The exit survey is a tactic that has long been used by HR teams. The idea is that feedback given by departing employees will enable employers to identify any changes that need to be made to ensure that the workplace stays a desirable place for remaining employees – thereby reducing the risk of further turnover.

But this logic is faulty and always has been. It’s time HR leaders rethink the importance of exit surveys in understanding why employees leave. Here are four main reasons why:

1. By design, exit surveys lead to incorrect conclusions

The first issue with the exit survey is the most obvious one: only those who have handed in their notice receive it. By only gathering data from those who leave but not those who remain – a theory called ‘selecting on the dependent variable’ – organisations have no real way of identifying what differentiates the two groups and thus risk drawing the wrong conclusions about the drivers of employee resignation.

Imagine that an insurance organisation is losing employees in its claims department, and exit surveys clearly indicate this is because of their heavy workload. Using only this data, it might conclude that increasing the affected department’s headcount is the answer, and subsequently decides to open the purse strings to hire more claims staff. Now, contrast that scenario to one where the company goes a step further and compares exit survey data to a survey conducted among ‘staying’ employees. It shows that all staff are experiencing a heavy workload – it’s not unique to ‘leavers’. Instead, the company discovers that the real reason why claims staff choose to leave is because they do not feel valued and able to live up to their potential. By addressing this issue and pivoting its operations to better support its talent, the company can avoid wasting precious resources while effectively path-correcting on the overall employee experience.

2. The insight gathered in exit surveys is captured retrospectively and not in the moment

An exit survey is sent to employees usually in their last few days with a company. The question “What prompted you to seek an alternative position” may have a different answer when asked weeks or months (depending on the notice period) after that decision is taken.

Indeed, it is often the case that exit surveys are carried out so late that they dilute the real reasons why employees were seeking a new position in the first place. With exiting employees now focused on their next chapter, applying retrospective rationale to a previously made decision will not provide employers with an accurate reflection of the top reason for that employee leaving. This also means that any action taken off the back of this insight may be misplaced, thereby limiting the desired effect of convincing future employee detractors to remain.

3. Respondents do not reply honestly for fear of ‘burning bridges’

Typically, the response rate for exit surveys is low. This is for a number of reasons. Some employees might be hard to reach – perhaps they are already focused on their next chapter or on tying up the loose ends from their existing position. Others fear being honest about their reasons for leaving as they don’t want to ‘burn any bridges’ with contacts. As such, the responses gathered are often biased – taken from a small sample from those able to be reached or those who were willing to be honest in their responses.

4. Exit surveys manufacture correlation without causation

Exit surveys often suggest to HR leaders that pay is a recurring top reason for employees leaving, but research shows that employees’ concern about salary is not what typically initiates the process of looking elsewhere. The correlation, however, is inaccurately drawn when dissatisfied employees report having found a higher paying job. By incorrectly concluding that pay was the reason for leaving, organisations miss out on discovering the source of leaving employees’ discontent, such as poor management, not feeling heard and not seeing a future at the company.

And so, we now must ask the question: As organisations seek to hang on to their most valued employees, what tool can they adopt to reduce turnover?

A better way to analyse employee experience – The ‘flight risk model’

By using data from multiple sources – including employee pulse survey responses, data gathered from Human Resources Information Systems (HRIS), and the information from time-keeping systems, organisations can predict which employees are likely to leave, allowing managers to take proactive steps to remedy any issues and prevent the loss of talent.

This is the flight risk model as outlined in Harvard Business Review by David Allen and Brooks Holtom. It’s been used successfully by organisations over the last 15 years, enabling them to positively lower employee turnover figures.

The adoption of the flight risk model isn’t for the faint-hearted though – it requires both data and skill from HR managers to uncover the insights. An effective alternative is the simple adaptation of pulse or engagement surveys. By adding in “current employee status” (active, resigned, involuntary termination) to a survey, organisations can compare the comments in open-ended questions between the groups to identify reasons why employees decide to leave.

Employee feedback is everywhere – are you picking up the clues?

While the exit survey is – and has always been – insufficient, the idea of gathering employee insight to drive a better overall employee experience for all employees is sound. In fact, such a principle is more important than ever. 

By taking a more holistic approach to the employee experience, organisations can get to the bottom of the real reasons why talent leaves and focus on investing more in actions that really make a difference.