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Conducting Effective Exit Interviews: Part II

Part I of this series explored why organizations conduct exit interviews and how to ensure they are done well. But if your organization stops there, it means losing out on a valuable opportunity to improve workplace morale and employee satisfaction. In this article, we’ll discuss commonly stated reasons for leaving a job and offer some basic suggestions on how to institute meaningful change based on feedback from departing employees. Failing to take this final, and vitally important, step in the process could possibly do more damage than not having an exit interview process at all.

Why employees say they’re leaving

With employee resignation rates at a historical high, it’s important for employers to view the loss of an employee as an opportunity to learn. By identifying the root cost of a voluntary resignation, employers can gain a better understanding of – and address – issues that may continue to negatively impact employee retention and hiring efforts.

Poor relationship with a direct supervisor: This is one of the most significant causes of employee attrition and impacts even employees who are passionate about the organization’s mission and values. A Gallup study found that as many as 75% of employees left jobs voluntarily because of a bad manager.

Negative corporate culture: According to an MIT study, this a top cause of attrition. Common elements include lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion, disrespectful treatment of employees, and even illegal or unethical behavior within an organization.

They feel unappreciated: a report from Quantum Workplace stated only 43% of departing employees felt valued by their employers. Employees are more engaged and motivated when they know their contributions are valuable to an organization. Feeling appreciated can be completely unrelated to compensation levels or a company’s formal recognition program; and can be as simple as a direct supervisor regularly checking in with employees or providing constructive feedback.

They see little opportunity for growth and development: A lack of opportunities for learning, development, and professional advancement within an organization erodes employee motivation and engagement. Those who are learning new skills have the potential for career advancement and are more excited about coming to work.

Lack of flexible work options or wanting to work from home. By 2022, according to Gallup, 39% of American workers were fully remote—up from 8% in pre-pandemic times. As the pandemic dragged on, workers began to appreciate the value of working from home, reporting increased engagement with their jobs, greater personal wellbeing, higher productivity, and better work-life balance. Now about nine out of ten employees working at least some hours remotely want to continue working home at least part of the time. A survey conducted by Robert Half found that 50% of US workers would rather resign than be required to work in the office full-time.

Burnout and stress, while certainly an issue during pre-pandemic times, have worsened during the past two years of living in a pandemic, fueled by isolation and fears about safety, health, and finances. Working parents and caregivers were suddenly working full-time from their dining rooms while also caring for young children, supervising online school activities, or handling a host of matters that wouldn’t normally interfere with the workday. Though many of these burdens have eased since vaccines became available, employees still struggle after-effects.

Things aren’t always what they seem

It’s important to note that while the employee may state one reason for leaving, there can be an underlying, and far more compelling reason for the employee’s decision to leave. A skilled interviewer can help shed more light in such situations. For example, during a recent exit interview, the individual initially stated he was leaving because he had been offered more money elsewhere. Upon further discussion, however, I learned that the departing employee would never have engaged with the recruiter, had he been allowed to continue working from home. This individual felt less stressed, and far more productive, while working remotely. The employee viewed the mandatory return to office as a statement that he was not trusted and that his work was not valued.

Sometimes the issues that seem relatively minor to an employer are far more significant from an employee’s perspective. An employee might feel unappreciated because the employer seems unwilling to make what the employee views as a small investment in the office environment, equipment, or technology.

Employers often discover that while they think they are doing an excellent job of communicating, employees in the general population don’t agree. Executives are so enmeshed in the organization’s big picture, and their insight and access to information occurs on a much higher level, with the result that they take it for granted that information is reaching everyone. If communications aren’t reaching everyone, people feel disconnected from each other, their purpose, and company’s plans and strategies.

Taking Meaningful Action

You may be hearing about a previously unarticulated—and significant—concern from an employee during their exit interview—perhaps because they previously feared negative consequences of speaking up. Whatever the reason, that information has the potential to help you institute meaningful and positive change. Broad and sweeping action isn’t necessarily needed, but if the feedback gained from the exit interview process isn’t used in some way, departing employees will lose trust in the process and start keeping their valuable insights to themselves.

Some ideas for getting started:

Compile the data you’re receiving from the interview process and analyze for themes, trends, and patterns. For instance, if certain feedback is consistently focusing on the same department, you may conclude that the issue does not exist on a company-wide level, allowing you to drill down to a more specific focus.

In my experience, companies rarely take immediate action on compensation and benefits issues raised by departing employees, but in these cases, an employer might still consider ensuring that pay is competitive with the market by retaining a reputable consulting firm like OMNI Human Resource Management to conduct a formal compensation study. The employer should also consider offering other “perks” if they can’t address pay, such as flexible work arrangements.

Use the departing employee’s feedback to set future employees up for success. An employee may have felt underutilized or overburdened, or they may have revolutionized a process or role in a way that you did not previously understand. In such cases, consider restructuring teams and shifting responsibilities before hiring a replacement.

Offer more transparency about paths to developmental lateral moves and promotion within your organization and how employees can take advantage of them. At the same time, offer expanded access to learning and development activities that allow employees to gain new skills and set themselves up for success professionally. Internal trainings and mentorship are also great ways to increase employee confidence in their roles and engagement in the organization.

Look for ways to improve communication and employee engagement throughout your organization. Hold regular team meetings and ensure that team leaders and managers consistently debrief their teams about leadership meetings. Be transparent about company goals, successes, and anticipated changes, as well as about financial considerations that limit the company’s ability to increase pay or make certain improvements. When employees feel personally invested in helping to achieve organizational goals, they are more motivated to perform. And don’t forget to create opportunities for remote employees to feel fully included in communication efforts.

As challenging as hiring and retention are for employers in the current environment, rates of unexpected turnover will only get worse if employers don’t take the time and energy to learn how to keep their top performers. OMNI’s Senior Consultants have a wealth of experience in offering advice and counsel to clients who need support in this area. Our success rests heavily on our ability to develop strong relationships with company leadership and earn their trust. We know how to walk the fine line between protecting the confidentiality of feedback from exiting employees and sharing sometimes difficult truths with leaders.

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 us with over 20 years’ experience as a nonprofit professional. Her background includes four years as Executive Director of a Connecticut nonprofit with a state mandate to evaluate state-funded mental health programs, assess strengths and unmet needs, and make recommendations for improvements. She brings valuable expertise to OMNI in community and media relations, marketing and branding, project management, and strategic planning. Jennifer is a graduate of The College of William and Mary.

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