Before you go…

Talking to departing employees can shed light on problems that need to be nipped in the bud.

Turnover in your organization is trending at its highest point in four years. You just found out that another employee is leaving the accounting department. That’s the sixth person in as many months.

Other departments are losing people almost as quickly. You want to improve employee retention, and cut down on hiring costs. You have an inkling of what the problem might be, but lack the data to confirm your suspicion. What do you do? For one thing, you have to ask employees why they are leaving.

Organizations should develop an exit interview process that encourages employees to meet with a human resources representative when they hand in their resignation to talk about the highs and lows of the time they spent with the company.

If used properly, the exit interview can be an important step in the termination process, and it’s a valuable tool to help determine reasons for employee turnover. Interview information can help to improve employee retention, as it plays a critical role in evaluating the effectiveness of human resources practices and policies, as well as the effectiveness of individual managers. Exit interviews can highlight potential problems, as well as existing situations, so that human resources can respond in a proactive manner.

Encourage candid responses

Exit interviews should be confidential discussions, designed to get direct, honest feedback from employees when they leave. The information that’s gathered from these interviews should provide a sense of what works well and where improvements need to be made. Interviews should be non-threatening and based on a standard set of questions that allow the employee to provide candid responses, as well as suggestions for improvements.

A departing employee shouldn’t be forced to participate, but it should be explained how his feedback will have value for other employees. Remind the departing employee that all of the information he provides is confidential — no names are shared with managers — and that the interview responses will never be filed in his personal file. Explain that nothing he says will be held against him if he decides to return to the company, and he should know that he can provide as much or as little detail as he feels comfortable with. In fact, shredding a report once it has been compiled makes employees even more comfortable responding.

Despite assurances of confidentiality, some people may feel nervous going into an exit interview. Before beginning the interview, take time to build rapport with the person through some small-talk.

The interview should be held in private without interruptions. An employee will be less likely to talk if he thinks that his manager or others in the department can see him.

The process

Most exit interviews are designed around a series of questions that ask about the relationships employees had with their managers and co-workers, about the level of communication both within and across departments, and about the type of support and training available. Both open- and closed-ended questions are asked to get a balance of quantitative statistical data (percentages around reasons why people leave: salary, problems with manager and so on) and qualitative explanation and details.

Once three or more people have left a department a summary of the responses could be put together for that manager to review — no names given. If HR detects a pattern is emerging, it should be highlighted for the manager. Discussions can then be held about ways to overcome the problem, both in the short and the long term.

Exit interview data should be reviewed carefully. Changes to policies or processes should not be made because a single individual felt it was unfair. A manager should not be encouraged to attend leadership development opportunities because one employee felt the manager’s communication skills were inadequate.

However, a significant issue raised by a single employee should not be dismissed. All feedback should be used, but it is important to realize that some individuals just want to vent — concerns need to be investigated before they are considered concrete.

If there seems to be substance to the complaint, it is discussed with senior management in HR and then a decision is made about how to approach both the senior management team and individual manager.

Typical exit interviews ask employees to list their top reason for leaving, as well as to provide comments about things that could have been done to encourage them to stay.

Although most interviews are conducted in a face-to-face format, some companies are adopting a “pre-questionnaire” that’s completed online by employees.

Again, the employee should be assured of complete confidentiality. The pre-work allows the HR interviewer to tailor the interview to focus on the key ideas or issues expressed by the employee.

Making the exercise meaningful

Unfortunately, many organizations that have created an exit interview process 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 the data is never used to make any changes or improvements. Although a series of exit interviews from employees within a single department can highlight a leadership problem, the problem is rarely discussed with the manager in question. But if nothing is going to be done with the information, why ask the questions?

In many organizations the HR team isn’t sure how to tackle the situation. And even if the problems are highlighted with the senior management team, they’re often looked at as being tough to deal with from a resource or budget perspective.

Often the view of managers is that the comments were simply “a moment in time” from “one or two individuals” and so why do anything with the information. HR could help convince managers to consider making changes by showing them the value of past action taken based on other exit interview responses.

In companies where exit interview data is sought after and valued, quarterly reports are created for departments where three or more individuals have left the company. Responses to all of the questions are compiled and tabulated, along with comments and suggestions. This data can then be compared to previous reports to look for trends and emerging patterns of both good results and problem areas. Based on the data, management teams are encouraged to work with HR to develop action plans for things like employee retention, and to celebrate successes with the employees who remain.

When exit interview data is used in conjunction with data from current employees (for instance, by collecting information through an employee survey), the information can be even more useful by highlighting trends that exist for both employees who stay and those who leave. Why not use the information you get to correct a problem now, before the next person walks out of accounting?

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

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