Exit surveys are a fantastic way of getting an honest, no-holds-barred appraisal of how your organisation could be better. Whether it’s gathering ideas for better retaining your talent, providing a better service to customers, or making the environment better for and enhancing motivation of your staff. While general employee and staff surveys can be useful and insightful, there’s nothing quite like the brutal honesty of an exit interview.

However, few know how to do exit surveys effectively, including HR departments. When it comes to employee exit interview surveys and templates, there are many sites and guides out there claiming to have the best. However, many are unnecessarily long with dozens of (often useless) questions to answer, have wordy questions, or would be a pain to analyse, to name just a few issues.

“Every exit is an entry somewhere else.” – Tom Stoppard

As I outline in my 10 techniques in creating great surveys, it’s good to keep your surveys as short as possible. This stops your respondents from becoming ‘despondents’! That’s a key reason why, based on my own extensive research and experience, I’d recommend asking just seven core questions.

I summarise the seven questions below in this exit interview template, then go into more detail on each, including examples of how you can report upon your findings, and whether they should be asterisked as ‘mandatory’ on your survey form for respondents to complete…

  1. Rating scales of your team/department/organisation.
  2. Determine the key reason(s) why the person is leaving.
  3. Identify what could be done better.
  4. Identify what is working well.
  5. Understand the management culture.
  6. Core departmental or location demographic question.
  7. Would leavers endorse your workplace to others?

1: Is it a Good Place to Work?

Suggested question: “On the following scale, please rate the following areas in terms of being a good place to work…”

Exit interview Likert rating

This question utilises Likert scales to give a quantitative aspect to your responses. These also serve as useful Performance Indicators (PI). PI’s are simply measures which objectively tells you whether something is good or bad. For the PI in this case, higher scores are good, lower scores are bad. A Key Performance Indicator (KPI) is just a really important measure of performance, which we will save for the final question later.

It’s worth bearing in mind, performance measurement and supporting data-gathering doesn’t exist to provide certainty on anything; performance monitoring exists to reduce uncertainty. With reduced uncertainty, you can in turn be more confident in your corrective actions, in that they are relevant and worthwhile. In this question then, it is helpful to reduce our uncertainty about where issues for people lie. That’s because corrective action looks very different if the concerns are raised within local teams or departments, compared to the organisation as a whole. You’ll also be able to report upon statistical statements, such as ‘90% of leavers rated Our Company as a good place to work’.

Although this is listed under one question, technically you’re asking three separate things and getting three separate data points. It only feels like one question to the respondent when nesting the categories with checkboxes as above, but you’re understanding three things about the response: win-win! You’ll be able to differentiate performance at three different levels. Also, the rule of threes is an attractive tip generally for when presenting information, be it in a question or end report.

“Omnium, trium, perfectum.” – Everything perfect comes in threes.

I would advise making this a mandatory question, because it is important to your general understanding of performance. Choosing which questions are mandatory or optional is easy when building surveys the easy way with Survey Monkey or similar, as per my 10 surveying techniques guidance.

2a: Define the MAIN Reason for Leaving

Suggested question: “Please indicate the main reason for you leaving us.”

Let’s get quickly to the point by posing the main question for people completing this survey. This will allow you to home in on key areas of your business requiring attention, to better retain staff and reduce wastage. This is after all why you’re asking people in the first place. The options offered could include things like the following:

  • Fresh challenge or opportunity elsewhere
  • Career development / CPD / training options are lacking
  • Salary too devalued or better elsewhere
  • Working environment and facilities
  • Disagree with direction the organisation is headed
  • My views aren’t listened to
  • My line manager or colleagues
  • Dislike the work involved and/or too much expected of me
  • The working pattern or shifts
  • Retirement or medical reasons
  • Other reason

You cannot possibly anticipate through categorisation all the reasons people will leave, but this should capture the main ones. Mix any prominent potential internal factors with external ones in the options list; you can even precede options with the prefixes ‘Internal – ’ and ‘External – ‘, to make processing and analysis of results easier. The use of categories will also make your analysis easier. For example, see my simple tutorial for creating perfect pie charts in Excel. In any case, item 2b allows people to explain any ‘Other reason’ for leaving…

As with Question 1, I suggest making this a mandatory question to ensure you have a complete dataset associated with your responses.

2b: Expand on Reason(s) for Leaving

Suggested question: “Please expand on why you are leaving us.”

This should be a free text question, allowing the individual to expand upon and describe the reason(s) they’re leaving. It allows them to expand upon and explain their main rationale, while identifying any other issues and ‘push factors’ of importance.

Did you notice the 2a / 2b slight of hand? It’s a great way of sneaking in an extra couple of questions on a survey, a bit like how question 1 did. Though it’s a fine line, so make sure you only apply this technique on related topics and don’t overuse the hack! Think to yourself when composing your questions: To ‘b’, or not to ‘b’?

