Effective management of human capital provides a means for increasing productivity and reducing costs. The relationship between retention and profitability is clear—fewer turnovers translate to less expense for the organization. Leading organizations understand this fact and track employee attitudes and feedback across the entire employment life cycle (recruitment and on-boarding – integration – departure). These organizations strive to understand why individuals join, stay, and leave their company, so they can engage in superior human capital planning.
Although a great deal of research has been conducted on employee opinion and attitude surveys, relatively little focus has been devoted to exit surveys. This is somewhat surprising, given that the creation of a rigorous exit measure builds an organization’s capability to understand why talent is leaving, what might have prevented them from leaving, and their attitudes toward the organization.
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A number of considerations apply when creating or augmenting an existing exit survey process—namely, the target population, the content of the survey, the administration method, the likely response rate, and the reporting requirements.
Most exit surveys are sent only to employees who are voluntarily leaving the organization, the belief being that voluntary turns are considered regrettable losses. If an organization has limited resources to monitor or implement an exit survey, it might consider limiting the survey process to a select employee population (e.g., employees identified as key talent). If your organization chooses to target (or omit) a particular group, you must be sure that the group can be clearly defined and that the survey is consistently administered to the population selected. Otherwise, the door is open to legal concerns around inconsistent or discriminatory treatment.
In most cases, an exit survey is designed to gather information as to how the employee perceived his or her compensation, benefits, working conditions, opportunities for career advancement, workload, manager quality, and work-life balance, as well as the relationships between coworkers and supervisor.
An exit survey is typically a combination of multiple-choice, agree-disagree, and open-ended questions. There is great value in ensuring that any attitude or opinion questions included in the exit survey parallel those asked via internal surveys (see Table 1). In this way, the organization can compare responses obtained from stayers and leavers to gain an understanding of what truly differentiates them.
Ultimately, the content chosen for the survey should reflect the culture and values of the organization and provide information useful to enhance recruiting, retention, and employee engagement efforts. One cautionary note regarding open-ended questions: Former employees often have a great deal of feedback about the company, coworkers, management, and so forth. Unless your organization has the resources to regularly read, categorize, and address issues raised, it is recommended that only closed questions be used.
There are essentially three options for administering an exit survey: paper-and-pencil, Internet, and phone interviews. A paper-and-pencil survey is typically sent by mail 30 to 60 days after a person leaves the organization. The benefit of this process is that it is administratively efficient from the respondent’s perspective—he or she completes the short survey and returns it via a stamped, addressed envelope. The major drawback is the administrative resources needed to create the mailing and capture the information once it is received. Scannable forms reduce the burden, but it is still an administratively cumbersome activity.
Internet-based exit surveys offer the benefit of online data collection. The main drawback has to do with accessibility. As the employee is asked to complete the survey after leaving the organization, access to the Internet may not be readily available, and the former employer will typically not have a personal e-mail address for the employee. Anecdotally, our experience suggests that the benefits of a paper-and-pencil survey outweigh the administrative ease of an Internet-based survey. We have seen marked improvement in our response rates after moving from an Internet-based to a paper-based survey.
An interview approach to exit surveys should not be confused with an exit interview. (Exit interview typically refers to an interview that occurs with an employee before he or she departs the organization.) Although phone interviews are not as common as an Internet or paper-based survey, some organizations have chosen to administer their questions via telephone. The benefits are that the information gathering process is more engaging and that concerns can be addressed directly. The drawback is that a former employee might find the phone interview too invasive. Table 2 summarizes the benefits and drawbacks of each administration option.
In addition to identifying how the survey should be administered, you must also determine who should manage or administer the survey. Most organizations choose to have an outside vendor administer the survey and process the information. Typically, a vendor can manage the process more efficiently and at a lower cost than if the process was managed in-house. In addition to cost and efficiency benefits, a vendor can also serve as a middle person between the organization and the former employee. More specifically, the vendor can obtain candid or sensitive information from the former employee and feed it back to the organization after all identifying information has been removed.
As with any survey, you must design the survey and communications in such a way as to maximize responding. A low response rate will call into question the accuracy and generalizability of the survey findings and greatly limit the extent to which you can cut the data to provide insights at a business unit or function level. One recommendation is to keep the survey short; keep it to one page if possible. There is a difference between what you want to measure and what you need to measure to meet your objectives—focus only on what you need to know.
You might also consider providing an incentive. For example, you could offer the chance to win a valued prize in a drawing for individuals who complete the survey. Using a vendor to manage the process allows for the individual to enter the drawing and still maintain the former employee’s anonymity.
Another innovative technique that has been used is to appeal to the values of the individual. One organization offers a donation to a prominent charity for each exit survey that is returned. Thus, the respondent is helping the organization as well as helping a good cause.
When creating an exit survey process, it is important to clearly identify (a) what information needs to be reported; (b) how often the information needs to be reported; and (c) who will have access to the information. To maximize the usefulness of the survey, the information should be easily accessible to all key stakeholders. There are generally three options: (a) The vendor provides all reports; (b) a center of excellence within the company creates and distributes information; or (c) a reporting tool is created that allows key stakeholders to access information to meet their specific needs. Based on our experience, we recommend the third option. Exit survey information is most useful when it is being analyzed to address or provide clarity to a specific business issue—allowing access to the individuals who need it means the data can be used to inform decision making in a timely manner.
A well-created exit survey can be a powerful tool for gathering important information relative to reasons why valued employees are leaving the organization. Gathering this information is not without difficulties. Ensuring you have a meaningful response rate, are receiving candid responses, and are maintaining an efficient process while gathering actionable information to inform decision making are just a few of the challenges involved. Nonetheless, the time and investment are worth it if you truly hope to engage in superior human capital planning.
- Corporate Leadership Council. (2003, September). Exit interview processes. Catalog No. CLC1174AK9.
- Giacalone, R. A., Elig, T. W., Ginexi, E. M., & Bright, A. J. (1995). The impact of identification and type of separation on measures of satisfaction and missing data in the exit survey process. Military Psychology, 7(4), 235-252.
- Giacalone, R. A., Knouse, S. B., & Montagliani, A. (1997). Motivation for and prevention of honest responding in exit interviews and surveys. The Journal of Psychology, 131(4), 438-448.
- Weathers, P. L., Furlong, M. J., & Solorzano, D. (1993). Mail survey research in counseling psychology: Current practice and suggested guidelines. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 40(2), 238-244.