the same time, it is important to remember that these tendencies cannot be used as an excuse to disregard any and all concerns employees have about their current roles. Delegitimizing requests for better pay, benefits, or purpose is a risky strategy that is unlikely to prove successful in the long-run.

Finally, honesty is paramount. While offering misleading, incomplete, or inaccurate information throughout the interview process may result in the short-term gain of a new hire, the payoff won’t last. Eventually, employees will realize what they have gotten themselves into.

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