Gone, But Not Forgotten

Gone, But Not Forgotten | Human Resource Executive Online Could it be that the best people to tell you how to improve your company are the very same ones who are walking out your door? A new study explores the usefulness of mining former employees' sentiments after they leave.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009
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Is the grass really greener for workers on the other side, where the new jobs lie?

If you ask the HR leaders at San Diego-based telecommunications provider Qualcomm, they'll likely tell you it's not, and they've got the numbers to prove it.

According to data the company recently mined and analyzed with the help of Philadelphia-based consultancy Hay Group, 68 percent of former Qualcomm workers who had voluntarily left their positions in the last two years said they would come back and work for the company if they were asked.

"We did not expect that number to be that high," says Tamar Elkeles, vice president of learning and organizational development at Qualcomm. She says the research wasn't done in order to find ways to lower the company's turnover, because the voluntary turnover rate was already less than 5 percent annually.

"It's not about retention; it's more about using analytics to ensure productivity and engagement," she says.

But the startling revelation that so many former workers would welcome a return to Qualcomm may also inspire a sea change in how other companies view voluntarily departing employees (and the opinions they hold) in the future.

"We're very reactive as an HR community right now," says Elkeles. "What HR needs is a guide to help them move forward. This gave us that guide."

Asking the Questions

In April 2007, Qualcomm was trying to find a way to better understand how the company was being perceived from within its walls.

"We wanted more information on our brand and also wanted to better understand the engagement drivers and employee-value proposition," says Jaime Maas, senior organizational development specialist at Qualcomm.

So it created a "climate" survey, similar to one done internally in 2005, to span across the entire organization of more than 12,000 employees in order to get employees' opinions on how to improve the workplace overall.

In the end, 10,774 employees participated in the survey -- a response rate of 90 percent -- that included 104 questions, the last two questions being open-ended.

When the data came back, Maas says, there were 6,256 comments about "what makes Qualcomm unique," and 6,129 comments about "what would make Qualcomm a better place to work."

With that information in hand, the company wanted to dig deeper and realized it was missing a valuable source of information: former employees who had left on their own.

Like many other companies, Qualcomm performs exit interviews with departing employees, but it ultimately decided to enlist the help of Hay Group to better mine the available data.

"Our task was to take a lot of information and distill it down to a few key points based on the unique culture at Qualcomm," says Hay Group Senior Consultant Mark Royal, adding that "by highlighting factors affecting retention of key talent," the interview-and-analysis process helped "tease out those pathways of influence that are sometimes unclear."

Those pathways, Royal says, can then be used by HR to influence an outcome that has "significant bottom-line implications."

But that doesn't mean those in-house exit interviews by themselves are meaningless.

"A well-designed exit-survey process is an important source of information on turnover drivers that can be used to inform retention efforts," says Royal. "What's more, exit surveys can also help organizations manage the final 'handshake' with departing employees, to ensure that both sides part ways on the best terms possible."

That decision to poll former workers came about because, Royal says, "what managers need most is objective data that empower them to manage by fact. ... Surveying individuals who have recently left an organization is an important complement to the insight into retention issues provided by exit surveys.

"Current and departing employees are remarkably willing to talk about their career experiences and needs," he adds. "And embedded in their responses are the solutions for keeping attrition under control."

Hi, It's Me Again

In July 2007, Hay Group began its quest to contact the 441 former employees who had voluntarily left Qualcomm within the past 24 months to get a better read on exactly what made them leave.

Hay Group interviews were conducted via telephone "to make it more personal and make it easier to get people talking," says Royal.

But tracking down those former employees proved to be a challenge. Valid contact information was unavailable for 86 eligible respondents and there was no answer at many other phone numbers when Hay Group came calling.

"It's always a challenge with people moving on and leaving an organization," says Royal, adding that they even used address information from old 401(k) records, "figuring that [we] could get updated information that way."

A 43-item telephone interview (with both fixed-alternative and open-ended questions) was eventually put to 162 respondents, garnering a 37-percent overall response rate. Fifty-six former employees declined to participate, according to Maas.

Hay Group took that information and analyzed it to determine primary reasons for leaving. It also looked for "satisfaction gaps" between current and former employees on key aspects of the work environment at the company, as well as satisfaction gaps between former employees' work experience at the company and in their new positions.

