Employee Retention – Are Surveys CAUSING the Problem or Just Reporting It?

Probably the most explosive statistic HR folks have been exposed to recently is the Manpower Survey announcing that 84% of employees plan to look for a job in 2011. That’s quite a few. It’s not the only place you can find that data, and it’s not just the good ol’ USA.

In India the statistic is 40% who plan on quitting. Another survey by Monster says 66% will be looking. A Career Builder survey shows that 15% of the workforce is actively searching and another 76% would change jobs for the right opportunity.

So – if these statistics are anywhere near correct, HR has a tough, tough job ahead of it in 2011.

But let me help you a bit.

Social Proof

I’m beginning to think these surveys aren’t accurately reflecting the true desires of employees. I don’t think they’re lying – but I do think there is something else at play here.

And that is the principle of social proof.

As someone who makes their living influencing behavior, I’m always keeping my eyes open for these types of issues.

A Definition:  Social proof at its core is simply this: we, as humans, like to “go along.” When we don’t have a strong idea of what the “right” answer is, we look to others to see what they think. Our behaviors are influenced by what we believe the majority is doing. If we see everyone dressing like Don Johnson or Madonna – we will adapt some of those fashion elements in our own style (c’mon guys and gals – you know you did it… don’t hide… it was cool back then.)

Social proof can be one of the major behavior influencers.

Simply put – it’s what the cool kids are doing – and we want to be cool.

Surveys Cause Statistics

My thinking is that the first survey on employee intention to leave might have had some validity – but every survey after that could have less and less validity. It might just be that employees, having seen the previous survey results think… “Hey – if a lot of others are doing it, should I be looking into it as well?”

Is it any surprise that the most recent surveys report the “highest intention to leave” percentage? I’m thinking that employees aren’t really wanting to leave – but they are wanting to be like what they think OTHER employees are like. And if they’re thinking about leaving, I should too. I could be wrong – but in reality, if employees think everyone else is thinking about leaving (real or not) it will influence their behavior.

As an HR person you need to, first be aware of the effect of social proof and second, you need to be prepared to counteract its affects.

To help me help you, I’ve enlisted Brian Ahearn – one of only 25 certified Cialdini Trainers (IN THE WORLD) to discuss ways HR can help mitigate the effects of social proof (if in fact it is playing into these statistics.) Brian – in addition to being an all-around great guy, also blogs at Influence PEOPLE – read, know it, subscribe to it.

Brian Below is a modified exchange between Brian and myself about these sobering statistics on retention.

Me: First off Brian – Do you think that the principle of influence called social proof is having any impact on the data that is being promoted on the web?

Brian: Absolutely. The principle of social proof is hard-wired into our brains.  Just seeing statistics like this will influence an employee’s behavior. Even if they never had thought of leaving a company – seeing that a majority of “other employees” are considering leaving will impact their feelings.  And that would have to show up in subsequent surveys. The first one wouldn’t have much social proof – but if the survey population saw the results from the first survey, it would be almost impossible for it not to influence the outcome of every other survey.

Me: Okay – if we assume some portion of the results from these surveys is due to the effect of social proof – how can an HR person help reduce the impact of that effect within their organization? Are there any communication and management techniques that can soften the effect?

Brian: First of all I’d be very careful putting out any of the statistics to your own employee base. It is very possible that they have not seen the statistics. Sending out an email saying something like, “I know you’ve all seen that 80% of employees are looking for work but not here,” – will just reinforce the problem you are trying to avoid.

I would do things like the following:

  • If you have a survey mechanism in place, begin highlighting the positive results from that survey – create your own social proof. If you have high satisfaction scores, highlight them. If you have low turnover – highlight that (be careful – cite how many stay, not how many leave.) Any facts and figures that promote how great an organization you are – put them out there and create your own buzz.
  • If you don’t have great statistics – look at trends. Highlight that satisfaction is up 20% or something like that. Use the positive aspects of your own data.

