Stop burying your head in the sand and start embracing the Exit Interview

No organisation likes to see good people leave. Putting aside the disruption to the organisation and the need to hire new staff, the fact that a talented, capable, respected and well-liked member of the team has chosen an alternative career direction often leaves many questions unanswered. What could have been done differently? Why didn’t we make sure things were going well? Why now? Why didn’t we see this coming?

Missed opportunities

All too often employers shrug their shoulders and the employee departs on their final day with a farewell card and a few drinks at the pub. What a missed opportunity!

Typically, employees who decide to head for the door may give some anecdotal feedback to their line manager however; it can be unstructured and often misses key information or can even be misconstrued by said line manager depending on what the feedback entails. Attempting to draw themes from this data proves largely impossible; so learnings are (at best) ad hoc and infrequent and the organisation carries on, oblivious to any recurrent issues lurking just out of sight. And then the next person leaves and the cycle continues.

Make exit interviews a formal part of the leaving process

Exit interviews are part of most employers’ HR best practice toolkit, however, though widely understood, they are often not applied with rigour, uniformity or regularity leaving gaping holes in the data surrounding employee departures.

Put simply, an exit interview seeks to understand why people are choosing to move on…and there is always a reason. Understanding this is key to addressing it and ensuring that departures around that specific topic are minimised.

Good exit interview practice should revolve around the following process:

  • Departing employees should be told clearly and simply why the exit interview is required; that any comments will be treated confidentially and are collated solely to help the business improve its performance. They should be encouraged to be candid and straightforward in their feedback.
  • The interview should be conducted by a HR professional or other senior individual – not the employee’s line manager or someone who has worked closely with them. Listening skills are paramount and there should be no attempt to counter what the individual is saying.
  • The interview should be structured as far as possible with a range of standard questions surrounding topics such as:
    • The culture within the business
    • The employee’s relationships with key members of senior staff (including their line manager)
    • Relationships with colleagues and peers
    • The nature of the work itself and the employees likes and dislikes surrounding that work on a day-to-day basis
    • Perceptions surrounding pay and personal development

Questions surrounding these topics should be positioned so that quantitative data can be captured initially, whilst they should then be extended to capture any qualitative feedback the employee is inclined to give.

Additional questioning should draw out any other principal issues surrounding the decision to go and may extend to topics surrounding:

  • What could the organisation have done to retain the member of staff?
  • Where is there scope for innovation?
  • What one key thing do you think we should be doing differently?
  • …and, if possible, an understanding of the salary and package that the new employee is moving to in order that some ongoing salary and benchmarking data can be gathered.

Anecdotal feedback shows that those leaving a company genuinely value the opportunity to provide this information, as, in many cases, there will be mixed feelings surrounding the decision. Ensuring that the leaver is able to articulate their reasons around moving on can be a powerful tool in enabling people to ‘put their side of the story’ across in a constructive, calm and measured way, thereby paving the way to depart as a ‘good leaver’.

Handled well exit interviews are a mine of useful information shedding light on both the positive and negative aspects of working for a particular employer and over time this approach will yield some great insight into the themes affecting retention of employees. As such it’s important that opportunities need to be maximised. The Exit interview should be standard practice and should be as commonplace as returning the company laptop or, yes, that farewell drink on the final day.