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The value of exit interviews

By Yosie Saint-Cyr, LL.B., Managing Editor at HRinfodesk.com---Canadian Payroll and Employment Law News, September 2007

Many employers and human resources professionals are committed to finding ways of making their workplace better. One important way to get information about possible improvements is by speaking with departing employees. A departing employee's exit interview provides employers with valuable information to measure the organization's success and can help the organization identify ways to continually improve the working environment.

According to our latest HRinfodesk poll that asked “Do you perform exit interviews?” it seems that 48.95% of respondents think that it is important to conduct exit interviews to find out why their employees leave their workplaces, and 25.85% think that exit interviews should be conducted only when they feel it is necessary. However, 25.17% don't perform exit interviews and may not think it is necessary or see the value of it.

Below is a breakdown of the results of the poll and further information about why it is important to conduct exit interviews. Additionally, there is information on how to conduct exit interviews, including links to free tools and resources.

What is an exit interview?

An exit interview is an interview given to a departing employee, preferably when the employee leaves of their own volition. It is an excellent technique to gather truthful information about everything from:

  • work environment;
     
  • day-to-day job concerns;
     
  • managerial style;
     
  • workplace ethics; and,
     
  • employee morale.

In addition, exit interviews are also a good opportunity for obtaining feedback on employment issues such as vacation time and pay, health benefits, pensions and fringe benefits. The interview can also provide valuable insight about skills and abilities required to perform the job that the employee is vacating.

How can exit interviews be used, and what are the benefits?

After an individual leaves a job, the organization should know why the employee left and get some feedback on his or her job or volunteer experience. One of the simplest ways to do this is an exit interview.

Exit interviews can be used to gather information which can then play a part in preventing future employees from leaving the company, and improving the organization's overall working environment. By keeping track of the outcomes of exit interviews over time, employers can begin to identify trends and patterns as to why people leave the company. Employers can also determine whether turnover is higher in certain positions and departments, whether there are management issues in certain areas, and whether the organization is offering remuneration which is in line with the competition.

Research from human resources specialists has shown that a structured exit interview process is a way to provide better information as to why people are leaving and to determine if there are any trends that may be expose in an organization and allow the organization to make some positive changes.

Who should be interviewed?

Generally, you should only interview employees who have resigned. Employees who are dismissed are usually not very cooperative due to their emotions surrounding job loss.

If you perform exit interviews for employees who are being dismissed, allow a cooling off period. Send them a questionnaire by email or mail a couple days or even a week after they have left the company; and provide them with a date by which to return the questionnaire.

When should the interview take place?

Typically, conduct a face-to-face exit interview within an employee's last few days in the office. However, the interview should not be conducted on the very last day, in case the employee misses the appointment.

Who conducts the interview?

Typically, the interview is conducted by a Human Resources employee or an objective person not directly involved with the departing employee. This allows for objectivity and for the departing employee to be allowed to comment confidentially.

What information do you need to gather from the exit interview?

Some existing companies who are currently conducting exit interviews suggest you try to find out the following information:

a) Inquire if basic employment conditions met their expectations and needs. Determine if salary, benefits and working conditions were satisfactory. Basic employment provisions such as performance management (goal setting, coaching, appraisal process), training opportunities (availability, funding), benefits (life insurance, supplementary health, dental, vision, pension), compensation (job evaluation, salary ranges, leave entitlements).

b) Probe into the specifics of what made the job satisfying or unsatisfying. An employee who has been doing a job for some time knows the problems and procedures in a way no one else does. The person conducting the interview should try to get as much overall information as possible about the job including the negative aspects. This will help to later evaluate the role, workload, and workflow within the organization structure. It may also help the employee assess their strong points for future employment.

c) Ascertain the real motive for leaving. The official reason given for leaving is usually brief and harmless such as “for personal reasons”. To decipher the underlying or supplementary reason for the resignation, probe for what characteristics of the job, work environment or personal factors influenced their decision. The employee's manner is another indication of inner feelings towards the organization. Body language and verbal tone can validate their reasons for leaving. A friendly, warm or elated employee is probably moving up to a better job while a lack of eye contact or aggressive demeanor may be a clue to dissatisfaction. An excited dialogue could be a positive indicator of departure or non committal responses and one word answers may point to anxiety to not stir up trouble. Concerned about future references, an employee will be hesitant to bring up problems. It is still necessary to probe for unresolved issues or concerns they may wish to discuss without passing judgment on the response.

d) Gather input about how other employees could be retained.

e) Gain insights about the employee's manager and co-workers.

f) Learn more about the skill sets and personal attributes required to perform the job.

g) Ask the employee if they have any further suggestions or additional comments. Urge the employee to suggest what might be done to improve working conditions. Ask if they could summarize their overall experience with the organization and to put it into perspective relative to previous employment experiences elsewhere.

h) Extend appreciation for the employee's contribution and sincere wishes for their future. Avoid emotionalism. Do not over-commend or criticize. Let your wishes be genuine not sugar coated platitudes.