Now, if you think your well is already poisoned I’d:

  • Start by casting doubt on the statistics like a good lawyer would do in a jury trial. Who’s citing the statistics? Do they have a vested interest in the statistics being bad? Most of the numbers are coming from companies that will do better financially if the survey results are valid – so I’d start by planting seeds of doubt about the numbers themselves.
  • Secondly – I’d teach employees about the principle of social proof. Educate them about how it works and how it manipulates their thinking. Once employees realize that the numbers are simply an influence technique – they will be less influenced by the technique.

Me:  Thank you Brian…

There you go folks –from a certified influence trainer. (BTW – that’s the authority principle in play.)

If you’re worried about your own employee turnover/retention in light of these statistics, I suggest you take Brian’s advice: get ahead of the curve by highlighting your own positive statistics – and if you have to – address the issue head on and sow the seeds of doubt.

And finally, show your employees how these types of stories play on human psychology.

Don’t take my word for it – all the cool HR folks are doing it.

FOT Background Check

Paul Hebert
Paul Hebert is the Senior Director of Solutions Architecture at Creative Group Inc and a writer, speaker and consultant. Paul focuses on influencing behaviors and driving business results through employees, channel partners and consumers. Over the course of his career, Paul has worked closely with clients to design influence, marketing, motivation, incentive, loyalty, recognition and reward programs to increase effectiveness and reduce costs. Paul is a recognized authority on incentives and performance motivation. Want to know what’s going to motivate your people to perform at their best and impact the bottom line? Want to know whether your service award program really means anything at all? Curious what psychological principles drive sales behavior? Paul’s your guy… unless you fervently bow down to Maslow. Check out his personal blog at "What Is Paul Thinking?" when you're tired of his FOT rants.


  1. It is astounding how much I hear people are looking for another job and see them move around rapidly. I definitely agree that we are influenced by others, but there is more too it: we are in a culture of short-term results and easy mobility.

  2. Paul Hebert says:

    Jess – you do bring up an interesting issue as well – one I think reinforces these survey results. If we are in a fast change world – seeing survey after survey highlighting this stuff would really reinforce the need to get moving since I don’t want to miss out. Chicken and egg?

  3. Joel Kimball says:

    Good stuff! Now I have a name for what I’ve been doing with our “good” engagement survey results – “social proof”. I didn’t know it, but that’s what I was doing.
    Now I feel a little manipulative and dirty…but just a little…:)
    Again – good stuff. Thanks, Paul!

  4. Jim Wagner says:

    So if the Manpower Survey says 84% plan to look for a job in 2011 is the social proof theory able to help HR quantify these type of results to be proactive in addressing/identify tangible solutions? When you have a global workforce of 25,000 or so who has the resources to educate your workforce with the internal social proof spin before the end of 2011?

  5. Paul Hebert says:

    I would say every company has the resources within their company to help counteract the effect. Every company has managers – and those managers should be tasked with engaging and driving workforce productivity, satisfaction and engagement. If you kew there was a competitor out there that was going to steal 80% or your workforce you’d mobilize quickly I’d bet. I don’t think many companies would just sit and wait.
    If it were me, I’d probably do some quick math.
    If you have 25000 employees and the first tier of management has 10 direct reports and then 5 direct reports form then on – then a “typical” organization might break down like this:
    25,000 Employees
    2500 Managers
    500 Directors
    100 VPs
    20 Exeutive VPs
    4 Div Pres
    If my math works you can have a conversation about your own company engagement statistics once a quarter and have it ripple through the organization within 5 weeks (assuming it takes a week per level.)
    The key is to have something to talk about – whether that be the results of the last engagement survey, satisfaction survey, etc. What this might highlight now that I think of it – is the need to have more than one survey a year on your own company – since employees are probably seeing a minimum of three or four on the interwebs and in the main stream press.

    • Dailton says:

      I had created two ianctiedl surveys with the purpose of obtaining 10 responses for each from two different groups. I didn’t use the Text/Translation Settings link since the surveys were in the same language. Is there a way I can combine the reports for these?Rachel on Thu, Aug 18 11 at 8:47 am

  6. I hear it’s amazing how many people are looking for another job and see it move quickly. I agree that we help each other, but also: we have a culture of short-term results, and facilitate mobility.

  7. whoah this blog is wonderful i love studying your articles.
    Keep up the good work! You realize, lots of people are searching around for this info, you could aid them greatly.

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