Exit Interviews: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly
Losing staff is a fact of business so how can we still make it productive?
Exit interviews present an opportunity to learn about your business. It is a chance to reflect on the employee experience and get candid feedback from someone who’s decided to leave. Taking the time to assess whether everything from salary to company culture are effective for employees can prevent the brain drain.
The average job tenure in the US stands at an all time low of 4.1 years meaning exit interviews are growing in popularity. 4.1 years might make for glum reading but open, honest exit interviews can solve problems.
What is an Exit Interview and Why Do Them?
A teammate or staff member departing your business can be a time of disappointment, relief, or frustration but most importantly, a time of learning. An exit interview is an opportunity to sit down with the employee and learn from them. It may be conducted through a 1:1 session with another member of the team, an outside professional or through a survey.
Learn what went wrong or right, what you can do better, what relationships aren’t working, what offers are more attractive than yours and what sparked the employees interest in finding a new job. Remember: it is not a time to convince them to stay or to rewrite the past.
When conducted in the right manner, exit interviews yield significant outcomes. For example, they may:
- Highlight leadership performance, environment or culture issues
- Reveal more attractive employee packages from competitors
- Propose the need for greater individual progression opportunities
- Emphasize disharmony amongst your staff
- Instill respect and a feeling of being valued when change occurs
- Allow positive closure for you and the employee
- Create a brand ambassador
How do I Conduct an Effective Exit Interview?
It is important to note that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Employees with varying seniority leave for different reasons and the interview should respect that. However, there is a reasonable system to follow.
- Set Yourself a Goal
The exit interview can be exceptionally productive provided there is an intention to uncover useful information. Taking the emotions out of the picture, what would you most like to learn from your employee?
- Are HR issues a factor? Look beyond salary.
- What ideas for improvement does the employee have? What are we not hearing?
- How are the leadership team performing in the eyes of those being led?
- Is the day to day engaging? How can we improve morale?
- Do you want the employee to be a brand ambassador?
2. Choose the Right Interviewer
Typically, HR or the business owner will run the exit interview. Some businesses may opt for an external HR company or a manager. Each of these options may be effective but think about the subtleties of the relationship.
Direct managers may have been the root cause of the departure. They may also be friends which limits the scope for critical feedback. The business owner may intimidate or try to defend the company. Subtle influences need to be considered.
HR is usually best practice given the training they bring to the conversation. However, the Harvard Business Review found that second or third (bosses boss) can achieve more honest and useful feedback than others. If your company does not have a HR team, be aware and address any bias that could impact the integrity of the session.
3. Do you have to interview everyone?
The short answer is no. Interviewing all exitees helps to shape the future but often is not practical. Where the resources don’t exist to interview everyone, you need to prioritize.
Priority candidates to interview are:
- Leadership figures. Often leaders will have been with your organization a long time so understanding their motivation to leave is key.
- Teams with high turnover rates. Replacing employees costs up to 33% of their annual salary so high turnover teams are costly. They are also indicative of an employee experience problem.
- Employees with great potential. Future leaders are ambitious and often leave because the business is not aligned to their vision of their careers. They know their worth on the open market, what competitors are doing and who provides the best opportunity. They will also command responsibility in the future which can have implications for you.
4. Do In-person 1:1 Exit Interviews
An exit interview can be emotive for all parties. Conducting in-person 1:1 interviews allows the employee to express themselves fully. They also allow the interviewer to steer the conversation, explore tangents, redirect from heightened states of negativity. The human interaction is important.
In comparison, when employees are given surveys to complete, they often feel unimportant and disrespected. Surveys support the interview but should not be the only method of capturing vital feedback.
In-person 1:1 > Phone Call Interview > Written Survey
4. Create a Sharing Environment
As mentioned, exit interviews can create tension. Employees worry about reprimand, threats to their reference, being convinced out of leaving, getting emotional and many more. If you want the best results, set the tone in advance and in a comfortable environment of respect and let them know it’s a safe place to be candid.
Start by explaining the purpose of the interview: “Hi X, I’ve asked you for this interview because I think your opinions can improve our company and culture”. Let them know there is no reprimand for honesty: “I want you to know that your opinions here carry no impact to you outside this room. Your reference will not be affected by anything you want to share today and, really, we just want to learn from you”.
Formality or informality are a decision for the interviewer but preparation is key. Structuring the interview around the goal and honesty achieves results. An employee will often want to leave their company in a better state than when they joined and, ultimately, the business owner wants that too so create the platform to allow that.
5. Be Grateful
Whatever the reasons for leaving, always be grateful that the employee was willing to share their experience.
Firstly, feedback on their experience is invaluable to employee retention and retention is invaluable to productivity. Secondly, a lack of gratitude feels disrespectful and sour the closure experience. Don’t forget that this employee may have a network in the industry. In customer terms, 78% back out of a purchase because of a bad review. Future recruits act similarly. Leaving with a negative experience is pervasive.
6. Share and Action the Results
Exit interviews without action are just lip service. Employers who genuinely want to improve will share the findings from the interview where appropriate. If not, they will action them to find out if the information gleaned is an individual or widespread experience.
The findings may lead you to run employee engagement surveys, open forum discussions, leadership appraisals, CPD programmes and more. Be prepared to change and improve so your team can see that their opinions are valued.
Exit Interview Questions: What to ask?
A successful exit interview requires a thought-provoking conversation so prepare your questions with the goal in mind. Here are some questions to consider:
Hear Your Teammate
- How are you feeling about your departure?
- How would you reflect on your time here?
- Did you always feel valued and heard by the team and your leadership?
- Did you always feel engaged and motivated at work?
- What ideas did you have along the way? Were they heard and/or implemented?
- What was your relationship like with your manager?
- Did you have everything you needed to do your job?
- Do your teammates have the same experience?
- How would your team describe their experience with us?
- Who helped you be good at your job, learn or just made your day better?
- Did you have the opportunity to progress and develop?
- What inspired you to move on from us?
- What might have made you stay?
- What would you change, improve, stop, fix or abandon?
- What is the new role offering that is more attractive than us?
- What would you say to someone interviewing for a role with us?
- If you could spend your last week doing anything, what would it be?
Exit interviews are a HR tool to understand what employees want and how you can improve.
Interview, less with a rear-view/right the historical wrongs approach and more of the ‘how can I improve our future? approach’ Perhaps, you can solve your company’s turnover rates, enhance employee engagement and boost productivity. Perhaps you can cultivate a brand ambassador relationship through positive closure. In either case, there is great value in exiting employee feedback.