The importance of exit interviews
Making assumptions about why employees voluntarily leave your organization can prevent you from gathering useful information. With their unique perspective on the organization and their position, these individuals can offer constructive insight that can help reduce turnover. This feedback is especially compelling when a pattern becomes evident. Studying the pattern of voluntary exits can help you make informed decisions and deliberate improvements in what employees see as negatives and positives. Once your organization has identified trends, you can start solving problems. Information gleaned from the exit process is most effective when compiled from many employees and reviewed over time.
The exit interview, along with employee focus groups and employee satisfaction surveys, helps an organization gather employee feedback to shape future strategies to retain staff. The major difference between the exit interview process and employee satisfaction surveys or focus groups is that there is no expectation of immediate change. This gives the organization more flexibility to review the data and initiate the best course of action. The exit interview is a rear-view approach and, like any employee feedback, should be analyzed, compiled, and merged with other information and feedback from employees.
Objectives of an exit interviewThe term “interview” is used loosely and can be anything from a face-to-face interview to a stand-alone survey. The exit interview asks a variety of questions about what the employee liked and disliked about the organization, seeking the employee’s perceptions, with no right or wrong answers. It has several objectives:
- To gain an understanding of the organizational conditions that may have caused the employee to leave and to learn where improvements can be made.
- To determine what knowledge, skills, or attributes may be needed for the position replacement.
- To collect organization-owned property and go over a checklist for termination.
- To end the employee relationship on a positive note.
Each organization’s exit process should be determined internally and supported by a formal structured policy for each of these four objectives.
Planning the surveyYou can initiate the exit interview planning process, as with all employee feedback, by holding focus groups or a series of interviews with staff representing all parts of the organization. In this way, you can identify trends or themes that may not otherwise be included in the interview or can broaden areas of employee concern. Interviews or focus groups do not have to be elaborate.
As with the employee satisfaction survey process, you should:
- Ask representatives for their concerns and discuss what categories and topics you should include;
- Use some of the questions you intend to have in the survey;
- Get feedback and solicit input (e.g., “What else should be asked?” and “Is this question clear?”);
- Consider giving your final draft to a number of employees as a pilot, as their input can help refine questions to make the data useful.
Employee surveys conducted by a third party elicit more candid responses. However, if going outside the organization is not possible, make sure the survey is managed, implemented, monitored, and communicated back by a politically neutral department within your organization.
Exit interview typesMethods for conducting exit interviews include in-person; telephone; paper and pencil; through the Internet, often with an email reminder and follow-up); a combination of written survey with a face-to-face meeting to discuss details
In-person exit interviewsIn an in-person exit interview, a representative meets individually with the terminating employee. The interviewer may be a human resource person; another staff person who is an active listener and empathetic and who will not influence or intimidate the employee; a politically neutral management representative who is not the direct supervisor or day-to-day manager; a mentor of the employee or trusted manager; or an outsourced third party. Note that an employee’s direct supervisor may add a negative undertone if there are unresolved issues and inhibit the participant’s responses.
Pros for using in-person interviews
- The interviewer can use a survey instrument as talking points or integrated as a written segment of the session.
- Each employee receives a personal contact before terminating.
- A skilled interviewer can probe for more information about each question.
- The interviewer can read the body language, tone, and other non-verbal cues of the respondent.
- The interviewer can provide positive, non-verbal cues to prompt the respondent for more details.
Cons for using in-person interviews
- It is harder to track the data in a verbal interview as questions may not be standardized due to tone or body language of the interviewer.
- With an unskilled interviewer, the session may become confrontational or perfunctory.
- Employees may feel uncomfortable in verbally sharing negative information.
- This method takes more time, and scheduling may be difficult.
- Data must be entered into a tracking system from the in-person form used.
Telephone exit interviewsUsually an HR representative or an outside third-party conducts telephone exit interviews.
Pros for using telephone interviews
- The interviewer is usually not known and therefore has no perceived agenda with the exiting employee.
