A Record Number of Hawai‘i Workers Quit Their Jobs in 2021

Here’s what local experts say is driving the exodus and why efforts to keep employees should start the day they’re hired.
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Photo: Getty Images; Photo Illustration: Kelsey Ige

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ latest data shows that 222,000 local employees had voluntarily resigned. In September alone, about 38,000 people quit – 6.6% of the local workforce and the highest rate for that month in the nation.

In all of 2020, 159,000 local workers resigned and in 2019, 195,000.

2021’s record number of resignations echoes a national trend dubbed the Great Resignation. The bureau’s latest data shows that a historic 4.5 million American workers jumped ship in November, with high quit rates occurring in retail, accommodation and food services, and arts, entertainment and recreation – sectors with greater exposure to the pandemic than many other jobs. About 4.3 million American workers quit in December.

“With Covid, I think everyone has had an opportunity to reflect upon what’s important to them,” says Carol Shimada, director of system total rewards at The Queen’s Health Systems and treasurer for the Hawai‘i chapter of the Society for Human Resource Management. “And if they’ve been hanging out at a sucky job, I think they’ve concluded that they don’t want to have to do that anymore.

“So, they looked at what’s more important. Is it job satisfaction? Is it having a great boss? I’m venturing to guess not everyone is moving for more money. Some are moving for greater work-life balance. Just their own well-being, that’s what’s most important to people.”

With many workers potentially looking to change jobs, Hawaii Business Magazine wanted to know if there are best practices for how managers can talk with resigning employees and whether those employees could be persuaded to stay. Here’s what Shimada and two other local HR experts say:


1. Ongoing, honest communication can help you address issues before they become problems.

Convincing an employee to stay should start as soon as they begin their job, says Peter Hirano, executive VP of distribution, people and strategic initiatives at Servco Pacific. And, he says, company culture is key. Managers need to make sure their workers feel like they belong, are passionate about the work they do and feel positive emotions on the job. And if employees don’t feel those things, managers need to help them get there, he says.

Servco has about 1,100 Hawai‘i employees spread across three islands and has been on Hawaii Business Magazine’s Best Places to Work list for 18 years. Hirano says voluntary turnovers at Servco were flat in 2019, 2020 and 2021.

“I think a little bit of why we haven’t felt it is because we had focused on this stuff even before I got here” five years ago, he says. “It’s a very strong culture and so we haven’t felt this so-called Great Resignation.”

Regular check-ins between managers and their direct reports are a part of that. These meetings are sometimes called “stay interviews,” and they don’t have to be formal, says Michele Kauinui, director of HR services at simplicityHR by Altres. They can be as short as a few minutes once a week, but they give time for managers to ask questions like, “Is there anything I can do to clear your path?” or “Is there anything I can help with?”

Those meetings also give employees space to feel comfortable and share when they are overwhelmed, need more resources or are otherwise unhappy.

“Oftentimes in those meetings you might find out an employee is unhappy because of something that you have control over as a manager,” Shimada says. “And you find out that they’re ready to walk out the door and leave, or you find out that they have an interview scheduled next week and it’s because of ABC when ABC is something really correct-able from your side as a manager.”

She adds that those meetings are also about building trust and getting to know employees as individuals. For example, managers can’t assume all their direct reports want to be publicly recognized for their work.

“It’s really just the little things of having your employee trust you that you’re going to make the right decisions on their behalf, that the workplace is safe and that you’ll always advocate for them when they cannot advocate themselves,” she says. The Queen’s Health Systems has about 8,000 employees across the state.

Having that strong relationship can also help a manager more easily see warning signs that can hint at an employee’s impending departure. The warning signs include reduced communication with co-workers or supervisors, not volunteering as much for projects, and disengagement from their work, says Kauinui. Certain life or work events can also trigger an employee’s search for a new job, such as not being selected for a promotion, or getting married or divorced, buying a new home or starting a family.

Hawaiʻi Resignations, 2000-2021

Here’s how many people voluntarily left their nonfarm jobs in Hawai‘i for each month in the past 21 years. Last year was a record high, with the peak in September.

04 22 Great Resignation Table

Source: Federal Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, data pulled Feb. 22, 2022.

2. Beware: Extending a counteroffer can be a double-edge sword.

Sometimes, managers can persuade employees to stay by matching any new salaries they have been offered. The Queen’s Health Systems, Shimada says, has offered retention agreements and bonuses to employees who are critical to the organization and would be difficult to replace.

“When you think how much it costs to recruit someone for a new job when someone leaves and how long it takes to train that employee to get up to speed, I think if employers thought about it from that standpoint, it’d be money well-spent,” she says, “because it would balance out, having to spend money to train someone new when you already have somebody there who is skillful.”

However, she recognizes that not all businesses are able to extend counteroffers. Plus, a counteroffer might only be a short-term fix, especially if the employee doesn’t feel valued.

“You kind of have to be able to smooth that over and help the employee understand they are valued and technically apologize for making them feel undervalued,” Shimada says. “And if there is an opportunity for you to create another position or promote them in some way, certainly, by all means, that’d be the ideal situation.”

A 2018 research paper by Cornell University reported that most employees who accept counteroffers still leave within six to 24 months: “Following the acceptance of a counteroffer, 55% of employees report greater unhappiness and decreased levels of commitment,” the paper’s authors wrote. “Only 16% of employees who accept counteroffers believe their relationship with their employer improved post-offer.”

Kauinui adds that acceptance of a counteroffer might provide the company time to start recruiting for a replacement, redistribute job responsibilities or give other employees on the team an opportunity to take on more duties.

Another challenge: Your chances of keeping an employee are low if that employee is already considering another job offer, say the three HR experts we spoke with.

“If they’re to a point where they’re leaving or ready to leave, I’d say a lot of times it really is too late,” Shimada says. “We saved many employees, but there are times where they say, ‘You know, you should have treated me better while I was here versus trying to keep me when I have one foot out the door.’ ”


3. Get to the root of why the employee wants to leave.

Workers aren’t resigning just because of pay, though that is often the assumption, says Kauinui.

“A company’s culture is a large factor in and of itself, and before offering an employee more money, if they’re considering leaving, I think it’s more important to find out what is the root cause that they began leaving in the first place or what is the reason that they even entertained an offer when they weren’t looking,” she says.

SimplicityHR serves over 2,000 Hawai‘i businesses, many of them in the construction, trade, service, retail and administrative sectors. The firm’s data shows that there was an increase in employees leaving in 2021 compared with 2020, either for other employment opportunities or because they were dissatisfied with their jobs or salaries. There was also an increase in the number of employees who chose not to return after a leave of absence or left so they could return to school.

Kauinui adds that some local employees may have quit to pursue remote work opportunities over the summer when many workplaces began to require employees to return to the office.

Some health care workers at The Queen’s Health Systems have chosen to retire early to avoid putting their health at risk during the pandemic, Shimada says. Others, such as respiratory therapists and nurses, have left because they have other options besides working at a hospital, such as working as travel nurses.

Burnout and the lack of child care have also contributed to resignations at the health care system, she adds.

Related Stories: 9 Ways to Retain Your Employees, What Benefits Help Me Recruit and Retain Employees?, Retain Your Older Workers

4. Don’t take it personally when you direct report quits.

It’s often said that employees leave bad bosses, not their jobs. A 2019 report on frontline managers by global leadership consulting firm DDI found that 57% of people have quit a job because of a manager. But managers can’t take it personally, Kauinui says, so do your best to not show your disappointment when employees tell you they’re leaving.

And if you do learn that the employee is leaving because of you, then view it as a learning opportunity, Shimada says.

“It’s heartbreaking when you lose somebody that you really feel is a strong performer,” she says. “You haven’t done your job if that’s happening. But it’s good to learn from that if you can’t retain the employee. So for the rest of your group that’s still there, intact and working, maybe it’s about talking to them individually or as a group and say, ‘John just left. I was really surprised. He shared he is leaving partly because of my leadership skills. Tell me, how can I improve, are there particular areas you feel I’m deficient?’ ”

She adds: “There are many things we do as managers that you’re reacting to, something that is disappointing that you’ve learned, and it takes a lot of managerial courage to kind of buck up and say, ‘How can I turn this into a positive?’ ”


5. The bottom line: Be strategic in how you respond when employees say they’re leaving.

From an employee’s perspective, anyone wants to leave a company with dignity and respect, so how a manager, I think, responds to that conversation will really set the tone on where it goes from there,” Kauinui says. “What I mean by that is what you don’t want to say as a manager is: ‘What do you want? Do you want more money? What can I give you to stay?’ Because then it sounds very one-sided and very selfish for the company.”

Instead, you can ask questions like:

  • What is it about this new position that influenced your decision to leave?
  • Is there anything we could have done better?
  • Is there anything you would have wanted changed about your job?

Hirano of Servco Pacific agrees, adding that feedback from the leaving employee can help the company, the job or the team improve.

“At the end of the day,” Kauinui says, “whether the employee decides to stay or not, how that conversation goes will really leave a lasting impression, and in a state as small as Hawai‘i, word spreads.

“I think every employer wants to be or remain an employer of choice because word gets out on social media, Glassdoor, etc., so companies have to be really cautious about how separations are handled, whether it’s voluntary or involuntary.”



Categories: Business & Industry, Human Resources