How to... conduct exit interviews

A review of turnover research reveals that most people cite job dissatisfaction, managerial relationships, recognition, reward and career development as reasons for leaving

How many times have you learnt that a talented employee has resigned, only to think: “If only we could have done something to prevent that decision”? It may be too late to save that particular individual, but a well thought-out exit interview process may help you to prevent similar departures.

Although the literature on exit interviews is sparse, a review of turnover research reveals that most people cite job dissatisfaction, managerial relationships, recognition, reward and career development as reasons for leaving. As talent shortages bite, the right approach to exit interviews can enable companies to make the right organisational development (OD) interventions to retain their most valued employees and pre-empt damaging departures.

There is an art and science to saying goodbye. Striking the right balance ensures that organisations can gain the data they need to rectify problem areas and that the departing employee can achieve positive “closure” on the employment relationship.

1) Be consistent

The impact of exit assessments can be diluted if different methodologies are adopted at business unit or even departmental level. Establish a talent retention steering group in which key stakeholders can agree the fundamentals of your organisation’s approach, and what you are going to do with the results.

2) Remain impartial

Often HR takes responsibility for conducting all exit interviews to encourage a frank exchange between a “neutral” representative and the departing employee. But employees may still fear repercussions if sensitive information were to get into the wrong hands. Consequently, to avoid burning bridges or risk future job references they may often give generic answers – the two most frequently cited reasons for leaving are a better pay and benefits package or a better opportunity. To avoid this some organisations engage an independent third party to conduct exit interviews and address concerns around confidentiality. Regardless of who conducts the interview, employee participation should always be voluntary and protections should be put in place to guarantee confidentiality.

3) When to do it

Aim to conduct the interview during the second or third week of a month-long notice period, when the emotion of resigning has died down but before the final week when people are either very busy handing over or actively disengaging with the organisation. If your resources are short then focus only on employees who were high performers and those whom you would like to hire again. If leavers are willing to remain on an alumni database, contacting them once they have started in a new role – up to a year post-departure – can often yield more reflective and comparative insights. Web-based surveys have also proved helpful in gathering data from departing employees.

4) Focus the interview

Traditionally, exit interviews have focused on issues such as compensation, benefits and working conditions but these are not necessarily the factors that will cause someone to leave. Our research reveals that if employees are happy with the relationship they have with their manager, believe the company has a strong future and agree with the mission and values of the organisation, they will be more willing to stay even if compensation, benefits and working conditions could be better elsewhere. When making contact with people, stress that the interview is an opportunity to ask for their honest opinion on aspects of the organisation and to seek their advice on areas that could be improved. Always stress that their departure is regretted and explore any opportunities to win them back, even at this late stage.

5) Positioning and tone

When designing the content of an exit interview look at behavioural items that the organisation can easily turn into future action plans. A couple of examples would be whether the respondent’s manager provided recognition or praise for doing good work or whether the employee received the appropriate training required to do their job effectively. The tone should be conversational (for example, what attracted you to the organisation, which expectations were met and which weren’t, leading up to what factors influenced your decision to leave). This leads to a more balanced reflection of the strengths and improvement areas within the organisation.

6) Enhance future retention

To ensure that exit data informs OD and retention strategies, it must feed into other organisational processes such as employee engagement surveys. Many concepts measured in an engagement survey can be turned into parallel questions in the exit process. Exploiting parallel concepts will enable comparisons to be drawn between former and current employees. From the parallel questions and analysis of the exit data, a model of former employees can be derived and that model can be applied to the current employee population. The organisation is then in a position to create bespoke retention strategies for the most productive and valuable employee groups.

7) From insight to action

Having invested considerable time and energy in collecting exit data, it is crucial to put these insights to good use in a timely and co-ordinated fashion. Our research reveals that new hires are most engaged during their first few months on the job but satisfaction levels start declining from the sixth month. By the end of their second year, instead of focusing on their jobs, they’re more likely to be searching for a new one! The talent retention steering group should meet quarterly to review the exit data from across the organisation and shape retention and induction policies. Feedback and guidance to line managers will allow them to take pre-emptive action for retention, such as changing behaviours via coaching or training.

8) Protect your Employer Brand

Remember that this time can be emotional for the employee as they reflect on the time and effort they have expended on a career with their employer. Consequently, the way their departure is handled can have a lasting impact on their perceptions of the organisation. A sensitively managed exit can also ensure that alumni become brand ambassadors who will speak highly of their former employer in the talent marketplace.

Key points

  • Establish a talent retention steering group.

  • Adopt a consistent approach across the organisation.

  • Choose impartial interviewers and guarantee confidentiality.

  • Choose a methodology that offers the greatest chance of gathering robust data.

  • Ask parallel questions from a staff engagement survey.

  • Develop actionable strategies to retain the most productive people.

  • Measure the results of your interventions.

The expert
Margaret Macafee is a managing consultant with Kenexa, a global recruitment and retention specialist