Numans' Guide to Employee Retention in the Spider-Verse

In this post, we explain employee retention as presented in the 1973 Harvard Business Review Research Article - ‘Why Employees Stay’ using characters from the movie 'Spider-Man, Across the Spider-Verse'.
Shreya Vishwanath
Shreya Vishwanath
Marketing At Numans
Running short on time? Read the highlights
  • HBR's article 'Why People Stay' categorises employees into 4 groups based on 2 parameters - Job Satisfaction and Environmental factors.
  • Crossing the 2 parameters creates a matrix that can help us understand whether an employee is likely quit or stay in an organisation  in the long term.
  • The 4 groups in the matrix are - Turn-Ons, Turns-Ons-Plus, Turn-Overs, Turn-Offs
  • Turn-Ons are employees who can afford to leave the organisation but choose to stay because they are deeply satisfied with their work. In the context of the Spider-Society, Jessica Drew (Biker Spiderwoman) falls in this group.
  • Turn-Ons-Plus are employees who are compelled to stay by external factors, but are happy with their jobs. Gwen Stacy (Spiderwoman) falls in this group for the first half of 'Across the Spider-Verse'. She needs her job because she cannot go home, but she also enjoys her work.
  • Turn-Offs are employees who do not like their jobs but are compelled to stay by external factors. Hobie Brown (SpiderPunk) doesn't particularly care about his work but stays to keep his friends company. Employees in this group are negative influences on the collective morale and productivity of the organisation.
  • Turn-Overs are employees who have alternate opportunities and do not enjoy their work. As a result, they are most likely to quit. Despite his initial enthusiasm for the Spider-Society, Miles eventually falls in this group.
  • Identifying where employees are in the retention matrix can help organisations take the right steps to retain or relieve them. These steps vary for different groups.
  • To improve job satisfaction, organisations can use frameworks like the Job Characteristic Model to redefine employees' roles and renew their sense of satisfaction.
  • To keep satisfied employees satisfied, managers should introduce regular check-ins, structured feedback, opportunities for growth, and tailor benefit/appreciation programs.

If you’re like me, you’ve spent the last two weeks afflicted with a serious case of Spider-mania. There couldn’t possibly have been a more exciting start to June (the Wednesday of the year), and like many other Spiderman fans in Bangalore, I braved a thunderstorm to catch the first day, (almost) first show. It was so worth it, that if I had to do it all over again, I would.

In fact, I did.

After my first watch on Thursday, I went back for a second watch on Saturday, hoping to catch easter eggs, admire details in the art, and find new interpretations of the scenes that had confused me before. It was during this second watch that I got to thinking of the organisational dynamics of the Spider-Verse and the idea has stuck with me since.

Spoiler Alert

Caution: Heavy spoilers from ‘Into the Spider-verse’ and ‘Across the Spider-verse’ ahead.

If you haven’t seen the movie yet, I recommend that you stop whatever it is you’re doing now and book your tickets to go see it in a theatre. The soundtrack, plot-lines, characters, fan-service are all incredible, but the art (in my opinion) is the best part. You deserve to see it on a large screen. Find the largest possible screen so you can really savour the details.

Employees of the Spider-Verse

“An organisation typically comprises a group of experts who work together to attain short-term and long-term objectives.”

“An employee is someone that another person or company hires to perform a service.”

Here’s the premise of this post - the Spider-Society is a company. Every spider-person recruited to the society is an employee. Miguel O’Hara (Vampire-Ninja Spiderman) is the organisation’s founder and CEO. The spider-people are united by their shared abilities, experiences, and their long and short term objectives -

Short term - containing immediate threats,

Long term - ensuring the safety and continuity of universes

The Spider-Society is like a company in many other ways - there is a selection process, employees work remotely or on-site (as needed), and they have a strict code of conduct (which Gwen and Miles eventually violate, resulting in expulsion from the society).

In this post, we'll use characters and instances from 'Across the Spider-Verse' to explain the 1973 Harvard Business Review Research Article - ‘Why People Stay’.

