IT talent: 6 signs your star talent may leave

Is your star employee as happy with you as you are with them? Learn the cues that may indicate a looming job switch - and consider 10 power moves for improving IT talent retention
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Catching your employee scrolling through a job search website is a glaring sign they are actively looking for their next career move. It’s awkward and uncomfortable for everyone, but at least you know where they stand and can go from there. And you won’t be blindsided when their two-week notice comes across your desk.

But most employees will be more subtle than that. They may conduct their search over many months. They may seek out new learning opportunities to build up their resumes over time. And by the time you notice, they may already have another offer (or two) in hand. Even if you are able to provide a counteroffer, they may have already said goodbye in their mind.

Retaining your best talent in today’s competitive IT landscape means you’ll need to tune in to the subtle cues of employees who are looking ahead in their career. Let’s dive into a few signs that your best employee may be considering a change – and what you can do to convince them to stay, or support them as they move into the next phase of their career.

[ Perks may be crucial to an individual's overall compensation package. Read IT salary extras: 5 perks worth pursuing. ]

Plus, we’ll share 10 expert tips to help you keep people engaged in the first place - because all IT leaders know the importance of talent retention. 

6 key signs your star employee is job searching

1. They seem burned out

Star employees often consistently go above and beyond in their role. When others shy away from the toughest problems, the best employees tackle them head-on, and they don’t rest until they find the solution. While this is certainly an asset to leaders, it can come at the expense of the employee’s mental and emotional well-being if they are trying to maintain an unrealistic pace of work.

Burnout tends to happen to top performers.

“Burnout tends to happen to top performers – the ones who are so engaged that they give everything they have to their work,” says Dr. Laura Hamill, chief people officer at Limeade and chief science officer of the Limeade Institute, which conducts research on employee well-being and engagement. “They might be on fire in terms of productivity but have low personal well-being, which gives them limited resources to sustain their pace.”

“Once burnout takes hold, it shows up in three stages: exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy,” she says. “They might say things like ‘I’ve given everything to this place,’ ‘I don’t even care anymore,’ or ‘My work isn’t making a difference.’”

2. They start networking – online and in person

LinkedIn is the top social network for professionals, and there are many power users of the platform who regularly use it as a way to build and showcase their personal brand. But LinkedIn is also where you go when you want to find – and get noticed by – recruiters and hiring managers. If you are suddenly seeing more activity in your LinkedIn feed from your star employee, that may be a sign there are looking around.

“One of our IT department’s MVPs recently left us to pursue new challenges; her behavior subtly changed in the months before,” said Sam Johns, HR specialist at Resume Genius. “I noticed an uptick in her LinkedIn activity. Of course, LinkedIn use is common among settled permanent employees too, since they can network with people from other companies and keep track of ex-colleagues and college friends. But I was seeing an increase in her new connections and noticing she was joining more groups, suggesting she was trying to boost her social profile to get noticed by recruiters.”

Networking doesn’t only happen online, adds Johns. “Employees considering their futures often volunteer for more conferences or external workshops. Attending such events helps them learn the skills needed in other jobs – additionally, they’re a great opportunity to network with people from other companies.” 

Of course, plenty of people who aren’t job searching seek out speaking opportunities and conferences, too. These events not only build your personal brand but also can spark creativity and update skills in a condensed period.

3. They have a friend who leaves

What you do next could stop a chain reaction of employees heading for the door.

As a leader, you never want to be blindsided by an employee putting in their two-week notice. But it happens. What you do next could stop a chain reaction of employees heading for the door.

“If one of your strongest employees leaves for a job with another company, watch out,” says Ellen Mullarkey, vice president of business development for Messina Staffing. “There was obviously a reason why that employee left, so your other top performers might be considering a move, too. They could be looking at their friend’s new job, salary, and benefits thinking, ‘Wow, things look pretty good over there.’”

Mullarkey suggests doing your research: “Conduct an exit interview and get to the bottom of why they’re leaving.” Sometimes people switch careers entirely or leave for personal reasons. But If they’re taking a similar job with a higher salary or better benefits, then you might have to make some changes in your compensation packages, Mullarkey says. "Otherwise, you could lose all of your best employees to your competitor.”

4. They stop opting into projects

If someone who was once a team player stops raising their hand for new projects and initiatives, it’s a red flag, says Patty Coffey, partner in the technology division at WinterWyman.

“When employees stop putting time and energy into endeavors that lead to long-term success but often have little or no short-term payoff, they either aren’t managing their time well or they’re already planning the next step in their career,” she says.

This resistance to take on longer-term projects makes sense for employees who are already thinking about their next job, says Johns, since they won’t be around to see the projects through. They also may seem less enthused about attending team-building events and “all-hands” meetings, he adds. Those are signs they are no longer invested in the company’s success.

5. They stop caring about their work

Employees who are engaged and committed to their jobs are often passionate about their work. They speak up, they defend their viewpoints, and they raise issues when things are wrong. If you notice that an employee no longer seems to care about their work, they might be looking around for something else to spark their passion.

“Do they seem to roll over when someone attempts to argue a point with them?”

“Do they seem checked out in meetings? Do they seem to roll over when someone attempts to argue a point with them?” asks Jason David, CEO of Software Portal. “You’ll often see them start to argue, or at least bring up a counterpoint, but drop it at the first sign of opposition. Eventually, they’ll stop bringing up points at all. If they start doing the minimum required of them, not innovating at all, simply treading water, then they likely don’t feel challenged or they don’t see the point since they’re on their way out.”

Don’t make the mistake of assuming that if an employee is not speaking up it means they are satisfied, warns Coffey. “You may feel like they’re happier because they’re not expressing concerns, but in reality, there’s a good chance that they’re checked out.”

6. They avoid eye contact

Pay attention – but avoid jumping to conclusions too early.

Finally, listen to your gut instincts. If you have great rapport with an employee one day but the next day they won’t look you in the eye, you will likely know instinctively that something is off. Pay attention to this subtle cue, but importantly, avoid jumping to conclusions too early, suggests Ryan Sutton, district president for Robert Half Technology.

“No single change in an employee’s performance should cause a manager to panic,” says Sutton. “Consider factors like timing – is the individual preparing for their annual review or trying to carve an upward path for themselves within the company? They may be behaving differently because they want to grow with you, not necessarily elsewhere.”

That said, some behavioral changes are noteworthy. “If your star employee suddenly seems disengaged from their work, that could signal trouble. Some subtle and often missed signs of disengagement can be eye contact, body language, and something as simple as a change in coffee walk habits or pulling away from peers on lunch breaks,” says Sutton.

“In a typically casual IT department, someone who suddenly starts dressing up in more formal clothes may be thinking about leaving, or even stepping out for interviews during lunch,” he continues. “Other signs your talented IT professional is considering moving on could be abrupt behavioral changes like an increased desire for professional development or decreased engagement with company leadership.”

What moves can you make to increase the person’s satisfaction - and improve your overall IT talent retention? Let’s explore 10 expert tips:

Carla Rudder is a community manager and program manager for The Enterprisers Project. She enjoys bringing new authors into the community and helping them craft articles that showcase their voice and deliver novel, actionable insights for readers.