How to design an effective employee exit survey

This post shares how we help organisations design an effective employee exit survey.

What is an employee exit survey?

Employee exit surveys are online surveys that are used to help organisations understand why people choose to leave. But just knowing why people leave does not give you the whole picture. The most effective exit surveys not only help you understand why people are leaving, they also point to what you can do to reduce employee turnover. The design of your exit survey will have a major impact on the quality of information you can get out of the process so these are the main things to consider.

The benefits of employee exit surveys

Understanding why people leave is the starting point to improving retention and employee engagement. It will help you add immediate value to the business by identifying how to reduce the costs associated with employee turnover.

There are three main methods for gathering feedback from leavers – exit interviews, telephone interviews and online exit surveys.

Face to face or telephone exit interviews have several disadvantages:

  • they are time consuming to administer
  • they tend to be uncomfortable for the leaver
  • the feedback they produce tends to be watered down as leavers don’t feel it is totally anonymous
  • it is time consuming to collate and report on the data
  • which makes them less effective when it comes to implementing changes to improve employee retention and reduce employee turnover.

Employee exit surveys are far more effective than exit interviews as they enable you to gather data in a more consistent format, it is more anonymous and the results are easier to analyse.

What is the objective of your employee exit survey?

If you are considering designing an exit survey you will probably have some good reasons to do so and this can be a useful starting point.You are likely to know your overall turnover rate (the number of people who leave as a percentage of those employed) and you maysuspect that more people are leaving from certain groups than others. This could be employees in different job functions, departments, pay grade etc.

As with all employee experience surveys exit surveys tend to have one of are four main objectives –Research, Confirm, Explore and Evaluate.

If you have no idea why people are leaving your starting point is to run a survey to gather some baseline data and Research why people are leaving.

If you already have some information, maybe gained from face to face exit interviews or anecdotal evidence, you should use your exit survey to Confirm your suspicions with some hard data.

Alternatively you might want to use your exit survey to Explore specific issues in more detail.

Over time your exit surveys will provide evidence of where you need to make changes in your organisation. As you start to implement change you can use your exit survey to Evaluate the impact of those changes.

employee exit survey

Of course, your exit survey objective will change over time, but that’s OK. As exit surveys tend to run continuously, you can modify the content over time to suit your objective.

What questions should you use in your employee exit survey?

How you ask a question has an impact on how you will then be able to interpret the data. For example, if you ask a ‘yes/no’ question such as “were you happy with your manager?” then you will get some very specific data.

This could be useful in some circumstances, but you won’t be able to identify what it is that managers are doing/not doing that is causing dis/satisfaction.

We recommend three types of questions that work best in practice:

Demographic questions will help you slice and dice your data

Demographic questions enable you to collecting information about things such as age, gender, job role, which part of the business people work in etc. Demographic questions can be vital in being able to identify if there are any specific issues that are causing dissatisfaction in specific groups of employees. For example, you might find that more people they have experienced harassment, bullying or abuse from one part of the business than others.

The best way to capture demographic data is to use a drop-down. In other words, define your list of responses beforehand so that every employee can be categorised. This makes slicing and dicing the data much easier than where the responses are not organised.

Example demographic questions to use in your employee exit survey:

  • Which part of the business did you work in?
  • What age range do you belong to?
  • How would you describe your gender?

Qualitative questions will help you capture additional feedback

Qualitative questions are open-ended questions where people are asked to provide their opinions in their own words. They are usually in the form of a free-text question and are useful for allowing people to provide feedback on anything they want.

In our experience, organisations who design their own exit surveys tend to use too many free text questions, usually because they are trying to replicate a face to face exit interview. Whilst free text questions do provide some really interesting feedback that might not be uncovered by the other exit survey questions, they also have some disadvantages:

  • Free text questions take more effort for leavers to complete.
  • Free text questions make analysing the data more difficult. Where you have information from lots of employees it can take a huge amount of time to read, digest, organise and analyse open comments.
  • Leavers who feel strongly enough to respond to free text questions will tend to say what they want to say. We find that leavers will tend to repeat their key points so you will obtain everything they want to say in two or three free text questions.

As such, we recommend limiting the number of qualitative questions you use to a maximum of three.

Example free text questions to use in your employee exit survey:

  • What did you enjoy most about working for the company?
  • What one thing would you change about working for the company?
  • What other comments do you have that will help us improve the overall experience of our people?

Quantitative questions will help you evaluate your data

Quantitative questions ask people to rate how they feel about their experience using a rating scale. There are different types of rating scale, but the most common one is the Likert rating scale.

In essence people are asked how much they would tend to agree or disagree with each survey question.

The main benefit of quantitative questions is that they are measurable so you can easily measure the strength of feeling employees haveabout different issues. As your quantitative questions will all use the same rating scale you will be able to calculate average scores or percentage scores for each question.

You will then be able to filter your data using your demographic questions to explore whether or not there are any variations in how different groups feel about each quantitive question.

Structure your quantitative questions into themes

Quantitative questions will form the bulk of your exit survey so they need a bit of structure, but before thinking about specific questions, it will help to define the broad themes you want to explore in your exit survey.

At this point it can be useful to refer to your employee engagement survey (if you have one) as this will probably already point to aspects of the employee experience you need to improve.

