OPM Reports on Why SES Members Leave Government

Following are the results of the most recent “exit survey” of SES members leaving the government, based on responses from about 200 individuals in 2016.

Key findings

Retirement continues to be the most common reason SES are leaving their agencies. As in previous years, the majority of SES indicated they were leaving their agency due to retirement (61 percent).

Executives are leaving with intent to continue working, in many cases for higher pay; an increasing number intend to work without any reduction in pay. A cross-year survey comparison of work schedule and salary expectations from Year 1 (2013-14) to Year 3 (2015-16) highlighted that an increasing percentage of departing SES intended to continue to work full-time without taking a cut in pay. And while the percentage of departing SES seeking an increase in pay has remained relatively stable between Year 1 and Year 3, the percentage expecting their pay to decrease has diminished by 8 percentage points.

Agencies can influence whether or not an executive stays in the organization; however, factors may vary based on retirement eligibility status. Many executives who intend to keep working indicated they would stay for increased pay (39 percent), change in duties or responsibilities (28 percent), increased autonomy (27 percent), and better work-life balance (22 percent). Fewer retirement eligible executives indicated they would stay for these same factors. In addition, executives who leave their agencies to pursue opportunities that do not include retirement were more likely to indicate that the lack of advancement opportunities and recognition contributed greatly or very greatly to their decisions to leave (48 percent vs 34 percent), while executives who retired were more likely to attribute exit decisions to personal reasons (63 percent vs 54 percent).

Work environment issues continue to be the highest contributing factors in an executive’s decision to leave. Overall, work environment issues such as the “political environment” (42 percent), “organizational culture” (42 percent), and “senior leadership” (40 percent) contributed the most to executives’ decisions to their leaving the agency.

Formal succession planning is not the norm for senior-level roles. A majority of departing SES (61 percent) said their agencies had no formal succession planning efforts for executives, and more than half (56 percent) said their agency made no efforts to involve them in preparing their successor.

The majority of the executives indicated they were leaving to retire (61 percent), and almost all were doing so voluntarily (98 percent). These percentages have remained relatively stable across all three years of the SES Exit Survey.

More departing executives reported they are leaving the workforce permanently than in previous years. The number of members of the SES who indicated they would not be working for pay (31 percent) was higher this year than in previous administrations of the survey (27 percent in 2013-14 and 20 percent in 2014-15). In contrast, 30 percent of the members of the SES departing this year indicated they would be working for pay after leaving their agencies; 15 percent intended to look for work in the near future; and 24 percent were undecided.

The executives who intend to work in the future responded they are unlikely to pursue Federal employment, even though a large portion (69 percent) indicated they would be willing to work for their agencies in the future either full-time (26 percent) or part-time (20 percent). Thirty-five percent indicated they planned to work for the private sector (not Government contractors), 14 percent planned to work for themselves, and 14 percent planned to work in the not-for-profit sector.

Over half of the departing executives indicated they would be working for increased pay (57 percent), and, in comparison to previous years, more departing executives intend to work full-time (81 percent this year vs 71 percent in 2014-15) without decreasing their salary ( 18 percent this year vs 26 percent in 2014-15). While the percentage of departing members of the SES seeking an increase in pay through other opportunities has remained relatively stable from 2013-14 to 2015-16 (over half), those expecting their pay to stay the same has increased by 10 percentage points, and those expecting a decrease has declined by 8 percentage points.

SES Retention Considerations

Federal agencies continue to have opportunities to better understand and find ways to retain their senior executives. As noted above, a majority of the departing senior executives indicated they were considering or definitely planning to work; only one-third definitively indicated they were not seeking employment. Agencies have less opportunity to persuade retiring members of the SES to stay. Literature on organizational withdrawal often considers separations due to retirement distinct from other types of voluntary turnover– retirees want to reduce their commitment to employ­ment in general, and place more emphasis on other life roles. However, the other executives (non-retirees) are leaving with the intent to continue working, and it would benefit agencies to explore ways to retain those employees.

As agencies explore ways to retain the members of the SES who intend to work after leaving, they should consider stay factors that are rated highly. Stay factors represent hypothetical changes in work-related circumstances that, if offered, might encourage an executive to stay in their current role. Overall, “increase in pay” was the most frequently endorsed stay factor (34 percent). Non-retirees indicated “change in duties or responsibilities” (28 percent), “increased autonomy” (27 percent), and “better work-life balance” (22 percent) as important stay factors. Retirees indicated “retention incen­tives” (25 percent) and “verbal encouragement to stay based on value to the organization” (22 percent) as top reasons they would have stayed. Considering that almost three-fourths of departing SES (71 percent) said no efforts were made to encourage them to stay, agencies should not underestimate the value of stay interviews as a first step in the process of retaining top executive talent.

However, agencies should not get frustrated if their efforts are not entirely successful because thirty-two percent of departing SES indicated that nothing would have encouraged them to stay, a higher percentage than the previous two years of the survey. Among members of the SES who selected this response option, 69 percent were retiring, 8 percent were resigning, 15 percent were transferring to another agency, and 3 percent were accepting a non-SES position within another Federal agency.