Making Exit Interviews Work

By Martha Frase-Blunt Aug 1, 2004
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HR Magazine, August 2004Use data from effective exit interviews to make your organization stronger.

When Kate McFarlane recently left her job after five years, she took advantage of her exit interview to vent. “Our HR rep had gotten the impression I was leaving because I was tired of the commute, but there was much more to it,” she says. “Over the years my department and the firm itself had deteriorated to a point where I found I could no longer work there. So when he said, with a big smile on his face, ‘I hear you’re leaving because you found a job close to your house,’ well, I took a deep breath and let him have it. I went on for about 20 minutes about what was wrong with the firm, the department, the management, the morale, the lighting, everything.”

While McFarlane, like many departing employees, used the exit interview to express years’ worth of pent-up frustration, she says, “I ended by saying that I hoped my honesty would help change some of the circumstances and that hopefully the firm could return to the great company it was when I joined five years prior.”

A month later McFarlane learned that several managers had been let go, including the HR rep. “I like to think that it had something to do with me,” she says.

The information collected in an exit interview can give a company a unique perspective on its performance and employee satisfaction. People who leave may be brutally honest about their experiences without fear of immediate repercussions. In addition, it’s likely they have recently been job hunting and interviewing and can offer some useful intelligence on how the company compares with other employers.

HR consultant ArLyne Diamond, who operates Diamond Associates in Santa Clara, Calif., specializes in people and processes in the workplace. She says she is amazed that companies will go through an exit interview without knowing why or how to use the information.

“Basically, the exit interview has three purposes: to learn where the company can improve itself, to make sure employees leave feeling good about their service and, in some cases, [to encourage] the employee to stay under new circumstances,” Diamond says.

Discovering why employees leave should be an essential part of a company’s strategic planning, but many miss this opportunity.

“Some firms may feel they are small enough or turnover is so low that they know why their staff leaves,” says Brooks C. Holtom, an organizational behavior and HR management specialist at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business in Washington, D.C., who does employment-retention research. “But it’s likely they are making assumptions that will naturally be biased in the company’s favor.”

Exit interview practices and policies vary widely according to company size and industry, but human resource professionals agree on at least three points:

  • The company should have a formal policy regarding exit interviewing.
  • Exit interviews should be reserved for voluntary separations, because issues raised by layoffs and terminations for cause will require a special approach.
  • Exit interviews should be extended to all departing employees—not just key performers or long-timers.

But opinions and beliefs about exit interviews begin to diverge on questions of whether they should be mandatory, who should conduct them and how formal they need to be.

Voluntary Or Mandatory?

Phil Guilliams, who directs technology staffing and HR for the call center outsourcer Precision Response Corp. in Miami, says, at least for his group: “Exit interviews must be required as a formal part of outprocessing. Without the employee expectations of an obligatory exit interview, many would not participate.” He notes, however, that employees who still decline are not penalized.

Diamond agrees that an exit interview should be an accepted expectation of employees. “But legally employers don’t have a leg to stand on if an employee refuses,” she says. To encourage more employees to participate in an exit interview, employers should stress the confidentiality of the discussions.

“People are sometimes nervous about saying too much and possibly burning bridges,” says Guilliams. “They rely on former managers and team members for references and networking. “One of the worst experiences I’ve had in my career arose from an exit interview where I had to report bad behavior by a manager. Almost immediately my comments got back to him, and he openly lost his temper in the office. It chilled the entire workplace.”

Guilliams says he informs all departing employees that their comments will be scrubbed of identifying information before being shared with anyone in the office, with some exceptions. “If they report criminal behavior, sexual harassment, incidents of discrimination or other legal issues, I have an obligation to take action,” he says. “I encourage them to be as honest as they can, [and I explain] that the point is to learn what we do well and what we can do better to keep our clients and staff happy.”

Assuring confidentiality might be more difficult for small employers and those with low turnover because the sources of the intelligence may be obvious.

While there’s not much an employer can do to guarantee confidentiality, “Employees should be made to understand how the information they give will be used, and that the company will make every effort to take action in a way that doesn’t compromise them,” says Guilliams.

Who Should Interview?

When retail clerk Nicole Etolen quit her job at a large office supply store, she says, “They wanted to know if it was because of something they had done wrong. The fact was, I was improperly trained, but I didn’t want to get anyone in trouble, so I just said I couldn’t handle all the cranky customers.”