When the analysis was completed, Qualcomm was left with six key drivers, which Maas calls "essential to creating a positive and compelling work environment" at the company. The company declined to disclose those factors, but Maas says the drivers focus on "why people stay and what we can do to our environment to make sure people are as productive as possible and keep a productive work environment."

"What makes it all so meaningful is that this data was based on us," she adds. "We don't care as much about best practices elsewhere because what's going on [at Qualcomm] means more."

Those six drivers are now utilized by all Qualcomm HR staff to tailor programs and offerings to employees' needs, Maas says.


Value of a Third Party

As it turned out, having an independent third party perform the former-employee interviews ultimately yielded more frank and honest answers than Qualcomm had been getting during its own exit interviews with departing employees.

"People felt like they could be open and honest about their experiences at Qualcomm" when talking to a third party, Maas says, but Elkeles is more blunt in her assessment of the responses received: "What they said to the company was often very different from what they said to the Hay Group."

The reasons for this can be easily seen, according to Royal.

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"Research has generally demonstrated low correlations between reasons for leaving given by employees in exit interviews and those cited in follow-up surveys conducted in subsequent months," Royal says. "Information distortion in exit interviews may result from fear that negative comments may compromise letters of recommendation or lead to retaliation against remaining employees. Alternatively, employees may simply not yet have fully examined and evaluated highly charged feelings toward the organizations they are leaving."

John Verderese, the Boston-based managing director of the people and change practice at PricewaterhouseCoopers, says the popularity of using a third party to glean information from former employees has been rising over the past few years.

"Technology has made the reporting of exit surveys easier and more robust," he says. "If you go back 10 years, [exit interviews and former-employee surveys] were sort of just an HR exercise that no one really did much with. Now that you can tie it easily into your HRIS, it makes it a lot easier to analyze because third parties typically have a ready technology to interface with a company's HRIS. It's a cheaper way to get better reporting because of the way [a third party] can interact with the whole HRIS system so it can get good data on demographics from the departure survey data" such as gender and age information.

Another reason former-employee surveys can be beneficial to companies is that they can potentially open the door for former workers to return, Verderese says.

"When you do former-employee surveys, they can become the beginning of alumni relations," he says. "This is a great way to start that process. [It's] a great way to re-engage an employee. If you already have the data on that person, you can find out why he or she left in the first place and then see if circumstances have changed."

Good Returns

Perhaps most surprising to those followers of conventional wisdom -- who may think the 68 percent of former-employee respondents who expressed interest in returning to work for Qualcomm would just be average workers looking for work anywhere -- Royal says the data shows otherwise.

"We were able to cross-reference the people who wanted to come back with [Qualcomm's in-house] performance data, and it turned out that it was disproportionately higher performers" who were expressing interest, not the mid- or low-performers.

The survey also revealed that the "people who were more senior were the ones who were very comfortable with being contacted to return," Royal adds.

Verderese says his company's experience in performing third-party, former-employee surveys finds that companies "tend to get better and more candid data and feedback from former employees from 45 to 90 days" after leaving because they are less concerned about burning bridges or not getting a good reference and can still recall the details.

He adds that doing such interviews during an employee's last days on the job usually means they will be rushed through and done "as kind of an afterthought."

Verderese also says any survey's questions need to be chosen "pretty carefully [because] there's often not a single, silver bullet on why people leave [a job]. So make sure there are mechanisms [within the survey] to allow for multiple reasons for leaving."

Finally, he says, companies that perform such surveys would be wise to continue the practice regardless of current economic conditions.

"Exit surveys and former-employee surveys give you the best information over time," he says. "They're not the sort of thing you want to do one year and skip another, or put on the table for cost-cutting. The best data comes from trends over time."

For Qualcomm, the results of surveying the recently departed have been more than worth the effort.

"A lot of companies spend a lot of time, money and energy trying to find those key drivers of employees," says Qualcomm's Elkeles.

"This really solidified what we need to focus on and prioritize. As an HR professional, you may not know and [therefore] spend money, time and energy on things that don't really matter to employees. You have no way of knowing that unless you do something like this."

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