OPM readies exit survey for departing SES members

The government has been missing out on valuable information it could be collecting from leaders who leave.

satisfaction survey

Departing Senior Executive Service members will soon have a chance to share their final words anonymously on why they are leaving before they actually head out the agency door.

On March 22, Angela Bailey, associate director of employee services at the Office of Personnel Management, sent a memorandum to HR directors announcing a governmentwide exit survey that will be administered to all outgoing SES members.

"The exit survey will capture valuable information regarding the circumstances under which executives leave the federal government and offer an opportunity for executives to provide candid feedback about their work experience," Bailey wrote.

The online survey has been developed by OPM, the Senior Executives Association, the Partnership for Public Service, agency representatives, and current SES members. Its main purpose is to give agencies an opportunity to explore issues affecting retention and succession planning efforts. Agencies will also get help from OPM with guidance on how to adopt the survey and an in-person exit interview protocol.

"It would be really handy to gather from SES members as they go out the door any advice or suggestions they may have for their replacements or attracting new folks for keeping good people," said John Palguta, vice president of policy at the Partnership for Public Service. "Until now, we haven't had a unified way of doing that."

The exit survey will serves as a systematic way to gather data across agencies, with open-ended questions, he said. It will be available "very soon if not today," Palguta said, and departing SES members should get a link to it as they are being processed off or on their last week or day.

The advantages to exit surveys rather than exit interviews are multifold. Exit interviews often focus on general causes of leaving and overlook job-specific questions that help the organization retain knowledge – for example, departing employees could be asked what knowledge resources they found most important, said Adam Cole, senior director at CEB.

"Interviewers may also have a tendency to ask questions in a leading way, thereby reinforcing bias regarding the causes of leaving," he said. "One example is assuming the employee was dissatisfied with his or her job and asking questions on that topic, when that person may not have been dissatisfied."

Those departing may also not be comfortable divulging face-to-face the real reasons why they are resigning, Palguta said. "If someone is asking you, 'so why are you leaving?' and the reason you're leaving is because you can't stand the people you work with, you're probably not going to tell them that," he said.

Interviews oftentimes also are "too open-ended and the feedback is not collected in a consistent manner," Cole said, which makes analysis and action planning based on the results more difficult.

Many organizations also lack proper baselines or benchmarks when analyzing the results of exit surveys, which often result in the wrong conclusion, he said.

"For instance, CEB research shows that, on average, employees receive a 16 percent increase in compensation when they switch to a new employer," Cole said. "So, if an employer assumes that compensation levels aren't sufficient at the organization simply because it was one of the primary reasons stated for departure, they may be wrong because the same would be true for nearly every organization."

OPM will collect data from the exit surveys at least annually to get a better view of the health of the SES. After that, it is up to decision makers to take corrective measures. "It's a very common-sense, useful approach," Palguta concluded.