Exit survey, (not) too late in the day?

By Irma Doze

In order to retain scarce talent, employers are increasingly conducting exit interviews. But what you really should be measuring is why people (like to) stay.

The Dutch economy is growing rapidly and is expected to return to pre-COVID levels by the end of this year. At the same time, the labour market is showing enormous tension, with organisations struggling to fill vacancies. In particular, there is a huge gap between skills desired and skills offered. 


Irma Doze

'You may learn why employees are leaving, but that says nothing about why (other) employees stay.'

It is therefore not surprising that organisations are increasingly focusing on retaining their talents. This implies a growing focus on building impactful relationships with employees who, in turn, will stay on in the longer term. Attracting and retaining talent even when working remotely is another challenge added by COVID.

But how do you keep people in? How do you prevent them from leaving? More and more organisations are using exit interviews and/or exit surveys to learn from departing colleagues and thus retain the remaining ones.

However, an exit survey is, by definition, held among colleagues who have already decided to leave. That means that, while you do indeed learn why this group is leaving, it says nothing about why (other) employees stay on. Moreover, departing employees will tend to rationalise their decision (afterwards) to avoid any stress and discomfort caused by doubt, i.e. display cognitive dissonance. As such, it remains questionable whether you will actually uncover their true motives for leaving.

Influencing and predicting

It is a much better idea to measure the aspects that may influence departure broadly among all employees and then carry out an analysis three to twelve months later, identifying the factors that all the remaining employees share and that distinguish them from the departing employees. In this way, you will know which buttons to push in order to influence staff turnover.

It is also useful to look for key figures that can help to predict future outflow. After all, the current attrition rate only represents the past, and there is nothing you can do today to change it. Rather, you should focus on indicators that predict future attrition. These can be used to establish whether the organisation will achieve the goals it has set itself if it continues on its present course or whether adjustments are needed.

Irma Doze

'It is better to steer on indicators that predict future attrition.'

In their 2016 study, for example, Timothy Gardner and Peter Hom identified thirteen behaviours that predict individual staff resignation within a year. Staff:

1. productivity has fallen more than usual;

2. are less of a team player than usual;

3. really only do the minimum of work they need to do to function normally;

4. make no effort to satisfy their manager;

5. don’t readily conform to long-term plans anymore;

6. show a negative attitude more often;

7. make less effort and are less motivated than usual;

8. are less engaged in their work;

9. express dissatisfaction with their job more often than usual;

10. express dissatisfaction with their supervisor more often than usual;

11. leave work early more often;

12. are no longer enthusiastic about the organisation’s mission; and

13. are less interested in working with customers than usual.

Of course, the above behaviours are not necessarily easy to measure. Their measurement could be part of a(n) (anonymous) survey on well-being and collegiality, which would lead to a general projection, but they can also be measured by managers.

In the latter event, managers will regularly have to assess employees on these indicators. Doing so will allow for engaging in a dialogue with employees who seem to be on the verge of leaving. This might reveal the source of their dissatisfaction, if any.

The insights thus gained can then be used to find solutions or, if it is too late for that, to let the employee leave with a positive feeling. Combining the results of the individual scores into data will also let you keep a finger on the pulse in terms of future staff turnover.

The end of the exit interview?

So does this mean that exit interviews and/or exit surveys have no added value? No, it does not. An exit survey can in any case contribute to good offboarding. It can ensure that former employees speak positively about the organisation and can even turn them into active referrers. As an employer, you can never pay enough attention to that.

I recommend the combination of a(n) (online) survey and a good conversation. The conversation might reveal things that turn out to be quite important but would not immediately have come to light in a survey. This may uncover (new) aspects that need to be included in the organisation-wide survey in order to subsequently predict turnover.

It is important that the interview is conducted in a safe and friendly environment. Otherwise, the departing employee may be unwilling to provide the desired openness.

Providing insight into general trends

Finally, an exit survey is extremely suitable for measuring and monitoring facts that can provide insight into general trends. This includes information like:

  • Will the person be working more or fewer hours?
  • Will the person be earning more or less?
  • Will the secondary employment conditions be better or worse?
  • Will the person be spending more or less time commuting?
  • Will the person be able to work more or less from home?
  • Will the person be supervising more or less people?
  • Will the person still be working in the same sector or moving to another sector?
  • Will the person still be working in the same position/role or changing roles?
  • Will the person be working in a higher or lower-level job?
  • Etcetera.

Exit survey: source for recruiters

Asking new employees and/or job applicants to provide the above type of information through a survey provides insight into the actual trends in workplace wishes. After all, people starting in a new job usually left another job elsewhere. These surveys are yet another way for recruiters to improve the intake process.

Staff surveys by AnalitiQs

The exit survey is one of the many surveys that Highberg carries out for its clients. Besides the staff surveys, Highberg performs People Analyses, sets up HR Dashboards and helps organisations to transition to data-driven HR.


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