- The interviewer can probe for more information about each question.
- Data can be entered into a tracking system while the interview is being conducted.
- This method is more flexible and may be easier to schedule than an in-person interview.
Cons for using telephone interviews
- Telephone interviews can be time consuming if done in-house by an HR representative or other management.
- They can be expensive if done by an outside contractor.
- Employees may feel uncomfortable in verbally sharing negative information.
Paper and pencil exit interviewsA paper and pencil exit interview takes the form of a questionnaire given to the respondent in their last week or mailed to their home.
Pros for using paper and pencil interviews
- Providing a form takes less time than conducting an in-person or phone interview.
- Arrangements for completing the exit survey can be included as part of the exit protocol.
- Employees may share information on paper that they may be reluctant to say in person or on the phone.
- Questions can be standardized and delivered in the same format.
Cons for using paper and pencil interviews
- Little personal contact is involved.
- Return rates for mailed exit interview forms are low.
- Data must be entered into a tracking system from the paper and pencil form.
Online/computer supported exit interview management systems
Pros for using online exit interviews
- Participants administer the survey themselves, and it may be easier for the organization to administer.
- Employees may feel comfortable sharing information by computer.
- In most surveys, the information automatically compiles and is tracked.
- Reports may be available through low/no cost software.
Cons for using online exit interviews
- Home email addresses can be difficult to gather once an employee leaves the organization.
- Access to a home computer may inhibit some responses.
- A Web service for hosting the survey may be costly.
TimingExit interviews can be conducted with an employee immediately prior to leaving or a few days to a few weeks after termination. Both pre- and post-termination sessions have their strengths and weaknesses. Trying to catch an employee preparing to leave may undermine the importance of the information they can offer. Pre-termination sessions can provide an opportunity for the organization to formally thank the employee but may hinder the honesty of responses. Interviewing a terminated employee after leaving the organization may allow a better perspective on their employment but may reduce the return rate. Unfortunately, no concrete evidence supports one timing option over the other.
Mandatory versus voluntaryMaking exit interviews mandatory encourages the exiting employee to oblige as an expected part of employment. All positions should be included in the exit process; layoffs or retirement may need a different or modified approach. Legally, if an employee does not wish to participate, there is no recourse for the organization. Furthermore, employees have little incentive to give honest responses if they fear that the process may jeopardize a future reference or somehow negatively influence them personally. The organization must make a good case concerning the confidentiality and anonymity procedures.
Formal versus informalAn organizational decision to make the exit session formal or informal depends more upon the organizational climate than exit protocols. The degree of structure can range from a casual conversation with note-taking or a standardized list of talking points to a questionnaire or other survey instrument.
Confidentiality and anonymityStressing confidentiality and anonymity is important for calming employee concerns about providing negative information. Clearly state that the employee can discuss issues in confidence with anonymity with no chance of repercussions. Tell the respondent exactly how the information will be handled and that it will be used for general consensus. The only exception to confidentiality protection concerns legal issues which must be reported, such as harassment, criminal behaviour, and discrimination.
Exit interview topics
Exit surveys often include questions about:
- reason(s) for leaving
- general questions about the job
- job expectations not aligning with the actual job function
- organization culture and environment
- orientation and training
- team member relationship
- management issues
- pay and benefits
- growth opportunities
- recognition issues
- positive and negative features about employment
- what could have been done differently
- what improvement should be made to the exit session or survey
- the new employer and if the exiting employee will be doing the same type of work
If you are dealing with union employees, consult with union representatives or HR departments to review the process.
Developing and conducting the survey
In developing your survey, make sure that each item will give you specific feedback on how to improve the situation or promote effective behaviour. To determine the effectiveness of each survey item, ask yourself two questions: If we get negative information, is it clear how we will fix the problem? If we get positive information, do we know what we are doing right so it can continue?
Exit survey item constructionThe most effective survey uses multiple formats, including rated questions, yes/no questions, and open-ended questions, as each format has its own strengths and weaknesses.