Why (Spider) People Stay

The HBR article 'Why People Stay' is a study into the factors that aid or hinder employee retention, with a detailed analysis of how susceptible different groups (segmented based on education, ethnicity, gender) are to these factors. To summarise the theoretical framework from the study -

HBR researchers categorise employees into 4 groups based on where they rank on 2 parameters:

(1) Job Satisfaction (internal motivation)

Here are some indicators that an employee is satisfied with their job -

  • The job they do challenges them
  • They are able to learn and grow in their role
  • The work aligns with their values
  • They are aligned with the company’s goals
  • They are skilled at their job
  • They find the role relevant and important to their context

(2) Environmental Factors (external motivation)

These are external to the person and influence their decision or ability to leave an organisation.

Here are some factors that make it unfavourable to leave an organisation -

  • Having friends at work
  • Having a job that supports work life balance
  • Having a manager or mentor you are attached to
  • Having stock options that are still vesting
  • Having a bond to pay off
  • Being in a volatile job market
  • Having your family insured by your organisation
  • Being unable to find other work/more rewarding work
  • Being unwilling to relocate for a new job

These factors contribute to the inertia that keeps employees in companies even as their job satisfaction wanes. The greater the inertia, the less likely the employee is to leave.

Putting Job Satisfaction and Environmental factors together gives us the following matrix of employee personas and can lend some predictability to whether a certain kind of employee will stay or leave an organisation.


Turn-ons are ideal employees for companies. They’re motivated, love their jobs, and tend to boost overall productivity and morale. To me, Jessica Drew (Biker Spider-woman) is the best fit for this persona. She’s evidently one of the strongest spider-people. She seems to genuinely like being part of the organisation, so much that she actively recruits people (like Gwen) to the task force. While there are some external motivators that could be compelling her to stay, we don’t have enough context from the movie (except a few hints at a tragedy in her past) to draw any conclusions.

Source: Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, Sony Pictures Entertainment Motion Picture Group

While she is unwavering in her support for the organisation and its leadership in 'Across the Spider-Verse', it is likely that we’ll see this change in the next movie. At the end of the movie, we see her observing Gwen from a distance instead of stopping her from going after Miles. Perhaps this is as far as she'll go against Gwen and Miles - a sign that her values are beginning to diverge from those of the organisation

An employee’s inertia is strengthened or weakened by the degree of compatibility between his own work ethic and the values for which the company stands. The employee’s ethic derives from his own values and the actual conditions he encounters on the job. The company’s values derive from societal norms, formal decisions by the board of directors, and the policies and procedures of the managing group. A widening gap between these two vantages weakens inertia; a narrowing gap strengthens it.

If managerial actions reduce job satisfaction (even temporarily), turnover may rise dramatically. Since the inertia of the turn-ons is not strengthened by environmental factors, it is therefore not strong enough to make them stay without continual job satisfaction.

- Why People Stay, Harvard Business Review

Turn-Ons Plus

Employees in the Turn-Ons-Plus group are driven and motivated, just like those in the Turn-Ons group. The key difference is the presence of factors in their environment that make it unfavourable for them to leave the organisation. For the first 2 hours of the movie, Gwen fits right into this group.

Source: Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, Sony Pictures Entertainment Motion Picture Group

Gwen joins the Spider-Society without particularly understanding its purpose or vision. She is compelled to accept the role quickly to escape incarceration, and more importantly, her father's disappointment. Her stint begins well enough - She is reunited with old friends (Spider-ham, Peter B Parker, Penny Parker) and she finds new friends in Hobie Brown and Pavitra “Pav” Prabhakar. She also finds a mentor/role model in Jessica Drew.

As time passes though, Gwen grows more and more uncomfortable with the conditions of her work. She's forced to accept that her father, a police captain, will die and is forced to keep away from Miles.

After the big chase through HQ, we see Gwen make the transition from being a Turn-On-Plus to becoming a Turn-Off. Her dissatisfaction is evident during her outburst at Miguel. He recognises this and sends her back to her universe.


Turn-offs are dissatisfied employees who no longer enjoy their work but cannot quit due to external factors. This can either manifest as quiet-quitting or behaviour that is detrimental to the organisation’s progress and morale. Hobie Brown (Spider-Punk) is a Turn-Off. His attachment to the Spider-Society stems from his attachment to his work-friends. When Miles asks him why he hasn't quit, he says he's "only looking out for his drummer (Gwen)".

