Are You Singing the Right Tune? Lessons Learned From Exit Surveys

Kyla Holcombe, Ph.D., Insights Consultant & Organizational PsychologistEmployee EngagementLeave a Comment

When it comes to communicating with employees about commitment to keeping the best talent, what is the tune of your organization?:

Good riddance. (Green Day)
You can’t always get what you want, but sometimes, you get what you need. (The Stones)
Go your own way. (Fleetwood Mac)
We are never getting back together. (Taylor Swift)
I want you to want me. (Cheap Trick)
Starting with the man in the mirror . . . gonna make it right. (Michael Jackson)

Your tune, or the way you talk about retaining great talent, is conveyed in a number of ways, including but not limited to — culture, policies and procedures, interactions between employees, and rewards/benefits. Depending on what your employees hear and perceive, they might feel grateful or wanting, valued or under-utilized, excited to contribute or ready to move on. For employees, perceptions are reality and do impact decisions to either stay with your organization or carry their tune onward to other opportunities.

Once an employee decides to leave your company, you may think it’s too late to do anything about it, right? WRONG. Employees may decide to return someday, remain a consumer of your products, or support your brand as a result of their experiences with your company. There are many important lessons to learn as people exit your organization, especially from those who were among your top performers. Exit surveys are one quick, easy strategy that allows you to explore the impressions, perceptions, and decision processes that led your employees to not only consider other employment, but actually take the plunge and leave. And, because an online exit survey is completed anonymously, they are likely to elicit more honest responses and better participation than in-person exit interviews.

Turnover is difficult to understand and predict. Often, this is a result of poor data quality – missing or outdated employee information, inconsistencies in data recording, or low participation (Baesens, 2014) – but that can be improved using exit surveys. Studies show that people decide to leave organizations because of 1) poor organizational practices, 2) negative employee perceptions about the workplace, and 3) other available and attractive opportunities (Cohen, Blake, & Goodman, 2016; Hom, Mitchell, Lee, & Griffeth, Lee, 2012). You have essentially no control over other opportunities, but have extensive control over practices within your company and factors that influence employee attitudes and perceptions. Exit surveys can help identify employees’ biggest pain-points and pinpoint where to focus efforts for the largest impact.

The Essential Content

Best practices show that four key areas are essential to include on your exit survey:

Voluntary vs. involuntary. The experiences of those who leave voluntarily are most important to measure because these are people you would have liked to retain. High voluntary turnover, especially if out of the norm for your industry, may indicate a failure of something that an organization should be able to prevent. Understanding involuntary turnover is a little more sensitive, but when done well, it can help you ensure that the way people exit is respectful and dignified.

Organizational strengths. What is your value proposition; what keeps your best employees around? Organizations may not be able to excel at everything, but you want to ensure that you’re known for and delivering value that is consistent with your mission. Retaining good talent is all about fit, so you want to know that communicated values are consistent with the strengths that employees identify. For example, many organizations say they value being “agile” or “adaptive,” and also value collaboration, so want to get input from everyone before making a decision; these values can compete with one another and be confusing and frustrating for employees (and sometimes a source of conflict)! Exit surveys allow you to see where your organization is delivering on promises made and living values, and alternatively, where you’re not.

Reasons for leaving. There may be a number of reasons why employees decide to leave your organization. If you can detect patterns or trends, especially ones that suggest employee experiences are inconsistent with your values, there will be a clear direction for action and improvement. It is important to focus on factors that you have some control over – if you’re not willing to increase pay, it may not be worth probing too much about compensation on your exit survey. Rather, if you can make adjustments to flexible work arrangements, learning opportunities, or interpersonal interactions, these areas will be essential to capture on the exit survey.

Transition process feedback. Someone’s experience on the way out may impact the future behavior of that person. For example, will someone consider returning to your organization? Will he or she remain a customer? This may be especially important for companies like Verizon or Xfinity where a large proportion of their workforces, which have relatively high turnover, are also customers (Johnson, 2017). Even in not-so-ideal situations where people are leaving, fairness and clear expectations can make a huge difference. To understand the transition process, consider asking if people had opportunities to improve their performance, or if they talked with someone before choosing to leave.

The Logistics: Timing, Length, and Participation

When designing your exit survey, all decisions should be made with one goal in mind: to encourage and motivate good participation. People are on their way out – either by their choice or yours – so completing your exit survey may not be top-of-mind. Your job is to make the survey easy and simple, while also conveying the message that employees’ input is highly valued.

Your exit survey should be no more than 30 itemsand5 minutes or less to complete. Send the survey to all who are exiting the organization. Ideally, people should receive the survey invitation shortly after their notification or notice of exit, but before they leave so you have the chance for reminders about taking the survey. Noting in the survey who is leaving voluntarily versus involuntarily will help focus on which comments to pay most attention to (rather than just comments that may be overly upset or intended to strongly voice final concerns after a layoff). By communicating a commitment to continual improvement – both for future interactions with the person and for those still at the organization – people are more likely to see their input as valuable and thus, are more likely to participate and provide honest feedback.

The Take-Away?

Turnover is expensive – it incurs separation costs (administrative costs, unused vacation, lost revenues due to vacancy), replacement costs (recruiting and selecting someone to fill the gap), training costs (formal training and time of those informally training new employees), and lost productivity costs (Barrick, 2003). Understanding where your organization can interject and prevent undesirable loss of talent helps reduce these costs. By utilizing effective exit surveys, you’ll gain important insight into what you can do to retain those who are of high value to your organization, leaving you singing a different tune.


Baesens, B. (2014). 4 challenges with predictive employee turnover analytics – HR analytics. iNostix by Deloitte.

Barrick, M. R. (2003). Predicting employee turnover and performance: Pre-employment tests and questions that work. Filene Research Institute.

Cohen, G., Blake, R. S., & Goodman, D. (2016). Does turnover intention matter? Evaluating the usefulness of turnover intention rate as a predictor of actual turnover rate. Review of Public Personnel Administration, 36(3), 240-263. doi: 10.1177/0734371X15581850

Hom, P. W., Mitchell, T. R., Lee, T. W., & Griffeth, R. W. (2012). Reviewing employee turnover: focusing on proximal withdrawal states and an expanded criterion. Psychological bulletin, 138(5), 831-858. doi: 10.1037/a0027983

Johnson, O. (2017). Your product is the experience: Why Beats By Dre isn’t just about headphones. Qualtrics Summit 2017.