Making the Most of Exit Surveys

by John A. Mazzei

An exit survey can be a valuable tool in obtaining feedback about employee satisfaction, managerial performance, salary and benefits in a school system. Exit surveys and interviews can provide helpful information regarding employee turnover if they are conducted on a voluntary basis in a nonthreatening environment.

Data from the surveys can help determine whether there are recurring reasons for employee turnover, particularly if there is high turnover in a specific area. Through the surveys, school districts enable staff members to share candid information about operations that can be helpful in improving morale, procedures and decision making.

Our school district in southern New Jersey with 1,200 employees has used exit surveys for five years, but they can be useful in school systems of any size.

Structuring a Survey
The primary reason for an exit survey is to determine why an employee is leaving your school district, with the goal of discovering whether it was due to current district policy or particular practices. Through various questions and statements, human resources departments can determine whether there is a common factor for employee separations in hopes of addressing recurring issues. Straightforward questions can aid in employee retention, allowing administrators to fix what’s broken before losing more employees for the same reason.

Areas to focus on in your exit survey include managerial performance, communications, physical working conditions, morale, opportunities for advancement, cooperation of fellow workers and access to professional development. Salary and benefits also should be addressed, as should workload.

Keep the survey simple and easy to complete. The goal is to get as much honest feedback as possible, and if the survey is lengthy or complex, it diminishes your chances of having the employee complete the survey.

The exit survey we use in the Pemberton Township School District is a concise three pages, requiring only checkmarks in certain categories and including a few open-ended questions at the end. A section for comments ensures employees have the chance to expand on areas they feel need more attention.

Compiling Responses
Summaries of exit interviews that sit in office drawers unread are of no benefit to either the organization or the employee. To be effective, exit interview reports must be read and analyzed to track trends and similarities. One person complaining about communications within his or her department doesn’t necessarily mean a problem exists; 15 people making the same claim means it deserves investigation and resolution.

Human resources staff should compile an ongoing chart summarizing ratings in each category to determine areas of concern. For example, a review of 30 exit surveys from Pemberton Township Schools pointed to a lack of recognition for staff members who attained perfect attendance. While managers and supervisors may have felt regular attendance was a job expectation, employees who never called out sick believed they should be recognized for their spotless attendance record.

Meetings with managers and supervisors resulted in a consensus view that this was a legitimate opportunity to boost employee morale and that a perfect attendance recognition program for school district staff would be appropriate.

In developing attendance recognition, supervisors and staff members jointly determined that each school would tailor its own perfect attendance award. The benefits of implementing this program were twofold: Employee morale received a boost, and unscheduled absences actually declined. Exit surveys received after the program started no longer identified a problem in this area.

Promoting Participation
The process for exit surveys must encourage employee participation. A cover letter should explain the purpose of the survey and emphasize the confidentiality of responses. Employees must feel comfortable enough to be honest and forthright in their answers if the survey is to be of real value.

Second, ensure the survey is concise and easy to understand so the employee is not intimidated or discouraged from participating. Next, encourage survey returns, perhaps by including a self-addressed, stamped envelope or using an incentive, such as a small-denomination gift card for any staff member who returns a completed survey.

We encourage employees to complete the surveys by promoting the positive programs we’ve established as a direct result of the exit surveys. Supervisors present examples (such as the perfect attendance program) to demonstrate that employee suggestions can be turned into actions.

Exit surveys not only show areas of concern to be addressed but also reflect things that are working well in the district. In our school district’s survey, nearly half of the respondents judged communication in the district to be fair or poor. But when questioned about communication within their department/school, the majority reported communication to be excellent or good.

The grid pointed to a drop-off in communication outside individual schools. The superintendent now produces a monthly communication to all staff. In addition, our media services department publishes a monthly internal newsletter as well as a quarterly community newsletter. Our website is becoming more user-friendly. In addition, knowing what interdepartmental models of communication were working allowed us to transfer some of those successful models to be used throughout the district.

Happier Employees
Exit interviews in Pemberton Township have yielded valuable information, resulting in some changes within the human resources department. The policy governing retirement used to permit only two unused personal days per year to be rolled into the bank of sick days for employee reimbursement. Through the exit interview process, most retirees expressed dissatisfaction with the number of days they were able to roll over, requesting that all three personal days be applied, if unused.

After review, the human resources department increased the eligibility to three days. We quickly realized the rewards. In addition to happier retirees, the number of personal days used per year dropped, as employees chose instead to roll them over into their sick bank. With fewer absences, the district saved money on substitute teachers, and there were fewer disruptions in classroom instruction.

Recently, our district underwent a reduction in staffing. One supervisor who was released believes there should be better communication from the district about the process. As a result, we have instituted a process to contact the exiting employee prior to the separation date. During this time, we inform the employee of the process and any paperwork that must be completed to avoid delaying any salary or benefits due.

We also have instituted an employee separation checklist. The process ensures separating employees return all district materials, are removed from e-mail and telephone service, receive COBRA information and are compensated in a timely manner for any unused vacation or sick days.

John Mazzei is director of human resources in the Pemberton Township School District in Pemberton, N.J. E-mail: