Companies that keep their people, especially top performers, command a considerable advantage over competitors.
Since a company's people are the engine that drives organizational and financial success, employee churn slows and complicates the engines performance and tends to have a negative impact on results.
And of all the ways to get feedback from employees on how the organization can improve, the exit interview (EI) may be the most important and least utilized opportunity.
In today's knowledge economy companies must learn from their people – why they stay, why they leave, and how the organization needs to change.
The exit interview is an opportunity to get feedback (potentially the most candid) for each perspective.
An article from HBR indicates that if done correctly an exit interview can:
catalyze listening skills for managers and supervisors
reveal what does or doesn't work inside the company
highlight hidden challenges and opportunities
generate essential competitive intelligence
enhance retention by signaling to employees their views matter
turn departing employees into corporate ambassadors
and yield strategic insights on company trajectory
The same article suggest companies should focus on 6 goals:
Uncover HR Issues
Understand Employees Perception of The Work
Gain Insight Into Manager's Leadership Style and Effectiveness
Learn About HR Benchmarks (salary, benefits) at Competing Organizations
Foster Innovation by Soliciting Ideas For Improving The Organization
Create Lifelong Advocates For The Organization
Exit interviews are typically face to face but can also be done over the phone or through an exit interview form the employee fills out.
Each format has its pros and cons which are heavily influenced by timing.
The in-person interview allows for frank dialogue and the opportunity to read body language in connection with responses or reactions to questions.
The phone interview can help the interviewee feel safer and potentially more likely to offer a candid response.
And the written form allows the employee to give more consideration to each question and answer at a pace that works for them.
When you conduct the EI depends on your organizational goals. It also is a reflection on your organization culture.
Just as every customer interaction with your company creates meaning and beliefs for that customer, every interaction an employee has with your company will create meaning and beliefs for that employee towards your company.
Some organizations prefer to conduct the EI post-departure; others on the last day; and others a sufficient time after the announcement of departure so emotions have died down, but soon enough before they have mentally checked out.
There are some who advocate a mail-in questionnaire several months after the employee has left.
A study done in the late 60's indicated 59% of former employees who answered a questionnaire mailed several months after they left cited reasons that were different than what they shared in the initial EI; and everyone who left and did not give any specific reasons for leaving offered very specific reasons on the questionnaire.
Regardless of the choice, it needs to be strategic and have meaning for the employee, the interviewer and the organizational goals.
A Few Rules of Thumb On Manners & Structure
Highly structured interviews uncover trends but stifle candidness and impromptu or off the cuff insights.
Unstructured interviews are the opposite. They are great for making things more relaxed and comfortable which tends to yield spontaneous feedback, but are more difficult to actually capture the response data.
Interviewers should also do everything possible to avoid a display of ego or authority.
Training is really important here. It takes skill to get to the bottom of things and interviewers must be trained to listen more than they talk.
Avoid defending the company or any person within the company. Let the person vent, and ask them find-out or clarification questions if necessary; but avoid the urge to fix issues or put the interviewee on the defensive.
While it's fine to ask about the new job avoid comparisons – try not to cause the interviewee to feel like they have to defend their decision.
The interviewer must be patient, friendly and disarming. Your goal is to gather information about benchmarks or other ways to improve internally.
Also be sure to frame questions positively and occasionally ask open-ended questions talking only to prompt the dialogue in a meaningful direction thus allowing the interviewee to speak freely.
If the EI is just an HR formality then it's literally a waste of time and will have negative culture consequences. It must have a strategic meaning for the organization and handled with the same care and value (if not more) as customer feedback.
Create plans for distributing, reviewing and acting on the data.
If you have high turnover it might make sense to have monthly EI meetings to glean new information and uncover hidden issues that need attention.
Share the data sensitively and tastefully as needed with appropriate managers or supervisors.
Make sure your action plan includes measurement and follow up to track progress on known issues.
Consider reframing the conversation. "Interview" can communicate scrutiny or being on trial.
As we noted this meeting should be as relaxed and candid as possible and people who feel like they are in the hot-seat typically don't respond well.
Changing the name of the meeting to communicate appreciation and feedback will help set the tone out of the gate.
Some prefer words like debrief, discussion, dialogue or conversation.
In connection with this is the idea that a company who cares about their people will regularly engage with them and have a good handle on the pulse of company morale.
Managers and supervisors and executives should be having regular conversations with their people about why they choose to stay, where they see opportunities for improvement, things that frustrate them and what would cause them to leave.
The exit interview should never be the first conversation an employee has with a boss or supervisor about their experience at the company.
When employees feel heard, and they belief their voice matters and can impact change they are more likely to stick around when things are tough.
The company that keeps its people happy will retain them. And the company that retains its people continuously expands their competitive advantage in their industry or market segment.