An experienced interviewer might have explored Nicole’s valuable observations about the company’s supply chain. “Our customers were generally really irate by the time they get up to the register because what they need was inevitably locked in a back room, and they had to wait an eternity for someone with a key to get it for them,” she says. “But once they did find someone to go back there, the item was out of stock.”

Exit interviews by nature could become either too confrontational or too perfunctory, so the interviewer must be extremely experienced and skilled to gently probe for the full truth, Holtom says. “And if an interviewer is not trained in active listening or is not strongly empathetic, they are likely to take offense when the employee starts to vent. This can be a very emotional encounter, and the interviewer needs to be able to manage it skillfully.”

The interviewer needn’t necessarily be an HR professional. A neutral manager or mentor the employee trusts and who has good interviewing skills could be the right choice. Outsourcing the exit interview to an independent third party is also a good choice, says Holtom. “The only real disadvantage to employers might be the cost—nothing else makes the ‘cons’ list,” he says. “You have a higher probability of getting a trained interviewer, they can gather systematic data, and employees are more likely to be honest and cooperative.”

Formal or Informal?

Exit interviews must have a mechanism to capture the information gleaned. “Just as when you are interviewing a candidate, you’re better off having a structured process that allows you to capture information that can be compared,” Holtom says.

The degree of structure can range from a casual conversation with note-taking to a standardized list of talking points to a questionnaire or other survey instrument.

Shelly Funderburg, director of hiring solutions for Manpower Inc. in Milwaukee, begins the exit interview process with a survey that explores topics such as benefits and pay, training, orientation, management issues, environment and culture, opportunities for growth, mentoring, and the effectiveness of the firm’s open-door policies. “I would never recommend using this instrument alone,” she says. “I still like to sit down and get feedback, using the questionnaire to guide the interview.”

Guilliams, on the other hand, prefers not to use such survey instruments. “I prefer a casual one-on-one discussion where I or someone else takes notes,” he says. “In my experience, questionnaire responses are poor, and I wonder if people are as frank as they could be when leaving a written record.”

But Elizabeth Perez, an HR practitioner working inside a large telecommunications conglomerate, would like her organization to rely more on anonymous questioning. “I think if companies truly want honest answers, they should not force face-to-face interviews,” she says. “It’s been my experience that we will get a more truthful answer by using a mail-in questionnaire sent after the employee has left or [by using a] third party to conduct a telephone survey.”

Perez does recommend that HR conduct some sort of final meeting to retrieve company property, go over check lists, etc. “If employees want to share their feelings and suggestions about how to improve the work environment, that would be a good place to do it, but I don’t think employees should feel put on the spot.”

Sharing the Findings

How companies compile and share the information gleaned through exit interviews is a unique choice.

“This information is so valuable,” says Funderburg, “it should be included in the company’s annual review, strategic planning, recruiting strategies, training plans, management development program and any tool companies use to evaluate themselves.” She recommends that the information be compiled and analyzed. “It doesn’t have to be a sophisticated tool, just something that can be rolled up to senior management on a regular basis,” she says.

But how reliable is the intelligence gathered in an exit interview? “These meetings can be highly charged,” says Holtom. “Employees are emotionally invested in the decision they have made, and everyone responds to that emotion differently. Each interview is an idiosyncratic experience.”

Holtom recently conducted research on the validity of such data. He analyzed a year’s worth of exit interview statements from employees of two major organizations—a retail bank and a government agency—then followed up with 125 individuals. He found that three to six months after departure, about 70 percent of interviewees cited the same top reason for leaving as they did at their exit interview. When asked to cite the top three reasons, Holtom found a 90 percent overlap.

“This is fairly clear evidence that leaving a firm is a powerful, memorable experience, and the reasons for it tend to remain intact over a period of time, long after the emotions have faded,” he says.

“By definition, the exit interview is a rear-view approach,” Holtom says. Companies should not rely too heavily on this data. “What you really want to do is figure out whom you want to stay and figure out what will make them want to.” Employee focus groups, annual surveys and other prospective analytical tools can evaluate retention issues much more broadly. “There are a lot of other reasons people stay or go; job satisfaction is only one.”

Martha Frase-Blunt is a freelance writer based in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

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