Getting the Most From Your Exit Surveys and Interviews

Exit interviewing and surveying (EIS) is a process used for gathering information from employees who are separating from the organization, either in the form of an interview or questionnaire. What does the EIS process cover? It can ask questions about issues such as salary and other benefits,working conditions, opportunities for career advancement, job recognition, the quality and quantity of the workload, and relationships with co-workers and supervisors.

But therein lies the problem. It can cover many issues, but what it should cover is unique to the company and the goals it has for the EIS. If you are using a "one size fits all," off the shelf EIS instrument, or if you put together an instrument that is based on hunches, you are failing to utilize the tool effectively. More importantly, you are wasting time and money and squandering an opportunity to get important information that could inform decisions across the organization.

No matter the industry, whether designing exit surveys for human resources or security professionals and regardless of the EIS type, at the start, the questions I ask these professionals are always the same:

  • What do want to learn with the EIS?
  • How are you going to use what you learn from the EIS?

These sound like very basic questions, but more often than not, the answers I hear are ambiguous.

What Do You Want to Learn?
Essentially, what will EIS help you to deal with? Are you trying to deal with retention? Improve training and development? Customer relations? Or is your goal to improve your leaders? Decrease your employee deviance? Improve your employee’s ethical decision making?

Most companies use their EIS for retention purposes—they want to find out why their employees are leaving and get a general sense of what their employees experienced at work. But using the EIS for retention alone underutilizes a very powerful tool, for while you’ve got them there responding to retention-related issues, why not get at other issues? While HR is often the contact point for EISs, a good cross-functional meeting for deciding how the EIS can be used by other functions in the organizations is critical. The metrics you use are always in response to your needs—and your ability to identify these needs is the first step.

How are you going to use what you learn from the EIS?
Before engaging in a process to revamp one company’s ten year old EIS, I noticed that the instrument they were using was extraordinarily long (well over 200 questions) and asked them about why certain questions were included. "Just in case we need the information," one manager told me. Such an approach is not only wastes money, but is disrespectful of the respondent’s time.

Each question asked in the EIS must be tied to one or more specific issues that the company wants to assess and address. It’s no use to ask about training and development if you have no intention of making changes. More importantly, asking questions about different issues with no plan in mind can distract decision makers and lead to "fishing expeditions" where new and irrelevant questions lead to no resolution.

With the right planning and careful monitoring, EIS data can be used in such areas as determining training needs, reconsidering compensation packages, developing leadership programs, reducing waste and pilferage, and improving customer relations. It can be used to determine a retention strategy or develop an ethics strategy for the organization. But the questions that lead to these outcomes must be carefully crafted to meet these determinations.

Respect the Process

Too often the EIS process is treated capriciously. The biggest problem is that it is developed quickly, with little oversight, planning and pre-testing. This leads to problems later, when analyzing results and trying to figure out what the data means. An EIS that is thrown together yields information quickly, but it is information of questionable value. All the while, the quickly conceived EIS also misses information that could have helped.

A clear, detailed process must be followed so that a robust instrument develops, one that is not plagued by the many problems the literature has found in EISs. This process also establishes an instrument that will not need major revisions for several years; one on which to establish a baseline to compare future responses.

Equally critical is that some forethought must be given to the details. Should it be an exit interview or exit survey? A face to face discussion may sound superior, but a reality checks is in order. Exiting employees may not wish to talk about uncomfortable situations like supervisory abuse with a member of HR, and unless your interviewer had CIA interrogation training, it’s unlikely she’ll pick up that the exiting employee is hiding something. More often, the exit survey is better because when properly constructed, it has ability for follow-up that an interviewer has and allows for the interviewee to elaborate on his responses—without the lack of comfort or embarrassment of telling a live person the information.

Details matter in terms of timing as well. Asking someone to complete the EIS in the last days of employment means that they are still employees and still worried that you may retaliate against them with a bad reference to their new employer. Workers will give you different responses as employees than they will when they are ex-employees, with the latter responses being more truthful. It’s also a good idea to let a bit of time pass after they leave, and an even better idea to contact them again a year later, when they’ve had the time to reflect on how your company compares to their current employer.

And details matter in terms of usage as well. An EIS that is not discussed and used in decision making, or whose information is not fed back to relevant internal stakeholders, is a process that is soon forgotten, and then ignored when more critical and useful data surfaces.

So, Where Do You Start?

First, determine your need for an EIS. If you have a well-heeled process for ongoing, yearly internal surveying on information of interest, the EIS is likely to provide redundant, wasteful data. It is a good idea to do a comparison of your ongoing survey instrument and the EIS—and to clearly determine whether there is overlap—before committing to an EIS.

Second, determine which departments would want (and use) information from an EIS and meet with these managers. If there is buy-in beyond HR, you can proceed knowing that the scope of the EIS will make the expense worth it. If only HR is interested, the EIS can still be very useful if there is a clear plan for how data usage will inform decisions.

Third, commit to a coherent and reliable process that will develop a reputable EIS. A four phase approach that starts with a detailed familiarization with the issues identified for the EIS, a nominal group process that develops the specific items for the EIS, construction of the EIS itself, and a final test phase is a standard way to proceed. Depending on the size of the company and the scope of the EIS, this process will take several weeks to complete.

Finally, plan for how you will provide feedback for the EIS data users. What will be the format and how often will you provide feedback to internal stakeholders? Though this step appears remote at the beginning of the process, its thoughtful consideration is critical to the overall success of EIS programs.