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Why Your Employee Surveys and Exit Interviews Aren't Helpful

In HR, employee satisfaction surveys and exit interviews have become standard. But do they improve engagement and retention?

by Rikki Justin Go, Content and Collaborations at Praisidio - May 29th, 2023

In HR, employee satisfaction surveys and exit interviews have become standard. We use them as one of the primary ways to gauge employee sentiment and improve engagement, all in the hopes of keeping people around longer. 

But do surveys and exit interviews actually improve employee engagement and retention? 

According to a survey by Deloitte, companies spend over $1 billion annually on employee engagement initiatives, primarily driven by the information gathered in satisfaction surveys. 

But despite these efforts, employee attrition is still a significant issue, costing companies an estimated $1 trillion annually

This points to an important truth: most employee satisfaction surveys and exit interviews are ineffective. The information they gather is "too little too late." It often sends well-meaning companies in the wrong direction, leading to off-base engagement initiatives, dissatisfied employees, and increased attrition. 

It might finally be time to ditch the surveys and exit interviews. Real-time data is a much more valuable way to measure employee engagement and satisfaction. 

The limitations of surveys and exit interviews

Employee satisfaction surveys and exit interviews have three main limitations: recency bias, lagging indicators, and the inability to measure subtle signals. 

Recency bias

Because you can only perform surveys and exit interviews occasionally, the information they gather tends to have a recency bias. In an ever-changing workplace, this isn't all that useful. 

Lagging indicators

You need to think two steps ahead to manage attrition and keep employees engaged. When an employee reports dissatisfaction on a survey, it's usually too late. There is already a high likelihood of them leaving. 

Inability to measure subtle signals 

An employee often doesn't even realize they're dissatisfied until it's too late. Based on our research at Praisidio, we've discovered several subtle signals that indicate someone is at risk of attrition. (We'll talk about those more in a minute.) 

Because employees aren't even aware of these subtle signals, surveys can't capture that type of proactive, real-time information. 

Real-time data: A smarter way to measure engagement and satisfaction

Early intervention is necessary to prevent attrition, and it needs to happen almost in real-time.

By monitoring a range of existing data in real-time, you can always stay abreast of who is at risk of quitting and, more importantly, what you can do to fix the problem before it's too late. 

Our research at Praisidio shows that workload, connection, recognition, compensation, and growth are the primary indicators that need to be monitored. 

Workload indicators

  • Business travel/out-of-office days: Days spent out of the office, locally or for out-of-town business trips, take a toll. Too many in a short period can lead to burnout. 

  • Weekly meeting load: Excessive meetings leave employees without enough time to complete their assigned work. 

  • Absent days: Absent days may indicate burnout or disengagement.

  • The number of projects: Too many projects can lead to stress and burnout. 

Connection indicators

  • Manager and skip-level 1:1s: One-on-ones help employees stay connected and feel supported by leadership. An excessive amount of 1:1s and a lack of 1:1s can indicate more significant problems. 

  • Manager attrition: High manager attrition rates can indicate a lack of leadership or a hostile work environment. 

  • Meetings with peers: Regular meetings with peers can indicate a healthy, supportive work environment. 

  • Collaborator and peer attrition: High peer and collaborator attrition rates create an unstable work environment and place a high workload on remaining employees. 

Recognition indicators

  • Peer bonuses: Peer bonuses are an essential boost to morale and can signal a healthy, supportive team. 

Compensation indicators

  • Point-in-range: An at-a-glance picture of where employees sit within their salary range can help uncover who is at risk of leaving a higher-paying job elsewhere.

  • Compa ratio: An employee's salary, as compared to similar external and internal positions, is another valuable indicator of attrition risk. 

  • Pay raises: Regular pay raises indicate that employees are recognized for their work. If an employee has to ask for a pay raise, they are already halfway out the door. 

Growth indicators

  • Time in the role: Prolonged time in the same position could signal a lack of growth opportunities. 

  • Number of job changes: Multiple job changes often signal that employees are more likely to leave their current position soon. 

  • Tenure: The length of time an employee has worked at the company can also reveal a need for opportunities to support growth for long-term employees. 

Analysis and follow-through matter

The above indicators mean little in isolation, but they are powerful when analyzed for trends and contrasted against other departments, teams, and cohorts. All these indicators can reveal disengaged employees, burned out, and at greater risk of attrition. 

Intervention and targeted action are essential for employees at risk of attrition. This may mean intervening at the management level, team level, or individual employee basis, depending on the issues you uncover. 

Rethinking surveys, engagement, and attrition

In short, employee satisfaction surveys and exit interviews are costly, time-consuming and often fail to provide companies with the insights they need to keep their workforce engaged and productive. 

Surveys are a lagging indicator of satisfaction and often fail to capture those subtle signals that best predict employee turnover. Instead, companies should focus on real-time data that monitors specific workloads, connection, recognition, compensation, and growth indicators.

By analyzing this data and following through with targeted interventions, employers can address problems before they escalate, saving money and building a more engaged workforce.