Vol. 3, No. 1
Interviewing employees who are heading out can help identify the best candidates to bring in.
Done properly, an exit interview can improve the recruitment process, helping to clarify whom you need in a particular position the next time around. But, “so often, exit interviews are on one side and recruiting is on the other. There’s no tie back,” says Mitzi Adwell, director, recruitment services, Kenexa/BrassRing, Louisville, Ky.
Without a link between the two, “recruiters have no idea why people are walking out. They need the exit interview information to get a better understanding of the culture, so they can tweak the profile of successful candidates who will come in and be retained long term,” she says. “If recruitment doesn’t have access [to exit interview information] they can push the talent in but they can’t impact retention.”
The companies that are best at linking exit interviews back to the recruitment process “have someone in charge of human capital management or talent management. It needs to be someone who is thinking about the whole process,” Adwell adds.
Patricia Bertie, vice president, human resources, BTS USA, Stamford, Conn., is thinking about the whole process. She compiles comments from exit interviews about salary, benefits and the overall working environment and takes them to management to institute change and keep the company in a competitive hiring and retention position.
“We use people’s comments to assess themes,” says Bertie. “If you’ve had three people leave who all reported to the same manager, you review what those people said and assess themes based on that reporting manager.”
That step is crucial to using exit interview responses to effect change in an organization, which most companies seem to want to do. A recent OfficeTeam survey found that 57 percent of senior executives at the nation’s largest 1,000 companies act on information gathered during exit interviews “somewhat frequently.” Nineteen percent said they always use exit interview responses; 11 percent reported rarely making changes based on interviews.
One of the keys to using exit interview data, the experts say, is actually writing it up in some kind of standard format, whether that’s a report or Excel spreadsheet or a series of outlines. By comparing those reports, HR specialists can identify trends and differentiate between valid problems and the personal issues of one departing employee.
Lucinda DuToit, director of human resources, Digineer Inc., Minneapolis, shares information with job candidates, unless someone was dismissed or left for confidential reasons.
Meisenhelter, who was in corporate HR for about 20 years, believes that panel interviews can work especially well in highvolume situations such as at college recruiting events or for hiring hourly workers.
“If the candidate asks why the previous person left, I’ll let them know,” she says. “I firmly believe in letting job candidates know the good, the bad and the ugly, because then they have a good picture of what they might be getting into. And then they can make the best decision for their careers.”
She also brings up such things in staff meetings and encourages open discussions about why people leave the company and what might be changed when their replacements are hired.
“If there’s a mismatch in the job role and the skills of candidates, we’ll switch things around,” she says, adding that the information conveyed by departing employees can also be used when advertising a job.
“We analyze that information and see what might attract someone to the job and to the company,” she says.
Walking a Fine Line
Interviewers walk a fine line during exit meetings. On one hand, they need to extract information that’s constructive and useful from people who have at least one foot out the door and might be either vindictive or apprehensive about what they say. And on the other hand, they need to get as much information as possible without leading people into saying things that aren’t 100 percent accurate or that they hadn’t considered before.
“There are some real issues to overcome,” says consultant Bob Kustka, president of CHR Partners, Norwell, Mass. “You have someone who’s leaving the company and wondering what’s in it for them. But there’s really nothing in it for them as they leave, and why would they potentially burn a bridge?”
The first step, say experts, is getting people to open up. Bertie says she flat out tells interviewees that they’re speaking in a confidential environment and that they should be open about voicing their concerns. On the other hand, she says, she tells them that her interview report will be shared with the company president, and that senior managers will use the person’s feedback to institute change.
(An important exception to the confidentiality rule is when an employee reports something illegal or unethical.)
She splits the interview into two parts. The first is done online, and departing employees answer a 36-question survey. “It’s not very rigorous,” she says, noting that it includes questions about who the employee’s manager was, if the employee is going to do the same kind of work at another company, how the employee would rate the communications skills of the manager and whether the employee found team members to be cooperative.
“A lot of people are very afraid to put into writing what they’re feeling,” she says. “Having said that, we use the written survey as a jumping-off point to initiate a conversation.”
The second part of the interview is done in person and elaborates on the written questions—a person who said co-workers were difficult to work with, for example, would be asked for specific examples of difficult behaviors or situations.
Kustka also breaks interviews up, although most are done in person and during one session. “It’s very nonthreatening,” he says. “First we sign off on benefits, give passwords, deal with keys. This really depressurizes the conversation, and that’s what you want to begin with.”
After the paperwork is done, Kustka begins the real questions and tries to spark a conversation in which the departing employee feels comfortable. “I tell them we want to get the most out of this both for them and for the company,” he says.
“I tell them I’m interested in what they have to tell me and that they can talk to me in confidence if they want to have that kind of discussion as long as the things they tell me aren’t un ethical or illegal. Something like that I have to bring to the attention of the organization. We can’t have someone leaving because the boss is cooking the books and not do anything with that information.
“You really have to make it nonthreatening to them,” he continues. “People like to help people. So I’ll ask what they might have done differently and point out that the information they give me will help their co-workers. Quite often, they’re willing to give me suggestions.”
Because employees might be uncomfortable and because they might be leaving because of an issue with their direct supervisors, exit interviews with managers are rarely effective.
“If a third person like human resources is conducting the interview, they can bring to the attention of management that John Smith is creating a hostile environment and we need to investigate it,” says Kustka. “If it’s line management, it becomes a lot trickier. If you’re sitting down with your boss, you’re probably not going to want to talk about some of those issues.”
DuToit says that even getting out of the office and putting some physical distance between employees and the job they’re leaving can help open up communication lines.
“I like to find a quiet coffee shop,” she says. “I like doing it somewhere casual and somewhere quiet where you’re not feeling so rushed. Even lunch can be difficult—you’re trying to eat and talk and get back to the office.”
That neutral environment, she says, can make a world of difference between an interview without much substance and one that conveys concrete issues or places to improve.
Kim Fernandez is a freelance writer based in Bethesda, Md.