Exit data: Why do staff really leave

With recruitment budgets under pressure, it’s more important than ever to reduce staff turnover. One of the most powerful ways HR can do this is by working out why staff leave in the first place.

Yet according to a survey of HR practitioners and leavers by employee engagement consultancy TalentDrain, revealed exclusively in Personnel Today, 79% of organisations do not have a discrete and identifiable budget for employee retention, and only 56% aggregate the exit data they receive from outgoing staff.

Most organisations (82%) collect some form of exit data, according to TalentDrain, but the number that actually implement retention projects on the back of this information is just 37%.

Anonymous data most valuable

Only 4% collect anonymous exit data, meaning that most of the information organisations receive from leavers is coloured by their knowledge that line managers might hear what they’ve said – hardly an encouragement for them to be totally honest.

“There’s a huge difference in response if you know you’re accountable for what you’re saying compared with an anonymous survey,” says Ron Eldridge, director of TalentDrain, and co-author of the research.

“HR practitioners tend to rely on hearsay or opinion, rather than a systematic analysis of reliable data. There’s no reason why exit procedures should not have the same level of standardisation, objectivity and analysis as the selection process.”

According to Eldridge, HR tends to use the exit interview as more of a ‘tick-box’ process than a strategic opportunity to see what the key retention issues are in their organisation.

So where do the greatest gaps in HR’s knowledge about leavers lie? Team co-operation is a major sticking point. Only 4% of HR respondents to TalentDrain’s survey felt that lack of teamwork was a turnover driver in their organisation, compared with almost 20% of leavers.

People don’t leave managers

And the oft-quoted adage that ‘people leave managers’ does not ring as true as you might think: only 13% of leavers gave this as a real reason for leaving, whereas this was the third most popular reason cited by HR.

Finally, almost two-thirds of HR respondents thought staff left due to lack of promotion, while only a third of leavers said this was the case.

What can HR do to address these issues? Eldridge advocates introducing an anonymous element to the exit interview process, perhaps through an online survey.

Some staff, especially long-serving ones, will expect some form of human interaction in the exit process, so don’t dismiss the exit interview. Whatever format you choose, ensure you collect this data and feed it back to line managers and align it with wider business goals, he insists.

At English Heritage, the HR team secured budget and commitment from the chief executive Simon Thurley to create a discrete reward, recognition and retention function.

A key part of this was to develop a full-scale employee survey to understand what motivated staff. English Heritage ran focus groups for 1,200 staff before developing the survey, which was made available for all employees to complete anonymously.

TalentDrain analysed the responses and groups of people from across the organisation – in consultation with colleagues – worked with HR to develop an action plan to address staff feedback.

“The survey highlighted that our staff have a huge amount of passion and job satisfaction,” says Sarah Aston, HR director at English Heritage. “The action plan proposes changes to our communications processes, introducing more face-to-face communication, changes to our pay structure to make it more transparent, and focusing more on all aspects of performance management.”

Confusion about ownership

Dealing with retention as a separate function, as English Heritage has, is not without its challenges, however.

“There’s a real confusion about who owns ‘retention’,” explains Eldridge. “Is it the line manager or HR? In many cases it’s the manager, but the expertise for intervention lies in the HR department.”

And in most organisations, retention is the poor relation of recruitment. “Recruitment is sexy. All the resources, all the budget, go into recruitment, and it’s easily definable and measurable. Retention is more nebulous,” Eldridge adds.

There are three key things HR can do to push retention up the agenda and identify the real reasons for turnover, according to Eldridge:

  • Diagnose: Find out what actual employees think about working for the company, not just leavers.
  • Address: Can you satisfy their needs at work, based on what they’ve told you they want, not what you think they want?
  • Define: Build this into a retention strategy and put some budget behind it.

Recognising why people leave may not be as satisfying as attracting them to your organisation in the first place, but with the CIPD estimating the average cost of replacing someone at £7,750, it pays to know why they’re walking out of the door.

CASE STUDY: Kent County Council

Kent County Council has introduced anonymous exit questionnaires as part of a strategy to retain teachers in its 600 schools.

“We have 13,000 teachers and, in line with the national average, around 10% change jobs each year,” said Steve Wood, the council’s recruitment and retention manager for schools. “The majority do so for positive reasons, like a promotion. But others leave because they are not so well motivated, and we want to find out why.”

Leavers complete a short exit questionnaire anonymously online. “We wanted to give people an opportunity to tell us about their working lives and highlight particular issues, if that’s what they wanted to do,” said Wood.

As well as expected results, such as ‘teachers work excessive hours’, the survey highlighted some interesting issues around communication within schools, and also the high level of satisfaction teachers gain from working with children.

“The real interest for us is that we can split the data and make comparisons, such as newly qualified teachers against experienced teachers primary school responses against secondary schools,” said Wood. “This has revealed some interesting differences.”

As a result of the exit data, the council has introduced a new wellbeing programme for teachers and is reviewing training and professional development opportunities, particularly for newly qualified teachers.

The council now plans to survey all newly qualified teachers at the end of their first year, not just those who leave.

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