Source: Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, Sony Pictures Entertainment Motion Picture Group

The turn-offs are prime candidates for union activities; they can easily generate employee-relations and productivity problems, and conceivably industrial espionage or sabotage.Through the movie he disobeys direct orders, actively dissuades Miles from joining the team, steals from the HQ, and effectively fuels a rebellion. Turn-offs are generally disengaged or negatively disposed towards their work places and can be negative influences on motivated employees. With effort, Turn-Offs can be re-engaged, but sometimes the best outcome for the organisation, (and eventually, the employee) is for the association to be terminated. Had Hobie been asked to leave the Spider-Society in time, Miles may have never escaped his laser prison in the basement of the HQ, Gwen would never have stood a chance to find Miles before Miguel, and the movie might have had a very different ending.


Through the course of the movie, we see Miles transition from being a ‘Turn-On’ to a ‘Turn-Over’. In fact, this transition is essentially the plot of the movie. Miles has an extremely positive impression of the organisation before he’s recruited. The organisation has a talented workforce, a selective hiring process, opportunities for travel, state of the art technology, and is where all his friends are. He has all the makings of a loyal and hard-working employee.

His stint starts off well enough, but his honeymoon period is cut short by a harrowing onboarding presentation that shows him just how badly he fits with organisation's culture. Miles chooses to leave, causing a rift in the organisation on his way out.

Source: Across the Spider-Verse, Sony Pictures Entertainment Motion Picture Group

Dissatisfaction is contagious. Turn-offs and Turn-overs have the potential to disrupt the collective productivity and satisfaction of the whole organisation. At the end of 'Across the Spider-Verse', we see several key members of the Spider-Society leave to join Gwen, undoubtedly weakening the organisation as a result.

Interestingly, the article (written 40 years ago) warns managers of exactly this outcome.

A new work ethic is emerging in this society. If organisations resist recognition of the change in values for working, stick with a single approach to people, retain the concept of the average employee, and continue to snap on golden handcuffs (benefits, perks etc), then:

- The new generation may not even enter those organisations, but create its own (or take over existing ones).

- Present employees who are locked in and turned off may seek third-party intervention to guarantee their right to job satisfaction, or their real freedom to leave.

Getting Employees to Stay

'Why People Stay' begins with a criticism of the tendency of organisations to study turnovers when trying to solve their retention problems. The researchers compare this to studying the causes of divorces to understand why marriages are successful.

The article analyses employees across age groups, races, tenure, level of education, and personal values to understand how these factors influence where employees lie in the matrix. For the sake of brevity, I have not included these analyses in this post. However, I highly recommend reading the entire article to develop a better understanding of your own workplace.

In its conclusion, the article emphasises the importance of diversifying your approach to retention as a manager. It's easy to assume that your employees would want to stay for the same reasons as you, but this isn't often true.

With some research, I've put together some recommendations for creating a holistic retention plan. I've done so specifically with small, early stage teams in mind, since it is my understanding that young companies have the most to gain and lose when it comes to attrition and retention.

Hiring the Right People

While everyone is on the lookout for talent, an objectively talented employee may still not be the right one for you (think of Miles and the Spider-Society). It is as important to evaluate an employee’s fit for your team and culture as it is to evaluate their skills and abilities. To gauge their readiness for your team, it’s imperative that your hiring and onboarding process communicate the company’s goals and values accurately. Often companies communicate an ideal version of their values, rather than the ones they currently operate with. One way to mitigate this can be to offer your candidates the opportunity to speak to many different employees in your company before they come on board. This will help fortify the candidate's understanding of your culture and will also help you get many different perspectives on the candidate's fit for your team.

Identifying Disengagement

A selective hiring process can help you assemble a team of highly motivated and talented individuals, but it is only the first step to having an engaged and productive team. it’s important to remember that employees - their motivations, aspirations, priorities - are constantly evolving. Maintaining checks on how your employees are feeling can help you implement measures to keep up the collective morale and productivity of your team. Evaluating where in the retention matrix an employee is can help you formulate an effective retention plan.

