How to conduct the most effective exit interviews for your organization

While a goal of most organizations is to retain valued employees, the reality is, employees do sometimes leave. Though their reasons for doing so may seem obvious and known, you may not have the full picture. Keeping in mind that employees typically leave managers and not jobs or organizations, managers may be unintentionally blind to those reasons – and/or even purposefully withhold some of the details. As information from departing employees has the potential to help your organization make critical improvements to support both attraction and retention of talent (particularly if there’s a trend), we’re sure you want the whole story.

What are exit interviews?

Exit interviews are meetings with employees who leave voluntarily and are intended to provide greater insight, obtain constructive feedback, and retain employees going forward. They can also provide meaningful input on what an organization is doing well. When ongoing conversations occur between employee and manager, the information obtained in an exit interview shouldn’t be a surprise. That said, once employees have made the decision to leave, some tend to be more open and honest with information.

What are the objectives of conducting exit interviews?

While the objectives of conducting exit interviews vary by organization, generally the intent is to:

  • Understand the employee’s reasons for leaving
  • Understand how the employee viewed the workplace overall and whether they felt aligned with the culture, vision, and values
  • Determine whether their responsibilities met their expectations, were challenging, etc.
  • Find out what they thought of human resources related matters such as salaries, benefits and perks
  • Provide insight on total compensation, culture, etc. provided by other organizations
  • Get input on management style and effectiveness; help identify where managers may need more support, accountability, etc.   
  • Get input on how the organization could improve
  • Foster ongoing ambassadors for the organization; when employees leave on a positive note, they’re more likely to promote and uphold the organization’s reputation
  • Address any outstanding or ongoing issues that require attention
  • Provide you with an opportunity to remind outgoing employees of their ongoing obligations where confidentiality, non-solicitation, IP, non-competes, etc. are concerned

While the conversation itself can be helpful for insight and closure, exit interviews are the most valuable when they lead to action and eventual retention of valuable employees. Further, not only do they provide qualitative information, when they are tracked over time and using standardized methodology, they also provide beneficial quantitative data.

When and why do exit interviews fail?

While exit interviews clearly have the potential to provide an organization with valuable input with which to enhance what they’re doing well and/or make necessary improvements, they don’t always achieve what they’re intended to. Employees may not be completely honest, either because they don’t want to burn bridges and want a good reference, or they don’t want to draw negative attention to someone else. Some may feel that they’ve already communicated what their concerns and issues were and so there’s nothing left to say. Others are adamant that their reasons for leaving are personal and so there’s nothing more to discuss (even though you can still obtain valuable input).  

More often, however, exit interviews fail to achieve their purpose because they’re not done consistently or because nothing is done with the information gathered. In a Harvard University study of 210 organizations across 35 countries, it was found that 75% conducted some sort of exit interview. Of those, 71% were conducted by HR, 28% were carried out by the employee’s direct supervisor or their supervisor’s manager and 1% were done by external consultants. Only 4% used any sort of standardized questionnaire. Less than a third were able to provide examples of action taken as a result of the exit interview – largely because the information didn’t go anywhere after the interview (e.g., stayed with HR) or it wasn’t shared with anyone who could impact change. A lack of process and standardization can lead to ineffective exit interviews and an improper use of resources.

How HR consultants (or other third parties) can improve outcomes of exit interviews

Although, where possible, HR should carry out exit interviews as opposed to managers, even internal HR can be unintentionally biased. Further, regardless of who conducts exit interviews within an organization, with all staff have going on, follow-through can easily fall by the wayside. The most effective interviewers are skilled in drawing out information, putting employees at ease, helping them understand the benefits of providing the information, and discussing how something they’re worried about communicating can be positioned so that it’s more effectively “heard”. They can also mitigate defensiveness among employees and won’t be defensive themselves. For example, if an outgoing employee brings up a matter that they feel was the fault of HR or a process HR did/did not put in place, even internal HR is at risk of feeling defensive (and may not pass the information on).

Using an external resource ensures that your process is not only impartial, but also facilitates formalization and standardization. With an HR consultant, the process would be customized to your organization and standardized across employees (with follow up questions, as applicable) such that you have a method for tracking data over time. The consultant will ensure all the information gets passed on to the right people in a timely manner – and addressed annually regarding trends and patterns. In short, HR consultants can help facilitate action.

Contact Jouta’s HR consulting team for more information on how we can help support your organization with customized exit interviews.