Rated questions (e.g., questions with responses on a scale of 1–5) are easy to score but may not elicit answers to important topics you did not include. Yes/no questions can provide definitive answers but do not allow for elaboration and may miss an important aspect of the topic. Open-ended questions (e.g., questions in which the respondent fills in a comment) are harder to score but capture broader information in areas you may not have included.
In constructing rated questions:
- Avoid such terms as “always” and “never”, which can distort results.
- Make questions focused and precise so that the response is useful.
- Ask about only one thing in a question. For example, a question on “training and supervision” would make the response difficult to understand.
- Avoid using words or questions that have a negative impact or send a bad message.
- Give clear instructions and statements for items that require ranking disagreement or agreement so the respondent can understand the item and the implications of their answers.
Conducting the surveyThese considerations are especially important in face-to-face interviews. Choose a neutral environment. Promote a non-threatening, non-judgmental undertone both verbally and in writing.
Do not include a discussion or written content on reference procedures for future employment. Do not try to change the employees mind about leaving. Resist the urge to defend the organization’s position. Save time to extend a thank you to the employee.
Studying the pattern of voluntary exitsInformation gleaned from the exit process is most effective when compiled from many employees over time and reviewed. Once an appropriate return level is reached, look for themes. Note the topics and items that received similar responses by the largest group of respondents.
- What does this reflect?
- Are these respondents from specific departments or categories of employees, or is the problem organization-wide?
- What common denominator do the same respondents have, if any?
- Within departments or worker category, do the answers reflect a particular feeling?
- Are responses the same within a group or team?
- Does one category of employee say the same thing?
- Are responses the same between two groups?
- Does employment tenure, demographics, or organizational position relate to these responses?
- Is there a difference that can be understood?
Look for trends in open-ended questions.
- What topics are discussed in the responses?
- Which groups, departments, or levels of employee gave the same response? Which gave different responses about the same topic? What could be influencing these discrepancies?
- Are there trends concerning the employees’ feelings and their relationship to the organization?
- Do responses include suggestions for improvement or change?
Using the exit information
The following are steps to help organizations use exit information:
- Develop a method for compiling the information that allows you to identify areas that need more investigation or to highlight trends that may be affecting retention.
- Track the information in a standardized format, such as a spreadsheet or a structured response sheet.
- Assess topic themes and commonalities, identifying and separating those issues that appear to be personal from valid organizational problems.
- Avoid showing word-for-word responses by summarizing or grouping together the topics.
- Share the trends with managers and staff to initiate modifications to the job or job description to help in candidate selection. Be mindful of confidentiality and anonymity issues; summarize data to avoid connection to any one employee.
- Emphasize that the data collected, whether positive or negative, should be used objectively to better understand why employees are leaving.
- Discuss with managers how to use the information to positively impact job retention or for new hires.
- Use the information for hiring a replacement by sharing the insights with a candidate who may ask why the previous person left.
- Use the information to provide a basis for an action plan to build on strengths and improve deficiencies.
- If any changes are made based on the information collected in the exit process, or any staff feedback process, acknowledge and publicize this role.
Determining corrective actionsOnce you have compiled enough exit survey results and identified trends, not just personal issues, the responses themselves may provide insight into the next steps or corrective actions. Trends may lead to logical conclusions and specific interventions. If the response results do not provide a clear direction, do some additional work. Conduct a focus group or brainstorm with employee representatives to probe for additional information. Include managers or direct line staff who may have additional insight. Do not look just at trends that have a negative rating but also identify and support positive behaviours.
Reprinted with the permission of SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration). http://www.samhsa.gov/Exit interviews facilitated by an expert third party give you deeper and more accurate information than interviews conducted in-house. They generate the data you need to end unnecessary turnover and improve operations. Check out Drake’s short video on exit interviews and learn how we can help you develop a professional exit interview program to reduce turnover in your organization.Visit www.drakeintl.com and click on Talent Management Solutions/Exit Interviews.