What is Employee Brownout?: Why Star Employees Leave and What They Know

EmployeeBrownoutEvery organization has those star employees, the ones who are held up as examples at company meetings,  ooze success, and set the bar by which you measure mere mortals. Well, bad news: a third of them are already disengaged and looking for a new job.

These stars on the verge of leaving are typically hard to spot. We call this phenomena brownout, after the astronomical phenomena of similar circumstance. For a variety of reasons, your top performers and leaders slowly lose their passion for and become less connected to their jobs.

However, unlike typical employees, stars don’t start to slack off when they think about leaving – if anything, they work hardest right before their exit. As a result, disengaged stars operate in “a silent state of continual overwhelm.”


 Uncover the top 5 reasons employees leave:  Download our latest research on Employee Turnover.



We've identified some of the main causes for that lack of passion. Use these to prevent additional brownouts; or, ask these essential exit survey questions once your stars have already packed their bags.


You fail to challenge.

Star employees aren’t looking for an easy, clock-in/clock-out type of job. They want work that tests their current skills and knowledge, something that they can really sink their teeth into. If a top performer is looking for the nearest exit, you might have failed to appropriately match projects to their skillsets.

Exit survey questions: What projects would you have liked to tackle? How could you have better spent your time?


You overwork them.

When an employee is a diligent and efficient producer, managers often feel like they can assign more (and
more and more) work. While the employee can handle the increased workload, doing more of the same will lead to burnout and fatigue. Your employee may be willing to stay late to help in a bind; but when she logs overtime Monday through Friday, she’s going to start looking somewhere else.

Exit survey questions: How could the company have better used your time and skills? How could there have been a better balance?


You don’t provide direction.

Your company might have a stated mission and have annual goals, but where is your department or organization really headed? Talented employees have a whole bunch of energy and passion that they’re trying to use, but without a purpose to focus on, they’re bound to fizzle out.

Exit survey questions: What did you understand our communicated purpose to be? What communication problems exist? What, in your opinion, should our purpose be?


You fail to develop.

The thing about star employees: they’re always looking to grow. While growth can come from work projects, it can (and should) also come from more formalized education, mentorship, and paths for promotion. Even if your organization does offer programs like these, they might not have been clearly communicated to the former employee.

Exit survey questions: What development programs would you have liked to see in place? What skills would you have liked to acquire? What did you see as the next step for yourself in this company?


You tolerate poor performance.

An organization is only as strong as its weakest link. And if you’re tolerating weak links, say goodbye to those top employees. Stars don’t want to be dragged down by difficult colleagues – they know it will hold them back from achieving their personal and professional goals. An inefficient organization won’t help them shine, and frankly, will be a waste of their time. They want to move on to the next organization before you leave a stain on their resume.

Exit survey questions: What measures could have been taken to increase departmental/organizational performance? Was there a particular area that you thought we were weak in?


You control.

These employees didn’t get to be the best by manager handholding; they have personal goals, along with enough guts and internal drive to make them happen. When leadership micromanages these employees, it comes across as an insult to  the employee’s intelligence and drive. They’ve done a great job living their lives up to this point; they certainly don’t need you controlling every part of it now.

Exit survey questions: What decisions would you have liked to make? What would you have liked to do by yourself?



We all know turnover is inevitable. But it's not unpredictable. The research below uncovers the top 5 reasons employees leave. Download our free book, Top 5 Predictors of Employee Turnover, to dive into the data and start tackling your retention obstacles.

New Research! Top 5 Predictors of Employee Turnover


Published November 14, 2016 | Written By Christina Thompson