Are exit interviews your best kept secrets?

Employers may perform exit interviews, but they may not know what to do with the data

Although many companies meet with departing employees to conduct exit interviews, they often fail to get a return on investment for the time spent developing the process and conducting the interviews.

That’s because much of the time, they forget the most important step in an exit interview process: linking the information gathered back to the organization’s operations.

Too often, exit interview notes are filed and forgotten. Valuable information is never reviewed or investigated more fully. Clear indications of misunderstood policies or misused practices are lost — and those policies and practices continue to be misunderstood or misused.

Changes that are suggested to improve workflows or processes aren’t shared with the appropriate departments.

And a series of exit interviews from employees within a single department, which may highlight a leadership or communication problem, aren’t linked together. As a result, the problem is never discussed with the manager in question.

Even if an astute HR person gathers the data and analyzes trends in a summary report that highlights problems for the senior management team, these problems are often seen as too tough to deal with from a resource or budget perspective.

The view seems to be that the comments came from “a moment in time and from only one or two individuals.” So why do anything to fix a problem for someone who’s no longer around?

But if you’re not going to do anything with the information, why ask the questions?

The reality is that if HR is asking the questions, something should be done with the answers. Completing the process means reviewing the data — and probing to find out more.

What’s happening, why and when did it begin? What impact is this situation having on the team, on productivity or on the bottom line? What will be done to correct the problem? It’s true that changes to policies or processes should not be made because a single individual cried “unfair.” A manager should not be encouraged to attend leadership development courses because one employee felt the manager’s communication skills were inadequate.

A single comment from one employee does not highlight a problem; however, when reviewed carefully, exit interview data can often signal trends — both positive and negative — and issues that should be acknowledged and dealt with.

Sharing the bad news with management

In companies where exit interview information is sought after and valued, quarterly reports are created for departments whenever three or more individuals leave. Responses to all of the questions are compiled and tabulated, along with comments and suggestions. This information gives the HR team data to work with, and it gives the department manager an internal snapshot of what his team is dealing with, how they’re feeling and what they think about him and each other.

This data can then be compared to previous reports to look for trends and emerging patterns of both good results and problem areas. As HR works with departments through annual people planning discussions, managers can review these reports to help them create the right people-based activities to ensure their departments run more effectively for all employees.

Based on the data, management teams are encouraged to work with HR to develop action plans for improving work processes, team communication or on-the-job training. Individual managers may be encouraged to change leadership or communication styles, or to implement recognition programs to improve employee retention, and to celebrate successes with the employees who remain.

From a corporate perspective, exit interview data may point to poor communication, lack of policies promoting work-life balance or inadequate opportunities for training, development and growth.

Human resources should never take a single piece of exit interview feedback to a manager as this destroys the confidential nature of the process. If other employees find out that this is the process, they will be reluctant to share honest feedback when they leave. Approaching a manager with feedback from a series of exit interviews can also be difficult if the feedback is primarily negative.

However, a good human resources team will share the information, keeping the feedback anonymous. It will also work with the manager to try to find ways to continue the positives as well as uncover why the negative situation exists or why the poor leadership behaviour is demonstrated. If the manager disagrees with the information shared by the departing employees, human resources may do some additional investigation, or speak to the manager’s manager to find out more.

There may be other sources of information (previous performance reviews, 360 feedback, customer feedback) that human resources can use to support the exit interview data collected. The more information, HR can present to a manager the more likely it is that the person will listen and take action. A manager in this situation may also benefit from contacting the company employee assistance program or from finding a mentor.

It’s unlikely that a manager would be fired as a result of information gathered during an exit interview — unless of course the information pointed to illegal or unethical behaviour that, upon investigation, was proven to be true. It’s much more likely that a manager will be given options for development or support towards a change in behaviour. Used properly, exit interview data can help organizations strengthen the skills of leadership teams and create “best practices” for dealing with employees.

When exit interview data are used in conjunction with data from current employees (by collecting information through an employee opinion survey) the information can be even more compelling. Combining answers from both sources may highlight trends that exist for employees who stay and for those who leave. Why not use the information to correct a problem now, rather than waiting for the next exodus?

Jayne Jackson is the manager, training and development/ human resources with the publishing firm Carswell. She may be contacted at [email protected]

The advantages of quizzing departing employees

A well-designed exit interview process should give the HR department and other leaders an idea of what works well and where improvements are needed for items like management practices, people strategies and general policies.

Developing an interview with a combination of open- and closed-ended questions provides a balance of quantitative statistical data and qualitative explanation and details. In addition, typical exit interviews ask employees to list their top reason for leaving, and provide comments about things that could have been done to encourage them to stay.

As employees share their experiences and make suggestions for improvement, HR should take note. These suggestions may form the basis of future enhancements to policies, processes or management practices.

If used properly, the exit interview can be an important step toward lower turnover and a valuable source of data in building the right people practices.

Exit interview information can help to improve employee retention, as it plays a critical role in evaluating the effectiveness of human resources practices and policies. The information can also improve work processes, team collaboration and the effectiveness of individual managers.

Exit interviews can highlight successes, allowing organizations to replicate what’s going well. More importantly, the data can point out potential problems that may be waiting around the corner, as well as existing situations, so that HR can respond in a proactive manner and pre-empt further turnover from a particular department or team.

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