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Exit Surveys vs. Exit Interviews: Which one is more effective?

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There are many reasons why employees decide to leave a job, and while an organisation may do its best to retain talent, staff turnover is inevitable.

When employees resign, organisations can capture valuable feedback about their experience at your organisation before they walk out the door. This insight can help you identify and address organisational strengths, weaknesses and opportunities for improvement so you can better engage and retain your people.

There are two main methods of gaining feedback from departing employees: through exit surveys or exit interviews. While the methods are similar, they have key differences.

In this blog, we will discuss the differences between exit interviews and exit surveys, how they complement each other, and scenarios where one is more appropriate than the other.

What is an exit survey?

An exit survey is a questionnaire sent to a departing employee (typically digitally) as part of the offboarding process and is completed independently.

The questionnaire may touch on various areas of the organisation, such as the employee’s perception of the leadership team, exiting employees’ opinion of the workplace culture and opportunities for career progression, or other areas of interest.

Xref branded graphic with a mobile device screenshot of a likert scale question asked in an exit survey and text from below

Answers to the questions are typically provided on a Likert scale, where the respondent indicates how strongly they agree with a statement. For example, the question could be,  “[Organisation] is committed to improving the culture within the organisation.” The employee must select either ‘strongly agree’, ‘agree’, ‘neither agree nor disagree’, ‘disagree’, or ‘strongly disagree’. 

The survey should also provide an option for the departing employee to make additional comments on their experience at the organisation.

What is an exit interview?

An exit interview is where the departing employee sits down typically with someone from human resources (HR) and answers questions face-to-face about their time at the company. It can occur either in person or virtually.

Although no rule says how long an exit interview should be, they typically last an hour. An exit interview can cover various topics in-depth and is led by the person conducting the interview.

The interviewer may take notes during the discussion, which they can later share with relevant team members. In some cases, the interview may be recorded.

Differences between exit surveys and exit interviews

Xref branded graphic with text from below on the difference between exit interviews and exit surveys

Exit interviews and exit surveys are similar because they share the same objective: to gain feedback from departing employees about their experience at the organisation and use it to make positive lasting changes. The main difference is their approach.

Below is a snapshot of the differences between exit surveys and interviews.

Exit surveys:

  • Sent to employees online, perhaps via a third-party provider like Xref
  • Completed independently at a time that is convenient for the employee
  • Typically quick and easy to complete (Xref recommends an exit survey should have 6-10 questions and take no longer than 10 minutes to complete)
  • Less risk of bias as they are completed without the pressure of answering to a person
  • Responses are recorded digitally and can be tracked and benchmarked

Exit interviews:

  • Typically conducted in-person
  • Time-consuming for HR and the employee
  • Responses are given verbally and are captured manually
  • Risk of unconscious bias as the interviewer may prompt or interpret responses in a certain way

Advantages and disadvantages of exit surveys and exit interviews

There are advantages to both exit surveys and interviews, which are explored below.

Exit surveys 

A big advantage of exit surveys is that they encourage honest feedback. As they are completed independently, the departing employee will not feel pressured to respond to questions for fear of awkwardness or judgement, which increases the likelihood that answers will be truthful. The more honest the feedback, the more valuable it is. 

Also, with exit surveys, the risk of bias is significantly reduced. As long as the questions posed are neutral, respondents will not feel inclined to give certain answers. Xref Exit Surveys provides an unbiased, HR-approved questionnaire template to prompt honest responses. Organisations can customise the template to ensure they are gathering feedback on areas that matter most to them (e.g. career advancement opportunities).

Another advantage of exit surveys is that, because they are completed online, responses are recorded digitally. There is no need to manually record responses and risk inaccuracy. Digital records of responses make it easier for HR to track, measure, and benchmark responses to uncover patterns and trends in attrition. For example, an organisation could uncover that the reason for high staff turnover in a department is the result of poor leadership.

Using Xref Exit Surveys HR can also ask departing employees if they would recommend working at the organisation and accumulate the responses to generate an employee Net Promoter Score (eNPS), which can be used as an employer brand tool to appeal to potential candidates.

An advantage of Xref Exit Surveys is that they are short and don't take long to complete, which increases the likelihood that employees will participate.

A disadvantage of exit surveys is that respondents may not provide additional comments on their experience. In this case, the survey response may be less insightful. However, if the questions in the survey are selected strategically, the feedback will still be valuable in uncovering strengths and areas for improvement.

Exit interviews

The main advantage of an exit interview is that it facilitates a two-way conversation. HR can understand why the departing employee is leaving their position and what they did and didn’t like about the organisation. The interviewer is able to ask follow-up questions to get to the bottom of any issues, which can be fed back to relevant team members.

The main drawback of exit interviews, however, is they are at risk of bias. The interviewer may, perhaps unknowingly, prompt certain responses from the employee. Also, if the interviewer is taking notes during the conversation, there is a chance that responses get misquoted or misinterpreted, diminishing the interview's effectiveness.

