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<i>Dear Workforce</i> How Do We Find Out Why Large Numbers of People Are Jumping Ship Even Before Their Probation Ends

February 10, 2006

Dear Weary:

I have seen--and participated in the design and use of--several exit-interview forms. I learned that the more structured the questions, the more likely they are to miss the most valuable information. Consequently, I am a proponent of open-ended questioning. The downside: The form takes a little longer for the exiting employee to complete, and some people may be reluctant to spill their guts in writing.

To counter these drawbacks, I recommend a couple of steps that I will explain later. I will also suggest some open-ended interview questions you can use as examples to develop additional queries that suit your situation.

But first, examine what you already know. Are supervisors liked and respected? Could your turnover be the result of a quality-of-management issue? Is your pay below market levels? Are people accepting jobs with you simply because they haven’t found anything better? Are working conditions pleasant? Are candidates told one story in interviews only to find things aren’t as they were portrayed? Are you hiring the wrong talent for the job?

You might want to entice departing employees to complete the questionnaire, such as giving free movie tickets or dinner for two. Furnish the incentive at the exit interview so you can collect the questionnaire and discuss responses in greater depth, if appropriate. It is critical to establish a level of trust and confidentiality with the person leaving. The person’s supervisor should not conduct the interview.

Following are some suggested questions that I find most effective.

  • Describe the best experiences you have had while at our company.

  • Describe those things you would do to help us improve the quality of life for other employees in the company.

  • As an employment adviser to our company, describe any recommendations for improving the hiring process.

  • Considering that all information you provide is held in strictest confidence, please describe any problems that you are willing to share that we may need to correct.

These questions can be effective in written form. Employees often respond more candidly if the questions are presented personally in a closed-door interview format.

The most obvious question you can ask is "Why are you leaving?" If you use this question, always follow up with additional questions that probe deeper than typical responses (better job, closer to home, better pay, etc.). Those responses often are a smokescreen used to conceal deeper reasons behind a person’s departure. Using open-ended questions means you likely won’t need to ask why they are leaving.

Keep in mind that in some situations, trying to solve a hiring problem through exit interviews is akin to using your rearview mirror to drive. Other work may need to be done in addition to your exit interviews.

If the questions above don’t help, re-examine the job’s requirements. Any job can be analyzed to determine the skills, knowledge, abilities and experience that are required for someone to perform well. When companies successfully match talents to job requirements, they don’t experience significant turnover, voluntary or otherwise.

Measure an individual’s intrinsic sense of motivation versus the company’s culture/rewards structure. Measure whether his or her behavioral style matches the requirements of the job. Also, measure any soft-skills attributes. Before taking these steps to match the person to the job, you could use a pre-employment assessment to identify a person’s attitude toward long-term employment and attitudes about supervision, drug use, theft, safety, risk avoidance and customer service.

SOURCE: Carl Nielson, principal, the Nielson Group, Dallas, March 14, 2005.

LEARN MORE:The best conditions for conducting exit interviews, as well as tips for stay interviews to assess how employees perceive your company. Also: "re-recruiting" employees during their initial months and how National City Corporation has tried to stop "quick quits."

The information contained in this article is intended to provide useful information on the topic covered, but should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion. Also remember that state laws may differ from the federal law.

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