There's More to Retention Than Employee Satisfaction Surveys

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  • May 22, 2019

Employee satisfaction surveys serve a critical purpose in the overall organization’s success: They give employees a voice in everything from the day-to-day grind to the strategic vision for the organization. According to a Salesforce report, when employees feel their voice is heard and valued, they are 4.6x more likely to deliver their best work.

In theory, companies with employees that give positive feedback, as revealed by satisfaction surveys, should experience low turnover. Yet many companies that score high with employees still struggle with retention. There are a couple of potential reasons for this—the survey results might not be truly honest, or employees’ values and passions might change over time while the organizational goals remain stuck in the past.

Feedback from employee satisfaction surveys is one of the most helpful indicators of what employees are looking for and not finding, or what they’re most excited about that should be encouraged in their career development. So how do you encourage employees to tell the whole story, and how do you look at the bigger picture? Getting to the root of employees’ opinions and designing channels of feedback that are actionable, honest, and supported with a sense of safety and inclusion is a far more effective strategy for improving retention than a simple survey. Here are some ways this strategy can be achieved.

Prioritize Development

This employee retention strategy should seem like a no-brainer, but too many organizations and their well-meaning managers overlook why development is so important to workers. Most leaders want their workforce to succeed and believe they are facilitating development, but often fail to follow through; career development conversations often get pushed to the backburner. Employees feel ignored and eventually move on to someplace willing to invest in the growth they seek.

In their book Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Organizations Need and Employees Want, authors Beverly Kaye and Julie Winkle Giulioni write, “Study after study confirms that best-in-class managers—the ones who consistently develop the most capable, flexible, and engaged teams able to drive exceptional business results—all share one quality: they make career development a priority.” By prioritizing career development, you not only combat turnover, but also boost your results and the bottom line. A great place to start with this priority, the authors write, is simply having conversations with employees to learn how they want to develop. From there, trust builds, opportunities are facilitated to align with skills, growth occurs, and, most importantly, employees feel as though they have the tools and resources to realize their goals.

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Create a Great Company Culture for All

Every organization wants to believe they have a great workplace culture, but that can be difficult to assess when you are living and breathing within that culture. Even widely regarded progressive organizations struggle with this problem; for example, the Southern Poverty Law Center—a group dedicated to social justice and equality—suffered from a lack of inclusion and a lack of diversity in executive positions.

A problem with employee surveys is that if the culture is toxic and biased, participants may be afraid to answer accurately. Tiffany Jana and Ashley Diaz Mejias, authors of Erasing Institutional Bias: How to Create Systemic Change for Organizational Inclusion, call this fear “retribution bias,” and it can lead managers and executives to think everything is OK. Employees end up leaving because they don’t feel safe enough to suggest positive changes, and don’t feel like anything would change even if they did. Transforming culture is by no means easy, but it can go a long way toward improving employee retention. Jana and Mejias write, “Systems were built biased by humans and systems can be dismantled and made just by humans. In order to do this, though, we must begin in our own spheres of influence and be willing to lay down our own personal agendas in favor of what is best for the collective.” Building an inclusive culture should be an organization-wide endeavor; changing a culture requires effort from everyone. Encouraging honest perspectives in employee satisfaction surveys on how people experience the workplace differently can lead to more inclusive workplace cultures in which everyone feels heard.

Engage Early

People begin forming opinions about their jobs early in their employment—as early as onboarding, or even while they’re still interviewing. We’ve all heard people say, “I’ll stay a couple of years and then look for something else,” which essentially means they have an exit strategy before they’ve even started. In some cases, an employee has a negative experience in the first week or month of their employment that so shapes their view of the organization that every day thereafter is a struggle to live with that negativity while looking forward to the day they can get out.

Engaging employees from the interview process demonstrates that you value their well-being, success, development, and contributions to the organization. Taking an interest in the people you supervise at work shouldn’t mean micromanaging them—that’s another clear retention killer. Instead, solicit their opinions. Let them take risks. Provide opportunities to grow. Recognize their successes and support them after failures. All this might not be enough to prevent determined-to-leave employees from leaving, but it can give most workers confidence that they chose their employers wisely. The biggest underlying theme here is to keep channels of communication and mentorship open for them, making sure they know your door is open from the moment you begin working together.

Change at Every Level

Employee satisfaction surveys may show the bigger picture regarding what is delighting, merely satisfying, or vexing a workforce, but they don’t delve into the individual reasons why retention and turnover are happening. To see true retention progress, managers must connect with employees on a personal level and consider cultivating a leadership style that puts employees first. All the little connections can add up to results on a team level, department level, and beyond—and soon, you’ll have an experienced workforce committed to building upon their successes.

Mark Miller, in his new book Win the Heart: How to Create a Culture of Full Engagement, frames this need for connection perfectly: “First, there are the people. Their work life matters. As leaders, we have an opportunity to help people find meaning and purpose in their work. We can create a place where they can bring their best selves to work every day. The workplace we create determines, to a large extent, how engaged someone is at work. Do your people go home energized or disempowered at the end of a long day? We really do have the responsibility to decide.”

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