A few measures you can implement to identify disengagement are:

  1. Frequent performance evaluation and feedback: while it may seem like you do check-ins with your team fairly often, employees only receive formal and structured performance feedback around appraisal season - generally only once or twice a year. Having frequent performance feedback sessions with objective and subjective considerations can help you recognise disengagement and take action early.
  2. Hiring People and Culture representatives: companies with fewer employees tend to assume that every HR function can be undertaken by a team of 2 or 3 people. In reality, it's hard enough to keep track of employees' sentiments (especially in a remote work environment) without the additional load of other tasks on their bandwidth.
  3. Equipping managers with the soft skills and tools needed to re-engage employees: Managers are an important influence on employee motivation and job satisfaction. In 'Into the Spider-Verse', Miles takes the iconic leap of faith at Peter B Parker's suggestion. Had their relationship been less trustful, Miles would probably have given up. In 'Across the Spider-Verse', Peter B Parker almost convinces Miles to stay at the Spider-Society and let fate take its course. On the other hand, Jessica's reluctance to stand up to Miguel in Gwen's favour cements Gwen's disillusionment with the Spider-Society.

    Whoever came up with the adage "Employees don't quit jobs, they quit managers" might be on to something.

Addressing Low Job Satisfaction

One way of improving an employee's job satisfaction is assigning them to a new team or project.

If that isn't possible, there are ways to restructure an employee's role to make their work more engaging. The Job Characteristics Model is a framework that can help. Developed by Richard Hackman and Greg Oldham, the JCM aims to understand how certain job characteristics can influence employee motivation, satisfaction, and performance. It consists of five core job characteristics and three critical psychological states that contribute to employee engagement and effectiveness.

  1. Skill Variety: The degree to which a job requires a range of different activities and skills.
  2. Task Identity: The extent to which a job allows an employee to complete a whole and identifiable piece of work.
  3. Task Significance: The degree to which a job has a substantial impact on others or society as a whole.
  4. Autonomy: The degree of freedom and independence an employee has in performing their job.
  5. Feedback: The degree to which an employee receives clear and timely information about their job performance.

The combination of these 5 characteristics results in 3 psychological states that mediate the relationship between job characteristics and employee outcomes:

  1. Experienced Meaningfulness: This psychological state refers to the extent to which an employee perceives their work as meaningful and valuable. When employees find their work meaningful, they feel that their efforts contribute to something larger than themselves or have a positive impact on others or society. It involves understanding the purpose and significance of their job and feeling a sense of fulfilment and purpose in their work. When employees experience meaningfulness, they are more likely to be motivated, engaged, and satisfied with their job.
  2. Experienced Responsibility: Experienced responsibility refers to the degree of autonomy and accountability an employee feels in their job. It involves granting employees the freedom to make decisions and take ownership of their work outcomes. When employees have a sense of responsibility, they feel empowered and trusted to perform their tasks effectively and make important decisions. This psychological state enhances motivation and job satisfaction by giving employees a sense of control and autonomy over their work, allowing them to take pride in their accomplishments and contribute to the organisation's success.
  3. Knowledge of Results: Knowledge of results pertains to the feedback employees receive about their performance and the outcomes of their work. It involves providing employees with clear and timely information about their progress, achievements, and areas for improvement. When employees have access to feedback and results, they can evaluate their own performance, adjust their approach, and learn from their experiences. This psychological state fosters a sense of self-awareness, continuous learning, and improvement. It also enhances motivation by allowing employees to see the direct impact of their efforts and make informed decisions about how to enhance their performance.

Maintaining High Morale

When planning retention, don't make the mistake of neglecting employees in the 'Turn-Ons' and 'Turn-Ons-Plus' groups. If job satisfaction is the result of achieving and maintaining the 3 psychological states proposed by the JCM, actively communicating with employees about the significance and impact of their work is crucial in keeping them engaged. Structured feedback, check-ins, and opportunities for learning and growth go a long way here.

Rewards, recognition, and appreciation can play a powerful role. In this podcast episode on ‘The importance of employee happiness’, Jade Green, Chief Ripple Creator at Väre, recommends identifying your employees’ "love languages" to design programs, reward constructs, and benefits that are right for them. Having satisfied employees will result in a bottom-up culture, where every employee reinforces the values that your organisation represents.

At Numans, we’re strong believers in the power of culture. We’re helping companies around the world implement highly personalised employee onboarding and engagement flows at scale to make sure that every employee feels aligned, seen and appreciated. Whether your team is remote or back at the office, we make it easy for your People and Culture team to go the extra mile. Get in touch with us to know more!

Ps: We can also help you design spider-suits that don’t make you look like you’re bleeding from your armpits! Visit our catalogue to curate cool merch your employees will love.

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