Reading the free text responses will give you the gist of the main issues, while is manageable when you’re only dealing with dozens, rather than thousands, of data records. I would also suggest the use of ‘word clouds’ to analyse and summarise such qualitative information. They’re a handy time-saver for qualitative analysis and provide an attractive summary infographic, conveying the essence of common things articulated. See below for example a word cloud generated using the entire text of this blog. Check out my video on word clouds for how to use and get the settings right on one of my favourites.

Finally, it’s probably a good idea to limit the number of characters or lines of text allowed on this one. This will generally make the volume of text, and in turn your discursive analysis, more manageable. Depending on how you count things or how your survey system limits things, 10 lines of text, 250 words, or 1000 characters is plenty. For comparison, this entire section is just under 300 words and 1400 characters.

Generally, it’s good practice to not force people to complete commentary-based questions like this; if they want to share more, they will. This is one to make optional on your form, rather than mandatory.

3a: The One Thing We Can Do Better

Suggested question: “What’s one main thing we could do better and how?”

The purpose of this question is to identify the most important and urgent things that are wrong and need fixing.

The use of open questions is important and powerful in surveys, allowing people to properly express themselves while not limiting their thinking to your frame of reference. Asking for ‘one main thing’ also focuses people’s minds, so that they are less likely to rattle off a range of gripes. Instead they’ll (hopefully!) be providing you with the golden nuggets, separating the wheat from the chaff already.

People may interpret this as doing something better for customers, for retaining people, or something else of critical importance. Ultimately, this elicits ideas you hadn’t otherwise thought of. This is also why it’s important as a free text question. Restrictive categories are not worth the space; you’ll know through good performance measurement and monitoring generally what you can improve upon. You’re instead here seeking insights into how you can improve.

Remember, you’re asking these surveys to do something different to improve your business (and in turn, retention) as a result. It’s a completely pointless exercise and waste of everyone’s time if you’re only surveying for the sake of the survey itself.

You can always add additional fields to your data later, for manually appraising and categorising suggestions into meaningful summary themes. Depending on the size of your organisation, you’ll only be dealing with less than 100, or maybe even less than 10, data responses each month. That’s entirely manageable and worth the extra effort in doing the work to better understand your data. Again, the use of word clouds will also help appraise and present such qualitative data for other stakeholders.

This would also be a question I’d make mandatory given its importance, despite being free text based. And in any case, the question wording allows a less-enthused respondent to answer with a single word!

3b: Where Else Could We Improve?

Suggested question: “Where else could we improve?”

Again, we’re using the sneaky 3a / 3b trick here, but fear not, the items are related! After restricting people to focusing in on the most important thing for them, we’re then allowing a more expansive view to gather other ideas. Allowing this more expansive discussion from individuals, with simple and open free text questions, also reduces the potential for communication breakdown between the surveyor and the surveyed (as the more restrictive categorisation questions can suffer).

That’s assuming they haven’t already spilled their guts already in question 3a! As such, this question is probably best left as optional for those completing the survey.

4a: What Works Well?

Suggested question: “What is the best aspect about working here?”

In this question, we’re trying to get to the heart of what works well. Whether that’s about their specific job, the people they work with, the working environment, or something else. Along the way you may find good practice and things to praise, or even boast about in your communications and adverts attracting others to work for you.

Asking about the positive things ensures balance and is useful for three key reasons:

1. It may prompt the individual responding to think about the organisation and their time with you in a positive light, which is never a bad thing.

2. Onward reporting of findings/recommendations becomes easier, more persuasive, and in turn more likely to be acted upon, when you have spoonfuls of honey to help the medicine go down! Who likes s**t sandwiches without any bread? It’s just a small aspect of operating with emotional intelligence.

3. Helps the organisation recognise and play to its strengths, informing any SWOT analysis.

As I explain in my top 10 techniques for creating great surveys, only ask one thing per question. That’s why we separate out the questions asking about the good, the bad, and the ugly.

As a by-product, you’ll also be encouraging the respondent to not solely think negatively about their time with your business, especially if they left with a bitter taste in their mouth. There’s always something someone liked about going to work. If not, they probably weren’t too much of a loss! I’d recommend leaving this one optional.

4a: What Else is Good?

Suggested question: “What else do you like about working here?”

Having focused the mind on the important things, we can mirror the 3a / 3b question dynamic with ‘what else’. This ‘anything else?’ line of open questioning is a tried and tested technique in coaching, consultation, and interviewing alike.

You’ll also be keeping the positivity flowing and extracting more information about the great things your people and/or organisation do well. I.e., the things that aren’t broke, so don’t need fixing.

Again, this is not a question to force answers from, you’ll just annoy people if they don’t want to. So again, leave it optional.

5: Did Stuff Get Raised to Management?

Suggested question: “Did you raise any concerns to management before deciding to leave?”

Now this is a fantastic question and can give great insight into the prevailing culture. Providing simple checkbox options between ‘Yes’, ‘No’ and ‘N/A’ will suffice; the latter being for those who didn’t have any particular concerns or issues to raise.