The employee also may not feel comfortable giving honest feedback in-person for fear of being judged by the interviewer, especially if discussions relate to other employees. This discomfort may result in vague or untruthful responses. In this case, the interview isn’t a productive use of time.

What’s more, if conducted in person, exit interviews require the employee to visit the workplace, which may be inconvenient or, depending on the situation, awkward. However, conducting an exit interview over the phone or via a video conferencing platform like Zoom is possible.

Xref branded graphic with text that says, "Don’t let the memory of outgoing talent fade away…Measure exit sentiment, the reason for leaving and assess their key skills. Track them over time and target them for rehire in the years to come."

How do exit surveys and exit interviews complement each other?

There are advantages to both exit surveys and exit interviews, and while an organisation may prefer one to the other, it’s important to note that they are most effective when they work in tandem.

For instance, an organisation’s standard offboarding process could involve sending exit surveys to departing employees. However, in some circumstances, the organisation could choose to conduct an exit interview in its place. An example could be when the circumstances around the employee’s resignation are contentious, and it is necessary for HR to speak with them in person.

Another option is to incorporate a mixture of surveys and rounds of interviews as part of the offboarding process. Depending on the role, seniority, and tenure of the employee, an organisation may send an exit survey before holding an interview and use the responses given in the survey as talking points to uncover more detailed information that could help the organisation make improvements in the future.

Which should you use: exit surveys or exit interviews?

Exit surveys and interviews can be used independently or together. Below is a summary of when to use each method.

Use exit surveys…

  • To automate feedback collection: Use exit surveys in your standard offboarding process to simplify the survey administration and feedback collection without relying on manual work.
  • To get fast employee responses: Exit surveys are quick and easy to complete. They don’t overwhelm employees, so completion rates are typically high.
  • To track, analyse and benchmark employee sentiment: Survey data is aggregated and provides actionable insights that your organisation can use to improve retention.

Use exit interviews…

  • To uncover more information: If the employee’s decision to resign comes as a surprise, or in their exit survey, they have attributed their decision to leave to an issue at work, an exit interview can help to uncover need-to-know information. 
  • As a compliance tool: If there is a serious issue relating to an employee’s departure, for example, workplace discrimination and harassment, conducting an exit interview is advised. HR can work with the employee to rectify issues before they escalate and mitigate the risk of legal action or bad publicity.

Should you send an exit survey to an employee who is leaving involuntarily?

Sending exit surveys to employees who have decided to leave an organisation makes sense – you want to know why you are losing them and what you could have done differently. But what about when the employee isn’t choosing to leave on their own terms? What if their employment has been terminated due to poor performance?

It may be in bad taste to ask an employee in this scenario to tell you what they liked and didn’t like about your organisation. However, their feedback could still be valuable (understanding that they are unlikely to be positive in their responses). A solution is to create an exit survey for this scenario that is short, polite and gives the employee a chance to air their grievances. 

It is likely that an employee who has been terminated has had meetings with their manager and HR about the reasons why they are leaving, but providing them with one last opportunity to have their say shows respect and courtesy – and could squeeze out some last-minute valuable insights.

Gathering feedback to identify boomerang employees

The exit process has the potential to leave a lasting positive impression on employees, who may be inclined to return to the organisation in the future as a boomerang employee if the right opportunity presents itself. Xref Exit Surveys makes it easy to build a talent pool of skilled ex-employees by offering them the opportunity to opt-in to hearing about future job vacancies.

Xref branded graphic with a photograph of Xref's CEO Lee-Martin Seymour, and below quote on exit surveys from him

Xref’s CEO Lee-Martin Seymour says the exiting process is beneficial in many ways, but many organisations are under-utilising it. “Businesses aren’t reaping the benefits of an effectively managed departure process,” says Lee to Stockhead. “An exit survey allows you to understand their reasons [for departure] and realise there may be a place for this person in the future.

Exit surveys should be incorporated into the offboarding process, so departing employees feel respected and heard. This leaves a positive lasting impression and ensures that the departing employee knows the door is always open for them should they wish to return to the organisation. Not offering employees the chance to leave feedback may prompt them to air any grievances on Glassdoor instead.

What to ask in an exit survey or interview to get the best feedback

Optimising your exit survey or interview is key to receiving the most insightful feedback. In our recent blog, ‘How to get the best feedback from your exit survey’, we provide example questions about leadership, work culture, health and wellbeing, remuneration satisfaction and more. We also list tips for encouraging truthful, prompt feedback from employees. Read the blog here.

Final thoughts

Whether you use exit surveys or interviews, asking departing employees to share feedback on their experience at your organisation shows respect. Not asking for feedback is a missed opportunity to improve how your organisation operates and how employees feel within it.

While the two methods have advantages and disadvantages, the best results are achieved when exit surveys and interviews are used together. 

Book a demo today to learn more about Xref Exit Surveys and how your organisation can benefit.

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