Exit interviews are an incredibly effective HR tool that can help you assess the health of your organization. Yet in many companies, it’s a tool that is used sparingly or not at all. Or it’s used in such a perfunctory manner that it doesn’t really produce any useful information. Why? Because it takes time and effort to conduct a good exit interview, and the company may not want to invest that time and effort in an employee who is leaving. If you don’t see the value in exit interviews or if you don’t know how to use them effectively, please continue reading below. We’ll try to explain why they’re valuable and how to conduct them so that they yield useful information.
Exit interviews: the gold standard for determining how satisfied (or dissatisfied) your workforce is.
First, exit interviews are not for everyone. They should be used only for “keepers” . . . people you really wanted to hold onto. People who are fired for poor performance or who are laid off are going to be hurt and angry and are unlikely to give you the sort of thoughtful, useful, helpful insights that you’d hope to get from an exit interview.
Still, why expend the time and effort to conduct exit interviews? When someone announces their intention to leave, why not just tell them, “Don’t let the door hit you in the butt on your way out” and send them on their way? Because good people are hard to find and hard to keep. And because turnover, particularly among people whose service you value, is expensive . . . very expensive when you consider the lost productivity and efficiency the company will suffer while a replacement is found, hired, trained, and gets up to the speed of his or her predecessor. If, through a good exit interview, we can learn as much as possible about why a valued employee is leaving, we can take steps to prevent other valued employees from leaving for the same reason(s).
OK, so how do we conduct effective exit interviews? Here are a few tips:
- The interview should not be conducted by the employee’s immediate supervisor or manager. It’s a well-documented fact that the main reason people leave a job is because they can’t stand their boss. So don’t let their boss do the interview. It should be done by someone else at or above the boss’s level.
- The departing employee is unlikely to be forthcoming about the real reason(s) he or she is leaving. So whoever conducts the interview should have some interviewing skills and experience. Not everyone does, and sending in someone who lacks such skill and experience is a waste of time. An inexperienced interviewer will be unable to break through the employee’s defenses and get at the truth.
- A breakup is a breakup, and breakups are painful. Just as it’s painful when married couples separate, it’s also painful when a company and a valued employee part ways. So consider delaying an exit interview until the employee has been gone for a month or so. This provides a “cooling off” period and allows the exit interview to be a frank and honest exchange without a lot of emotional baggage getting in the way.
The exact questions and the way they are worded should be a reflection of the interviewer’s style and personality, but here’s what you want to learn:
- Why did the employee decide to leave . . . the real reason, not the fluff reason the employee will probably try to get away with. Bore down until you’re sure you’ve got the truth.
- Was the employee’s immediate supervisor aware of the conditions or issues that were causing the employee to consider employment elsewhere? If so, did the supervisor make an attempt to address those concerns?
- Did the employee’s immediate supervisor provide a positive working environment?
- Did the employee know what was expected of him or her at work? Did he or she have the knowledge, skills, and tools to perform at or above those expectations?
- Did the employee feel accepted and supported by fellow employees?
- Was the employee’s work/life balance acceptable?
- Did the employee feel that his or her ideas, opinions, and concerns were heard and respected?
- Did the employee feel he or she was learning and growing in the job and did he or she feel there was opportunity for advancement?
This list of questions could go on forever, but you get the idea. We want to know the reason . . . the real reason . . . a valued employee is leaving the company. We want to know if there’s anything we could have or should have done to prevent the employee from leaving. We want to know if whatever conditions, issues, or concerns have caused this employee to leave might cause others to leave as well. If so, we want to know what we can do to address those problems so that they don’t cause further employee defections.
As noted earlier, exit interviews take time and they take effort, but done properly, they can give you the insights to your organization you need to shape it into the organization you want it to be, and an organization that people won’t want to leave.