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The Best Conditions for Conducting Exit Interviews

January 25, 2005

Whether interviews or surveys are used, there are certain conditions that tend to create optimum results when it comes to exit interviews:

    1. Trained, Independent Interviewers. The critical skills needed for successful exit interviewers do not come naturally for many--putting the employee at ease, creating rapport and asking probing follow-up questions instead of accepting the individual's initial surface response. Interviewers must also understand the distinction between asking employees why they are leaving and asking why they didn't stay. No matter how well a company representative may have been trained, there will always be those departing employees who do not feel comfortable opening up with any representative of the organization.

    This is why more companies have elected to use independent third parties to conduct the interviews by phone, in person or through secure Web sites. The downside is that employees become more difficult to reach once they have left the company. Another alternative is to have all employees complete a written survey on their last day and then notify them that they will be receiving a phone call to obtain clarification on some of their responses.

    2. Offered on a Post-Exit Basis. Because departing individuals may still have unresolved emotions and be preoccupied with other matters on the day of their departure, many employers contact the employee during the evening at home a few weeks after exiting. This allows the employee time to gain perspective and speak with the benefit of time for reflection.

    It is more expensive to have third-party consultants conduct phone interviews than to have departed employees complete a post-exit Web survey. This is why many companies have third parties conduct actual interviews only with those employees the company regretted losing the most and invite all others to complete a confidential, password-protected Web survey.

    3. Guaranteed Confidentiality and Anonymity. Departing employees need to be assured that they can provide frank and candid feedback without fear of retribution by their former manager or a co-worker. Many employees are more likely to accept such assurances when they come from a third-party interviewer or surveyor than from a company representative.

    This is a more difficult issue for smaller organizations that conduct interviews with fewer employees and can therefore more easily identify departed employees by their comments and demographic information.

    CEOs at these smaller companies therefore cannot confront managers with specific information that is critical of them without revealing the identity of the departed employee. Smaller companies typically resolve this problem either by not using the specific information with the manager or by waiting until they have exit data from five or more employees, a number considered sufficient to protect the anonymity of the former employee.

    4. Conducted With All Employees Who Leave. To have the broadest possible understanding of all reasons for employee turnover among all categories of employees, it is important to survey all departing employees in one form or another. All employees may not complete and return surveys after their departure, or be reachable by telephone, but they should at least have the opportunity to participate.

    It is also a good idea to interview or survey employees who leave the company involuntarily because they may have valuable insights to share. However, they may also be more emotional on the day of their separation, so a post-exit survey will usually be more effective.

    Don’t overlook employees transferring from one location to another within the company. Having them complete exit surveys is another way to capture potentially valuable information about their work experiences and feelings even though they are staying with the organization.

    5. Consistent Survey Questions. Once the survey has been designed, it is important to not keep changing the questions--at least not the core questions. This will help assure that the data received is reliable. Many organizations also intentionally use the same questions in exit interviews that they use in employee attitude surveys, thus allowing comparisons to be made and patterns to be detected.

    6. Findings Reported to Management. Because "push-factor" reasons for leaving are within the control of managers and senior leaders, they should have the opportunity to see the findings in both summary form and more detailed reports so they may take corrective action. Senior leaders will certainly need to see this data in order to hold their direct reports accountable for making appropriate corrective changes to prevent future regrettable departures of valued employees. Larger companies that do regular exit surveying typically issue quarterly and annual reports of findings.

    7. Exit Findings Combined With Other Organizational Data. Exit survey data by itself can be quite revealing, but to assure a more rounded view of organizational issues and trends, they are best reviewed in combination with data from surveys of current employees and other organizational trend data.

    Such data may include the average tenure of employees in various positions, the number of years with the company when various employees are most at risk of leaving, quit rate and average vacancy rate. This type of comprehensive analysis can help identify predictors of turnover among various groups of employees so that actions can be taken to keep it from occurring.

    8. Leaders and Managers Taking Action Based on Findings. Ninety-five percent of companies conduct exit interviews or surveys, but only 30 percent report that they ever take corrective action based on what they learn. There we have one more reason why most companies are not employers of choice.

    Sought-after employers view every avoidable turnover of a valued employee as a failure to be analyzed and understood in terms of its true causes, in order to prevent such future turnovers.

    This means that every piece of data at the disposal of company leaders must be taken seriously. However, if senior leaders and managers do not believe that the information gathered is based on the skilled questioning of candid departing employees, they certainly cannot be expected to trust the findings or take action based on it.

One Last Chance to Reclaim a Valued Employee
    There are times during an exit interview when it may become obvious that an employee who has decided to leave is really heartbroken at the prospect of leaving, but feels there is no alternative. For example, an employee may love the job, the work environment and the colleagues, but has decided to leave because the boss would not grant flexible hours.

    In these situations, an alert and proactive exit interviewer may be able to intervene to help change the boss' mind or report the situation to higher-ups who may be able to assign the individual to a different manager.

    In her book HR From the Heart, Libby Sartain, senior vice president of human resources at Yahoo Inc., recommends always asking departing employees, "Is there anything we could have done to keep you here?" You may discover that there may still be a sliver of a chance to keep valued talent and save the company money in avoided turnover costs.

    Sartain also recommends trying to connect with departing employees on a deeper, more human level by asking such questions as:

  • If you had the last three months to live over again, what do you think you would do differently?

  • What have you learned that you can take with you to your next job?

  • What are you proud of from your time here?

  • What goals did you meet?

  • What accomplishments will you be able to take with you?

Just One More Question
    One question that should be on every company's survey is, "Would you consider returning to the company, and if so, under what conditions?" Of course, asking this question requires that the company be willing to rehire former employees; as amazing as it may seem, there are still lots of companies who will not. Employers of choice, however, realize that former employees are to be viewed as alumni--to be kept in touch with and considered for rehire when the time is right.

    Departing employees who answer this question affirmatively should be listed in a special recruiting database and contacted periodically by e-mail. There are few things more gratifying than welcoming back to the company a former employee who thought the grass might be greener, found out it wasn't, and has come back to tell and retell that story to their colleagues.

SOURCE: Excerpted from The Seven Hidden Reasons Employees Leave by Leigh Branham. Copyright 2005 Leigh Branham. Published by AMACOM Books, a division of the American Management Association, New York. Used with permission. All rights reservedwww.amacombooks.org