Conducting Effective Exit Interviews: Part I

If your company can’t answer the “why?” for conducting exit interviews with departing employees, or if you’re not doing them at all, it may be time to re-evaluate. Too few organizations have a strategy for utilizing information gleaned from exit interviews to assess employee input and take meaningful, lasting action. And those that have no exit interview process are missing out on valuable information

After more than two years of a pandemic and the ensuing talent shortage, it is more crucial than ever for employers to foster a productive and happy workforce. Exit interviews elicit information about employees’ reasons for leaving and their experiences of working for the organization. But that is just step one of an effective exit interview “process.”

Employees departing on good terms may still feel very invested in the success of your organization and their co-workers. As such, they often see the exit interview process as a way to improve work culture for their colleagues. A strategically designed exit interview process requires a clearly stated commitment from an employer to use feedback to improve organizational culture, with the ultimate goal of retaining high quality employees and attracting new talent. Approaching the exit interview process in this manner offers employers an opportunity to learn about—and ultimately address—issues that could be negatively impacting the organization and employee morale, including ineffective supervisors, harassment, or even illegal activity.

To foster trust and facilitate candid feedback during exit interviews, organizations must first ensure that they’ve built a workplace culture based on transparency and trust. Only then will the exiting employee feel able to provide candid feedback.

 

How to Conduct an Effective Exit Interview

Every organization has its unique process for exit interviews. Interviews can be conducted by the HR Director, a member of management, or a third party like a Senior Consultant from OMNI Human Resource Management. Employers also have varying methods for administering exit interviews. For example, some use multiple choice or open-ended surveys for completion by the employee. While this format offers some efficiencies, it presents significant drawbacks because employees may be less motivated to invest much time or thought into their answers. Moreover, there’s no way to “peel back the onion” to dig deeper into a particular response or to clarify confusing or ambiguous responses.

For the process to be truly useful, I advise my clients to conduct one-on-one, in-person or virtual interviews. This approach allows an experienced interviewer to ask appropriate follow-up questions. For example, a departing employee might say their reason for leaving the organization is to earn a higher salary. With skilled questioning, an interviewer might learn that while the employee stated it was a compensation concern, they actually felt opportunities for advancement and development were too limited.

An effective exit interview may take an hour, allowing the interviewer to explain the intent of the process, ask probing questions, and take copious notes. And for the process to offer good data about the whole of the organization, departing employees at every level should be invited to participate in an exit interview. Many organizations only conduct exit interviews at the leadership and executive levels but doing so means losing vital data from a large portion of the employee population. Rather than making an exit interview a mandatory step to exiting the organization, however, the interviewer should issue a thoughtful invitation, explaining the process and its purpose.

Keep in mind, however, that an exit interview is a somewhat imbalanced situation. While the organization has nothing to lose and everything to gain by eliciting feedback, the opposite may be true for the exiting employee. For example, the employee may need references and fear that being candid during an exit interview will torpedo their career. But with a positive work experience and strong culture, fear of retribution should be minimized.

At the interview, you must be transparent about how you’re going to use the information. Offer an appropriate level of confidentiality and be clear about what information you will share, how you will share it, and with whom. Before you proceed, be certain you have a clearly stated, up-front understanding on this point. You may offer the employee the opportunity to have a say in where certain information is directed. For example, they may have a suggestion for a process improvement that would save the company significant dollars, and request that it be shared with a specific member of management who might not normally receive exit interview feedback. Finally, explain that if the employee shares certain types of information, for example, incidents of sexual harassment or knowledge of ongoing theft, the interviewer may be required to investigate or take other action.

It’s important to recognize that how the employee’s feedback is shared depends significantly on the company size. With a large company that experiences significant natural and unanticipated turnover due to the sheer number of employees and uses a consistent exit interview process, it’s possible to summarize results and identify themes on a monthly or quarterly basis, making it much easier to protect anonymity. On the other hand, with a very small company, turnover may be sporadic, and the nature of the feedback will likely reveal who provided it. In these cases, the departing employee must be informed what specific feedback will be shared in order to spur effective change. While some people will welcome this opportunity, others may decide to modify their feedback.

When performing exit interviews for my clients, I ask departing employees a broad array of questions about their experiences with mentoring and supervision, company culture, training, compensation and benefits, professional development—and of course—why they are leaving. The list below offers examples of good questions to get the process started.

What could the company have done to make you stay?

What would you do differently if you were supervising your department?

Were you clear on how you were performing, and how did you receive feedback on your performance?

Were you properly trained for this position?

Were there obstacles to doing your job?

Be prepared to ask employees to expand on an answer or to provide more detail. You’ll also want to create customized questions for specialized employees with key roles in your organization; otherwise, you could risk missing out on an entire range of crucial data. Also keep in mind the potential for language barriers.

The second, and final, installment of this series will address the most common reasons employees give for leaving an organization, as well as some potential “hidden” triggers that can motivate employees to search for another job. We’ll also discuss the final, and most often overlooked, step in the interview process, which is to take meaningful action based on the information gained in the interviews. While broad action isn’t always necessarily needed, the result of doing nothing could be damaging to your organization, so we’ll offer some suggestions for getting started.

Nancy Miller, a Senior Consultant at OMNI Human Resource Management, has over 25 years of Human Resource Management and small business ownership experience. Her focus is on management, employee and organizational structure and development. Prior to joining OMNI, Nancy worked for 13 years at Ford Motor Company and was the Owner and President of a bed and breakfast on the Country Club Plaza. She graduated from Canisius College with a Psychology/Gerontology degree and received her master’s degree from Syracuse University in Personnel and Industrial Relations/Innovative Marketing.

Jennifer Gross-Statler, Marketing & Communications Manager, comes to OMNI with 20-plus years’ experience as a nonprofit executive and brings valuable expertise in community and media relations, marketing and branding, project management, and strategic planning.

Nancy Miller, a Senior Consultant at OMNI Human Resource Management, has over 25 years of Human Resource Management and small business ownership experience. Her focus is on management, employee and organizational structure and development. Prior to joining OMNI, Nancy worked for 13 years at Ford Motor Company and was the Owner and President of a bed and breakfast on the Country Club Plaza. She graduated from Canisius College with a Psychology/Gerontology degree and received her master’s degree from Syracuse University in Personnel and Industrial Relations/Innovative Marketing.

Jennifer Gross-Statler, Marketing & Communications Manager, comes to OMNI with 20-plus years’ experience as a nonprofit executive and brings valuable expertise in community and media relations, marketing and branding, project management, and strategic planning.