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Viewpoint: Don't Underestimate the Importance of Exit Interviews

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If you've seen any news in the past year, you know we're currently knee-deep in one of the tightest labor markets in years. It all started in spring 2021, when burned-out workers triggered unprecedented churn, leaving millions of jobs open. Then a funny thing happened. After having to undergo mass layoffs and downsizing the previous year, employers suddenly couldn't find anyone willing to fill their newly vacant positions.

In August 2021, 73 percent of employers said they had difficulty attracting talent. Six months later, job openings still sat at over 11 million, while unemployment rates reached their lowest since before the pandemic. Said another way: The opportunities are there; workers just aren't interested. Why?

It wouldn't be fair or accurate to blame this situation entirely on Covid-19 and the ensuing economic fallout. Well before Covid-19 entered the lexicon, research showed that attracting high-quality candidates was a significant challenge for 76 percent of recruiters. Then there's the factor of lowered birth rate over the years: We've got more people retiring and consuming goods, with fewer newcomers entering the market. To fix this seemingly perennial problem, company leaders need to take a hard look at their recruitment and hiring processes. And to find the answers they seek, they need to tap their greatest asset: their people.

The Root of Recruitment Troubles

The fact is that getting top talent to join your ranks will always be a challenge, but you might be experiencing recruitment troubles if your company:

Lacks vision: More than ever, employees are looking for employers that share their core values and treat them with genuine interest, care and concern—most of our current hires were "won over" because they were passionate about our core values, even when they had competitive offers from other businesses. Prospective hires want to feel heard and seen, and they want to be able to get on board with your mission. Over the past few years, workers have become more selective about job opportunities at companies without a clear set of values. However, the global pandemic, in particular, was a wake-up call for many people who no longer wished to spend their lives working for companies that didn't align with their personal values.

Lacks intention: When you build a culture people love being part of, it shows—and your recruiters can point to the social proof that your company is a great place to work. However, companies that hire just to fill capacity gaps aren't building their culture with intention. As a result, they hit a point where their company is no longer an attractive place to work. So they turn their attention to increased salaries and flashy bonuses, but when that well inevitably dries up, employees who had no other reason to stay will move on. That's why we hire around our core values, along with unique talents, skill sets and perspectives that add to our existing company culture. Even past hiring, consider centering rewards and recognition around building up your company culture. We use "core value call-outs" to encourage and support team members actively living out our core values, which tells our employees that it's not just talk—we're intentionally cultivating a healthy work culture.

Lacks opportunity: Your employees want you to invest in them as much as they invest in you. You can prove that you're "all in" through growth and learning opportunities that help employees advance in their skills and areas of career curiosity. Candidates will likely pass up jobs that seem low-opportunity, and Pew Research Center found nearly two-thirds of workers who quit a job in 2021 did so because there were no opportunities for advancement. Even if you don't have those opportunities within, sponsor employees seeking them from without. For example, we set aside budget to allow several of our employees to invest in development events, whether they be career-specific conferences, certification classes or general ongoing courses in their field.

Lacks expectations: Employees won't stick around if succeeding at a company feels like an unwinnable game. Recruiters need to be 100 percent clear on the role's expectations, experience requirements and what success looks like as quickly as possible. Otherwise, you'll find candidates dropping off halfway through the hiring pipeline—or worse, employees quitting after only a few months on the job. We had one such case where a former employee told us during their exit interview that they felt what they brought to the table wasn't in alignment with management's vision for the role. After hearing that, we reexamined our objectives for the role and rewrote the job description to match. As the employer, the burden is on us to make sure we are setting up new hires for success, and a huge part of that is making sure we are clear and in alignment around job expectations.

Lacks discernment: We know that recruitment troubles can feel daunting, but rushing to fill seats isn't the right move, either. Not long ago at our company, we hired a classically trained person who checked every box (or so we thought). It wasn't until we'd hired her, though, that we realized she was too corporate for our entrepreneurial culture. While she was still aiming at her target, we'd already released 10 arrows from the bow. Unsurprisingly, it didn't work out, and after that experience, we realized we needed to slow down. If you don't have the right person, it's better to wait until you do rather than terminate an employee down the road because they weren't the right choice in the first place.

It Begins at the End

To get an accurate picture of your recruitment process and its failings, you need to take an honest look at the above pitfalls and determine whether they apply to your workplace. This isn't an exercise just for the C-Suite. Instead, you need to run it throughout the organization to create a perpetual feedback loop. Exit interviews help leaders dial into their company's current direction. Plus, they generate questions that recruiters can use in the hiring process to discern whether a candidate is a good fit.

Exit interviews can uncover a multitude of issues that help you improve your processes and procedures. Our company has experienced these benefits firsthand. After hearing from a few former employees in their exit interviews that they had felt blindsided by sudden companywide changes, we instituted mid-quarter updates. Their answers helped reveal a shortcoming we hadn't previously identified and indicated we needed to have more care and concern for our internal employees. By holding these check-ins, we improved our culture of open, consistent communication even in a virtual organization. Employees were able to submit open questions, allowing circles of healthy feedback among the entire team.

However, constant change is inevitable at our company, so we knew that new hires needed to welcome it—at least on some level. To that end, we also used their exit interview answers to develop interview questions that would help us gauge someone's appetite for change. Our recruiters started asking questions like: "How did you handle the last big change in your life?" and "How do you stop yourself from falling in love with your own ideas?"

Additionally, we reverse-engineered prompts like: "Tell me about a time when you felt like you had the right plan but things went south. How did you identify the problem and how did you course-correct?" It's about formulating questions you can ask upfront to prevent the wrong person from filling the wrong seat.

When looking for ways to improve your hiring and recruitment process, exit interviews might not immediately spring to mind. However, they're an excellent opportunity to hold up a mirror to your company and see what's working and what isn't. Then, you can adapt your business for the greater good of your team and the customers you serve. 

Kelly Knight is an expert builder of teams. After spending 20 years within the financial services industry, managing and leading dynamic organizations, Knight has been serving as the EOS Worldwide Integrator since 2016. Mark O'Donnell is the Visionary at EOS Worldwide and is passionate about helping entrepreneurs get what they want from their businesses. O'Donnell is a four-time Inc. 500 |5000 entrepreneur with experience in high-growth organizations.

This article is adapted from with permission from Chief Executive. © 2022. All rights reserved.


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