Fewer employers acting on feedback given in exit interviews: Survey

But followup key to employee attraction, retention, employer reputation, say experts
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/02/2016

When it comes to exit interviews, responses are mixed. Less than one-quarter (22 per cent) of HR managers in Canada act on the information gathered “very often” while 32 per cent respond “somewhat often” and 33 per cent “not very often.”

Compared to 2006, when the survey was last done, fewer employers (54 per cent compared to 76 per cent today) are acting on the information gleaned from the interviews, said Gena Griffin, regional vice-president at OfficeTeam, a Robert Half company in Toronto. But that’s because there are more frequent conversations in the day-to-day employee-employer relationship, she said.

“We don’t think that less people are necessarily acting on it and companies are necessarily taking it less seriously, we just think feedback is being acted on in a more timely manner and being give more throughout the employment experience versus just from a conversation at the time of resignation.”

However, if an employer is just doing the interview to tick boxes, that’s probably causing more harm than good, said Griffin.

“Your workforce knows that they’re happening, but then never ever sees anything get done about it. Employees are smart people…. at all levels of staff, they quickly put together it’s just a tick of the box.”

Exit interviews are similar to employee engagement surveys, according to Sandra Reder, founder and president of HR consulting firm Vertical Bridge in Vancouver.

“Don’t do them if you’re not prepared to act on the feedback — it’s a waste of time.”

An employer can undermine its credibility if workers don’t see action afterwards, she said. 

“You have to make a decision corporately, from the top down: ‘Do we see value in them? If we all say yes, what value do we see in them and what are we prepared to do as a company with the information we gather?’” said Reder.

“It has to have buy-in from everybody and then it has to be sold, it has to be a cultural thing… if you’re going to do them, they can also be a great way to show exiting employees that they matter, even if it’s after they’ve chosen to leave.”

Employers can do as many exit interviews as they want, garnering results and doing the analytics, but if they don’t act on them, that’s going to reflect on them as a company, said Rita DoCanto, HR services manager at employment screening firm Just Checking in Markham, Ont.

“Initially, employees are encouraged by the fact that companies want the feedback but it can be very discouraging if they find out nothing happened with the information they shared,” she said. “It’s a very valuable tool for any company to take this on, but it’s just as critically important to make sure you act upon the information that you receive. The minute you start seeing certain trends, then you need to act upon it.”

Valuable tool

Exit interviews are a valuable tool, according to the experts. For one, they help with engagement and retention, said Griffin.

“The biggest win to the company is from a retention point of view (and it’s) even an opportunity to attract talent when it’s now acted on.”

Not all feedback from exit interviews can be acted on, but if improvements are mentioned or trends are shared with the workforce around the company’s strengths and challenges, said Griffin, “that’s where the win comes about for the company, when they sincerely put into motion the sharing of the feedback and the action on the feedback.”

Exit interviews really help employers gain insights into both the positive and the negative aspects of working for an organization, said DoCanto.

“It would be in (employers’) best interest to stay in touch with people who have left because they can be champions for your company, they may continue to refer people. Because sometimes people leave for very rational reasons — their spouses have moved, they really had no choice — but they may continue to give very good news about the company and to promote the company as a good place to work.”

And the bigger the company, the more important it is to have this information to identify and reduce attrition levels, which helps with recruitment and retention programs, she said.

“Once you understand why people have left, it’s almost like saying, ‘Let’s not make the same mistake again,’ so I think it’s really important for companies to (make) employees who are leaving or are thinking of leaving to be aware that this is in place. Because I think it’s also a reflection on the company that they care and that they are quite prepared to make changes if necessary.”

As for reasons why people leave, these range from opportunities for career advancement to an unsafe work environment to problems with their manager. And if it’s the latter, exit interviews can help, said DoCanto.

“(Employers) see it as an opportunity to provide further development to those managers to say, ‘This is how people are perceiving you and, therefore, here’s what we’re going to do to help you gain those skills or gain that knowledge or learn more about conflict resolution or how to be more accessible and approachable to people.’”

And in this day and age of social media, “we’ve all read these blogs and these horror stories of employees trashing their employers online (so) I think exit interviews can be an incredibly important way to mitigate that,” said Reder.

Best practices

When it comes to best practices, exit interviews should be positioned from a place of positivity, not negativity, said Reder, which means asking a person about what works, not just “Tell us everything that’s wrong with us,” she said.

“A lot of times, that’s the way exit interviews are viewed, as a witch hunt for negativity about what the work experience was. I think it can also be positioned very much about ‘What really worked for you here, what are we doing well?’”

As to which employees should be interviewed, that can depend on time and resources, but baby boomers leaving the workforce should definitely be on the list, said Reder.

“They are really a unique opportunity to get a very unique perspective because they don’t care if they burn bridges, they’re not likely to go and get another job, and they’ve…. seen it all,” she said. “You can gain insight into what knowledge they have.”

If employers have a consistent process in place, they do the interviews with all levels of staff, said Griffin.

“That is sending a message that whether you are sitting at front reception or you’re picking and packing in the warehouse or you’re occupying an executive desk, you’re an important member of the company.”

It’s important to hear from everyone but to focus on a particular problem area, if needed, said DoCanto.

“A company should also look at their turnover and where it’s happening the most — is there a trend?”

As for who should conduct the exit interview, the more neutral the person, the better, meaning someone in HR or a specific manager outside the affected group. 

“It does need to be a purely unbiased conversation, with the right intent, which is not to defend against the reason why the person is choosing to leave, but really just to be open and gather the feedback to look for areas of opportunity where things could be better for the next employee that joins the organization.”

For a comprehensive approach, many companies outsource the interviews as they consider that less biased, said DoCanto, plus employees are more honest and upfront because “they’re not afraid to perhaps say things they may not say to the human resources department of that company because they’re not sure how the information is going to be shared or going to be perceived.”

When it comes to questions, there should be 25 to 35 in total, said Reder, and these can include: “What was it about the other company that made you decide to leave us?” meaning “Why them and not us?” said Reder. 

Employers can also ask what they could have done to keep the employee, what the person thinks about workplace morale and what he would change if he could. Also, did he feel recognized and appreciated, did he feel there were opportunities for advancement and growth, was there enough training, and did he properly understand his role and its expectations? Was he given regular performance feedback?


Stay in touch — all the time:

As a best practice, employers should be meeting with workers during their employment and having those “What’s working for you, what’s not working for you?” conversations, said Reder.

“In a culture where they’re encouraging open communication, there should be ample opportunity during the course of employment to catch things before they escalate to a point where somebody’s running out the door with their hair on fire,” she said.

“I mean, people leave and it’s not necessarily anyone’s fault. If they just can’t grow their career beyond where they’re at in a company, they have to look elsewhere if that’s important to them, and I believe an exit interview, that’s where it can be a very gracious send-off.”

And with anti-bullying and harassment legislation, employers have an obligation to protect workers, said Reder.

“During the course of employment, there should be a lot more touch points with employees to make sure that they’re feeling safe and taken care of because you don’t want it coming out in an exit interview that this person was bullied and harassed.”

Employers often do pulse checks or stay surveys to find out if they’re delivering on what they promised, if there is anything they can do differently going forward, said DoCanto.

“Once you get to the exit interview, people have usually handed in their resignation or have gone. So you may have lost someone of value with great experience… and, depending on the feedback that you receive, you may be kicking your heels and thinking, ‘We should have done…’”

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