If you’re seeing a high proportion of people answering ‘Yes’, this suggests that concerns aren’t being addressed properly for whatever reason. Whether that be ineffective management, unreasonable expectations in things getting sorted, or something else, it’s worth exploring because ultimately this is contributing to people leaving.

Lots of ‘No’ answers on the other hand may be indicative of an unhealthy culture that lacks openness to improvement or debate. Or indeed one that promotes apathy among its staff, with no incentive to fix anything. Exploring the freetext of this category will likely give you ideas as to completely different corrective action than the rationales (given in Q2, 3a and 3b) from those answering ‘Yes’.

This is an important question, for which you don’t want a heap of data gaps, while it is also easy for the respondent to choose an option, so I recommend making this one mandatory.

6: Broadly Define the Department / Location

Suggested question: “In which department/area did you work?”

This is an important question to targeting your corrective action to particular areas of the business. For example, interpersonal and line management issues might be prevalent in Finance, whereas a lack of CPD might be the qualms raised in Sales and Marketing. The actions taken can then be tailored by (or to!) the management in each respective business area.

If your organisation is small, then this question may be completely unnecessary. When in a large (1000+ people) organisation and you are asking the question, I suggest using fixed categories as to how you define your business. Keep it at a strategic level with no more than 10 options to choose from. Whether those options are aligned to functions (like HR, Finance, IT, Sales) and/or office locations, use broad definitions that your employees would recognise.

Always allow for an ‘Other / Don’t wish to say’ category. This way, you can make this one of your mandatory questions for completion as part of the survey.

7: Would They Recommend to Others?

Example exit survey graph

Suggested question: “Finally, would you recommend this company to friends or family as a good place to work?”

Using ‘finally’ let’s your respondent know they’re on the home straight. Let’s be honest, we know nobody really likes doing surveys, so this can be a breath of fresh air to a tedious task. In addition, it’s a quick and easy multiple-choice selection, before they then submit the response to your database.

I alluded to question 1 being a performance indicator. Well, this one is your key performance indicator (KPI), being the ultimate litmus test of whether the person has had a positive impression. That’s because it’s personal, focusing on friends and family rather than faceless ‘others’.

Think of your own employer and workplace. Would you recommend it to the people you care about? This personal question encourages an honest appraisal from the respondent, while also gets to the nub of whether the working experience is good or bad.

To determine the ‘good’ from the ‘bad’, a simple multiple choice of ‘Yes’, ‘No’, and ‘Undecided’ is fine. Don’t overcomplicate this question with rating scales on questions where a definitive answer is best. You can then determine the percentage in each category, with the percent answering ‘Yes’ as your KPI measurement. An example graph of how this might be presented is shown above.

Being your KPI, and with the ‘Undecided’ option available for the indecisive, naturally I recommend this question be made mandatory to force a decision.

What Else Might You Ask in an Exit Interview?

There are plenty of things managers and HR people say they want in an exit survey. But the reality is the above items get the balance between focusing on the most important items about what you can actually improve, while not asking too many things that then puts people off responding in the first place. If you succumb to the latter, you’ll also succumb to negative response bias.

The above set of questions will give you six pieces of easily-analysed quantitative ratings and categories, plus five qualitative free text responses. All in just seven questions! If you’re keen on squeeze in a few other questions, and/or replacing some of the above with your tailored needs, some of the following ideas may be of interest:

  • Equality and diversity questions: You may want to understand demographics (e.g. aligned to protected characteristics of particular importance to your business), or seek specific ideas on how to promote inclusion. Asking about someone’s ethnicity, sex, religion, or other characteristics for example will help you compare the differing reasons for leaving among differing groups; however, such demographics should really already form part of your wider staff survey, gauging perspective before people actually vote with their feet!
  • Invite contact details: You may wish to follow-up with willing participants, to discuss in more detail aspects of their response. Or maybe to apologise if they left on bad terms where your business / organisation could have done better. However, you won’t necessarily know who it was or their contact details unless you invite them to share their name and email address. You could for example ask, “If you are happy to be contacted about your response, please leave your name and contact details here.”
  • Length of service: It may be useful to understand the differences in perspectives among those with short, medium, or long-term service. For example, those leaving within two years may be citing things like training or career limitations, while those longer in service may cite disagreements with colleagues or retirement. Improved training and CPD options could then be more targeted to those newer in service.

That’s just a few suggestions for additional questions you might ask. Whatever you want in your survey, screen it first with the following three question before burdening your inherently impatient survey respondents with it:

  • Will I realistically use the data in my analysis of the results?
  • Will responses to this question help retain staff?
  • How will it do the above two things?

I hope you’ve found this blog helpful and wish you well in improving your own business by understanding the perspectives of those who vote with their feet. If you’d like assistance with your own bespoke survey or in making sense of and reporting upon the data you’ve gathered, feel free to get in touch for expert support.

Kind Regards, Adrian