Otherwise, you will need to start from scratch, but our model of engagement will provide a good starting point. There is no single model of employee engagement, but our own research has identified several common factors influence engagement across all organisations. Our model is supported with a library of high quality exit survey questions.

employee exit survey
Employee Experience Surveys

Types of quantitative questions

Now you have the broad themes you would like to explore in your exit survey you can start detailing the specific questions you want to ask leavers. At this point it is worth thinking about the difference between what we call ‘organisation behaviour’ questions and ‘engagement outcome’ questions.

Organisation behaviour questions

These are questions that examine how employees feel about that way the company tends to operate. Their purpose is to identify what the company can do differently in specific terms to improve the overall employee experience.

The way the questions are written can have an impact so we follow three rules when it comes to writing good exit survey questions:

  • they need to be succinct. People tend to skim read so if the question is too long they may make an assumption around what is being asked.
  • they need to be clearly worded. Similarly, if the wording is overly complicated it can skew the data, especially where you have leavers who have limited reading ability and/orEnglish is not their first language.
  • they need to measure one specific behaviour. If your questions actually more than one thing then people struggle to answer it.

Organisation behaviour questions

These are questions designed to measure the overall level of employee engagement across the business.

They are good for defining a Net Engagement Score (or eNPS).

The best example of this type of question is ‘I would recommend the organisation as a great place to work’.

If the score on this question is low, it is difficult to know what to do in specific terms to improve it, but it does provide an overall measure of the employee experience.

Example quantitative questions to use in your employee exit survey:

  • I was dealt with equally and fairly by my manager
  • I had opportunities for personal development and growth
  • I felt that my work made a difference
  • I felt accountable for my work
  • I understood how my work helped the company’scustomers
  • My workload was manageable
  • I felt recognised for my contribution
  • I had a good relationship with my colleagues
  • I would recommend the company as a good place to work

How many questions should an effective exit survey contain?

At this point you will need to give some thought to how may questions you want to ask (remember, the longer the survey, the less likely people are to fully complete it), but the first thing to do is draft a list of questions.

There is no definitive answer on this, but there are three things to bear in mind:

  • The first thing to consider is that the more questions you ask, the longer the survey will be and the less likely leavers will be to complete it. As such, asking too many questions can impact the overall effectiveness of the survey.
  • The purpose of the survey will have an impact on the number of questions. If you are running an exit survey for the first time, youare likely to want it to measure more than if you are using the survey to measure the impact of specific actions that have beenimplemented.
  • The number of engagement ‘factors’ you want to measure will impact the number of questions. We typically aim for between 5 and 8 questions per engagement factor. So, if you have 10 engagement factors your employee survey will contain 50-80 quantitative questions, in addition to any drop-down demographic questions and qualitative free-text questions.

Think about the administration process of your exit survey

You could have the most comprehensive exit survey in the world, but if nobody fills it in you won’t be able to gather any data.

One of the challenges of exit surveys is how to maximise completion rate, to get people to fill it in. There are a few factors that impact completion rate:

The exit survey content itself

We recommend that your exit survey shouldn’t be too long. You are asking people who are already likely to be disengaged to give yousome feedback so if your survey is too long they will either just not take part, or simply give up part way through.

However, the major hurdles to overcome are getting people to click on the survey link.

How you invite leavers to take part in your exit survey

As with any online survey there are two main ways to invite people to take part:

you can publish an open access link (ideally using a QR code) that people can use to access the survey. This makes it easy to include the link in any existing leaver communications and it enhances anonymity as it then becomes impossible to know who the survey was completed by. Which is actually one of the main weaknesses of this approach.

the other option is to send each leaver an individualised link. This is the method we recommend and involves sending each leaver alink that is unique to them. The benefit is that you can send reminders to specific people and also track completion rate much moreaccurately.

Whichever method you choose, links to your exit survey can be sent either via email or SMS.

When you invite leavers to take part in your exit survey

Our recommendation is to ensure that survey links (however, they are sent out) are sent to leaver before they actually leave. This can be tricky in organisations where employees have short notice periods and it often requires a change to your internal processes. For example, we have many examples where the line manager does not inform HR/Payroll quickly enough, which delays the whole process.

How the data will be used

One of the benefits of using an online employee exit survey is that it is more anonymous that a face to face or telephone exit interview,especially where you outsource the administration.

We always recommend not asking people to give their name, but most people still tend to be feel that you will be identify their responses.It is the fear of recrimination that leavers are usually most concerned with. Whilst it is technically possible to identify individual leavers, we recommend that you adopt a policy of not doing this. All data should be aggregated and, even where you are slicing and dicing the data, we recommend applying a minimum response count. In other words, if a dataset has fewer than, say, 4 people, you will not report the data.

This doesn’t take away the suspicion, but communicating to leavers how their data will be handled and reported will help reassure them.

How to analyse your exit survey data

Even where you are gathering feedback from leavers through your exit survey, if you don’t do anything with the data then you won’t be able to implement changes to reduce turnover in your organisation. Check out our post which goes into more detail around how to analyse your employee survey data.

In conclusion

As with any employee survey, an effective exit survey needs to be carefully designed to ensure that you are able to maximise completion rate, explore the data, but most of all, draw definitive conclusions that will allow you to turn insight into action.

Deploying your exit survey is not the objective, it is the means to the end – identifying how to reduce employee turnover and improve retention.