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Dec 21, 2022

It’s something of a marketing truism that if you want to know how customers feel about a product or service, the best way to do it is simply by asking them.

The same logic has long been applied to satisfaction surveys, and most HRDs would suggest that if you want to solve attrition, then satisfaction surveys provide the answers. After all, by taking a company’s pulse, it should be possible to identify which areas of employee life require attention to prevent people from quitting.

But does it work?

Can staff satisfaction surveys really provide a level of meaningful data to make informed HR decisions and policies?

The jury is out

The truth is, the jury is out. A recent report finds only 22% of US businesses have actually seen positive effects from employee satisfaction surveys.

In fact, I would go further by saying that with attrition remaining a $1 trillion problem annually, our existing tools for tackling attrition – of which staff surveys are a primary weapon – just aren’t working.

Why are employee satisfaction surveys used?

First, let’s consider why satisfaction surveys are used.

Employee satisfaction surveys are used as a tool to assess a workforce’s overall current sentiments towards their task or designation. They are also used to gauge employee happiness and identify areas that need improvement.

These are definitely areas that every corporation needs visibility on. However, the real question we should be asking is whether or not satisfaction surveys are actually the ‘right’ tool for the job.

The Limitations of Satisfaction Surveys

There are several reasons why satisfactions surveys are not the best tool:

Recency Bias

Satisfaction surveys suffer from ‘recency bias’, meaning that recent events tend to eclipse more long-term issues. This can cause issues with the data because employees’ satisfaction tends to change with recent management changes or company events.


Employee satisfaction surveys can’t be performed too regularly or they risk becoming repetitive and losing employee buy-in. As a result, any changes in employee satisfaction that happen between surveys aren’t captured.

Lagging indicators

One problem surveys have is that they won’t reveal problems until they’ve developed. For example, if a survey unearths that employees feel unappreciated and undervalued, the problem will have already developed to a point where intervention is a sizeable (and potentially fruitless) task.

Satisfaction surveys’ biggest fault

The inability of surveys to reveal problems early is their greatest shortfall. Intervening earlier, when a problem is still small, is a far more cost-effective proposal and will have the greatest chance of retaining employees. After all, your chances of swaying an employee to stay will always be highest when any interventions are done pre-emptively and not retrospectively.

To be preemptive, HRDs need accurate data delivered early and with a regular tempo.

Sadly, satisfaction surveys are unable to deliver this.

The solution is to look to other data sources.

More reliable data sources

Our own research has revealed what we believe are the most effective indicators for predicting and dealing with attrition.

Interestingly, they’re all based on data that companies already have and are collecting.

To improve retention, companies need to move away from satisfaction surveys and instead put their focus on more reliable data sources.

These are the 19 indicators that will give greater clarity on employee satisfaction and attrition risks than any survey ever can. These are:

Workload indicators

1 Out-of-office days 

The number of days an employee takes leave. Look for changes in frequency relative to their role or similar teams. If you see a trend, dig deeper.

2 Weekly meeting load

Look at the number of meetings attended by an employee in a week. Too many meetings can lead to disruption and lead to anxiety and burnout. Too few meetings can lead to disconnection.

3 Absent days

The number of days an employee is not present. Like out-of-office days, unusual spikes that run against your wider staff trends are worth investigating and could signify risks like burnout, fatigue, or harassment. And it may get worse considering that up to 40% of employees believe their companies have no solutions to help with burning out.

4 Number of projects

This is the volume of work taken on by an employee. An unusually high number of projects can show which employees are at risk of burnout. Too few projects can also identify the same.

Connection indicators

5 Skip-level 1:1s

The number and frequency of meetings with a manager’s manager. These meetings can be highly useful for some groups, like team leaders, but are distracting for others, like developers. Check the data to ensure the right people are participating.

6 Manager attrition

This can refer to the total number of managers lost, or whether or not a team has lost a manager in a certain period of time. Manager attrition can damage morale and alignment. Excessive manager attrition can have a domino effect and lead to more resignations.

7 Meetings with peers

The number of meetings employees have with their peers. This is a strong indicator of connectivity or isolation. A lack can be particularly damaging for those in creative roles where collaboration is essential.

8 Number of manager changes

The number of new managers a team has in a given period of time. This indicator can be a sign of multiple issues. The team as a whole may require intervention or the support structure for the management role may be missing.

9 Manager 1:1s

The frequency of meetings between a direct report and their manager. Regular meetings bring connectivity and engagement, but too many can foster resentment and suspicions of over reach. Look for trends between teams that could suggest which teams are getting this right and which aren’t.

10 Collaborator attrition

The number of core collaborators lost over a period of time. Most organizations have hidden linchpins that collaborate informally across departments and teams. When these people leave, workflows are disrupted, and the possibility of more attrition follows. Unearthing and mapping these collaborators is essential as they’re often hidden, but their value is greater than expected.

11 Peer attrition

The number of peers lost over a period of time. This is easier to map than collaborators but potentially less impactful. Peer attrition at rates higher than your norm for cohorts or departments signifies that further investigation is warranted. There may be a particular manager that requires training or the workload of the team may be too great.

Recognition indicators

12 Peer bonuses given

The value of bonuses given across a cohort. From both competitive and emotional standpoints, missing out on a bonus relative to others can lead to resentment and dissatisfaction. Be aware of who misses out and consider the impacts.

Compensation indicators

13 Position in range

An employee’s salary relative to the wage band in their particular field. This helps you understand how your offer stacks up to the market.

14 External Compa-Ratio

An employee’s salary as compared to the midpoint of the salary range for that job. This comparatively quantifies how fairly employees are compensated.

15 Pay raises

The number and value of raises an employee has received during their time with the company. Look for trends that would suggest whether an employee has stagnated or out-accelerated their peers. This is a good way of identifying bias in how raises are given. It’s also a strong indicator of whether an employee has been left behind and requires L&D.

16 Internal Compa-Ratio

The same as external compa-ratio, but based on internal figures. This helps identify anomalies within your organization that could lead to resentment. This is particularly important for identifying systemic issues related to race and gender.

Growth indicators

17 Time in role

The amount of time an employee has spent in their current role. This indicator helps identify stagnation and which employees require L&D or new opportunities.

18 Number of job changes

The number of changes in role over a period of time. Like many of the above indicators, this indicator helps to understand whether an employee is being left behind. If an employee shows a comparatively low number of job changes, relative to others, they may need extra support.

19 Tenure

The length of time an employee has been with a company. Generally, the longer an employee has been with a company, the greater their risk of attrition. As tenure increases, it’s important to be aware of how an employee is performing on growth indicators.

Remember: analysis and follow-through matters

The volume of indicators I’ve listed is potentially overwhelming and not all organizations have the skills in-house to monitor and analyze them.

However, there’s no reason why you can’t start with the indicators you can monitor. The most important thing is a commitment to regularly reviewing the data you are monitoring and looking for trends and anomalies.

When you harness the indicators listed above, you’ll be able to look beyond reactive tools like engagement surveys and instead proactively find the root causes of disengagement and ultimately attrition. It could save you a fortune in costs (and engagement surveys).