Most organizations use or have used exit surveys, which can be an effective way to learn what makes your organization attractive (or unattractive) from the viewpoint of former employees. Learning how previous employees view their employment experience provides insights that can help you improve your workplace for the benefit of current employees, bolster retention, and prevent unwanted attrition.

What topic areas make for the best exit survey?

Research conducted by the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) has identified six topic areas that make for an effective exit survey from the perspective of actionable factors that drive turnover and retention. Based on our research, i4cp designed ExitMetrix™ exit and stay surveys.

How questions are structured—scaled response, multiple choice, narrative or open-ended—matters less than asking for input in the correct topic areas. For an effective exit survey, focus on:

1. Broad-based job satisfaction

An employee’s satisfaction with their work experience can be a key turnover/retention factor. Similar to questions found in employee engagement surveys, exit survey satisfaction questions ask former employees how satisfied they were in areas such as pay, benefits, work/life balance, supervisory practices, access to learning and development opportunities, etc. When considering satisfaction, a broad range of satisfaction areas is best—there is no “silver bullet” single satisfaction area that is consistently the most important satisfaction factor.

2. Reasons to leave or stay

When crafting your exit survey, ask questions that prompt the former employee to share what factors would make them want to stay or leave, for example “Tell us what you liked most/least about your job at ABC.” Learning that a number of former employees share a common dislike can be very helpful to retention improvement.

3. Life Events

Include questions that help to identify events that arise unexpectedly and cause employees to leave the organization. A common question in an exit survey is: “Why did you choose to leave ABC?” followed by a list of potential responses that include common unexpected events that can lead to an exit decision. Such events can include spouse relocation, a family emergency or medical care situation, the loss of a loved one, the birth of a child or children leaving for college. Obviously, departures such as these while regrettable, cannot be prevented.

4. Future prospects

An important aspect of job attractiveness to an employee is the perception of future prospects within the organization. If employees believe they have bright career prospects, a job is more attractive. Another important leave/stay factor is the employee’s view of the future of the company itself. A company or organization with a bright future is more attractive than one with an uncertain or troubled future.

5. Supervisory practices

Include questions that help to understand the employee’s view of the supervisor. While the maxim “employees don’t leave companies, they leave supervisors” may overstate the supervisor’s importance to retention in some cases, it is also true that the supervisory role is very important to attrition/retention—the supervisor communicates important messages concerning strategy, operations, and company policy. And, more importantly, supervisors are expected to be role models for company values and reinforce the company culture.

6. Embeddedness

The extent to which an employee has “roots” in a job situation – either work-related or not – is an indicator of their embeddedness. Highly embedded employees are less likely to leave the organization because they have to give up much-valued benefits and relationships. For example, a person engaged in a career progression-enabling skills certification program is more embedded than an employee with no commitment to the organization beyond the bi-weekly paycheck.

Keep these topic areas in mind when designing your exit survey and/or exit interview – they’ll help you get a better understanding of factors that produce attrition and retention.

Patrick Murray is i4cp’s Vice-President of Surveys and Assessments, and our primary contact for ExitMetrix™ exit and stay surveys.