Format for exit interviews

An exit interview can be performed once an employee submits his or her resignation or has been informed that he or she has been let go. Different formats for the exit interview include:

  • Questionnaire: while this written approach is non-confrontational and allows a greater degree of anonymity, it is perhaps among the least effective as there is little assurance that departing employees will follow through and mail it back.
     
  • Telephone: several days or weeks after the employee has left, contact them by phone. The employee has had time to cool off and consider questions more objectively.
     
  • Face-to-face Interview: this method tells the employee that his or her opinion is important enough to have someone sit down and discuss issues of concern to the organization. The face-to-face interview allows the company representative to observe the respondent's reactions, follow up on answers, and clarify responses that may be vague.

The interviewer should prepare by evaluating the departing employee's personnel file, including the job description and performance evaluations. An exchange about topics of general interest is a good way to establish rapport with the employee. Below are some additional aspects that should be considered when preparing or holding an exit interview:

  • An exit interview should always be voluntary.
     
  • It should be held in private and face-to-face.
     
  • The departing employee should be told that the interview is to focus on the workplace issues exclusively so that the company can improve.
     
  • The exit interview is not a discussion of the employee's performance, nor is it an opportunity for the employer to defend the organization.
     
  • Explain the value of the feedback gathered at the interview and assure the employee that responses will not be used against him or her. The information provided by the employee should not affect his or her reference.
     
  • Some employers offer the employee a questionnaire to complete as an alternative to a face-to-face interview.
     
  • Ask open-ended questions that allow the employee to give as many details as possible.
     
  • Topics should be general, and should include things the employee liked about their job, management practices, benefits, interactions in his or her department, and job difficulties.
     
  • The interviewer must remain neutral and avoid giving opinions, making personal comments or defending the company.
     
  • The interviewer conducting the interview should be aware of the employee's emotional reactions and be sensitive to them.
     
  • Take clear and accurate notes of the interview.
     
  • Review notes with the employee to ensure an accurate interpretation of his or her responses as well as to give the employee confidence that a fair report will be given.
     
  • End the interview on a friendly note.
     
  • The employee should always be thanked for their contribution to the organization as well as for the information provided in the interview.

The questions asked at an exit interview depend on the kind of information the employer is looking for. The following are some of the questions that should and/or could be asked at an exit interview:

  • Why is the employee leaving?
     
  • What did the employee like most/least about his or her position?
     
  • How did the employee feel he or she was managed during employment with the organization?
     
  • How did the employee felt the company was run?
     
  • Would the employee like to use the employer as a reference or receive a recommendation from the employer? *
     
  • Under what conditions would the employee have stayed?
     
  • What would the employee have changed?
     
  • Try to find out if there were things the departing employee would suggest to improve conditions, production or morale.
     
  • Try to get a good feel for how the employee viewed his or her compensation and benefits package.
     
  • Ask about hours of work.
     
  • Ask about training-whether the employee felt he or she had the information needed to do the job.
     
  • Ask about supervision-whether the employee felt she or he had what was needed from the supervisors and managers to do the job.
     
  • Did the employee have the impression he or she was hired for one position, but ended up doing something else?
     
  • Was the employee given an opportunity to advance?
     
  • Leave room at the end of the interview for general comments.

*Do not make this offer if you would not recommend the employee.

How should you use the information you gather at an exit interview?

Many employers wonder how to effectively use the information gathered at an exit interview. Exit interviews lose their value if the information and insights gained from them are not used, or are applied in a way that does not benefit the organization.

The exit interview only offers the departing employee's perspective. The interviewer should review the information with the supervisor and management, who then together decide how to evaluate and act in turn. It is not so much the individual responses that matter as it is the overall picture the employee has of the company. Watch for trends and patterns that emerge from the data; these help pinpoint problem areas so they can be corrected. According to consultants in the human resources field, when the exit interview process is carefully and thoughtfully structured and conducted, and the results are evaluated and acted upon, its value is immeasurable.

Don't forget, exit interviews also can tell you what you are doing right and what is appreciated by employees.

According to these same consultants, exit interview systems help employers do the following: reduce turnover costs, identify and manage problems better, improve recruitment/selection/and retention, minimize risk of litigation, and reduce human resource workload.

Conclusion

If you're not already doing exit interviews, you should consider doing them. And if you are already doing them, ensure that you are getting the most out of them by following up with the gathered data.

Even though the exit interview process is good, it should not be the only way of finding out this vital information. As an employer, you should communicate with employees regularly; provide a forum on both an informal and formal basis to talk openly at frequent intervals.

Tools and resources

You can check out the following website for additional tools and resources:

Exit Interviews --FREE Exit Interview Resource Site

Leadership-Tools.com



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