The Allure of Departed Colleagues : An Examination of Career Mobility in Competitive Labor Markets
In global corporations, work is increasingly organized around projects and individuals are constantly working with new constellations of partners across locational and temporal boundaries. In order to be successful in such settings, individuals have to form and maintain relationships with those they need to learn from and coordinate with. Recent studies suggest that these social ties provide resources and support as well as create normative pressures that strengthen the attachment of employees with the firm and lead them to stay with the firm. In contrast, the strength of an individual’s attachment with the organization given the departure of connected colleagues remains largely under theorized, and consequently, its implications have not been adequately studied. We address these gaps by examining whether ties to colleagues who leave the firm activate different mechanisms which can weaken their binds with the organization. This study assume significance in the context of contemporary free-agent labor markets where career trajectories are proposed to unfold in a series of short stints at multiple firms as opposed to life-long career in a single firm. We develop theoretical arguments predicting the effect of workplace relationships on career mobility decisions by building on prior research into distributed work, changing nature of careers, social comparison, homophily, and structural equivalence. The main contention of this study is that the departure of one or more coworkers serves as powerful signals that unsettle the feeling of belongingness the focal employee enjoys with other teammates who choose to stay with the firm. Further, we propose that the influence of those departed employees will be higher when they are collocated and occupied similar professional roles as the focal employee. To test the arguments, we analyze entire project co-assignment data across five years that linked 728 geographically distributed employees who were engaged in software development and delivery activities at a multi-national high technology firm. Our findings suggest that instead of seeking belonging and viability with coworkers, employees are actively seeking cues from their network of colleagues and continuously making subjective assessments of career success. In distributed work settings, such cues circulate more among physically proximate than distant employees and formal roles of coworkers serve as referent points for those signals. These mechanisms collectively influence voluntary turnover decisions. Using a classification model, we further demonstrate how insights from this study can be used by human resource management practitioners to assess and contain the flight risk of their valuable talent.