You Need to Stop Going Through the Motions on Exit Interviews

The exit interview — Has it become one of those going through the motions actions in your organization? –just another box to check off in a folder before you give the latest employee the old heave-ho?

It shouldn’t be. Despite their inherent awkwardness, exit interviews are becoming even more common (due to the shortening duration of most employee relationships) and can be very valuable from a risk management standpoint (not to mention keeping your brand as intact as possible during layoffs, terminations and difficult transitions).

Although exit interviews represent several opportunities for both parties, exiting employees are very often reluctant to divulge honest information about their experience with the organization.

Making exit interviews count

Leaving employees who choose to participate in an exit interview tend to stay very general with their responses in order to fireproof their bridges with the organization.

No employee wants to burn a bridge with their organization for the purpose of references in their job hunt, and the chance that they may one day come back to the company. Additionally, individual relationships are important to keep intact for future connections within a given industry.

To recap: Exit interviews are valuable, manage risk, and, HR has to conduct them. So, why not make them count?

And remember, no one is an expert at exit interview — except an expert in exit interviews.

The biggest reason that exit interviews end up being an ineffective process is that no one really knows what they’re doing beyond getting through your average exit interview checklist. The exit interview represents the chance to collect information that safeguards the organization from employment litigation, increases engagement and reduces turnover, but that is rarely what happens.

One fifth (20 percent) of employees who voluntarily left their organization did so because their work was too boring. This is a common issue that is fixable and could affect future talent, but unless the interviewer knows what questions to ask, the issue will continue and cause more turnover.

Keeping the process transparent

Quick Fix: Conduct more frequent check-ins and note when people are exhibiting behaviors that indicate boredom or resentment.

The opportunities that exit interviews represent cannot be fully realized unless conducted by a trained professional. Many companies are outsourcing their post-hire and exit interviewers, or supplying their HR team with the proper training for these interviews. An untrained interviewer might not know how to configure the interview in order to make it relevant to the employee’s role, level and functional area.

One way to ensure that your exit interview is always conducted by a trained professional is to use technology built by HR pros who have conducted thousands of exit interviews. For example, a secure link to an exit interview module based on your company’s specific needs means that the departing employee can answer exit interview questions in relative anonymity.

Quick Fix: Create a process around exit interviews that not only asks the right questions, but keeps the program transparent enough so that hiring managers can work the queries into regular performance updates and meetings.

Getting past the generalities can be tough, but it can be done.

For obvious reasons the exiting employee is going to tend to stay as general with their responses as possible. Unless the interviewer can get honest answers, this process is little more than filling out the right paperwork and turning in the keys.

The departing employee will present reasons like money, flexible schedules or benefits for leaving, but there is almost always a catalyst event or events that got them on the job boards. It is the exit interviewer’s real job to find out what that catalyst was.

Start to create the dialogue by giving some context to the interview. Let them know that this isn’t just a formality, but a chance to leave the organization a better place than when they started. Make sure they know this isn’t a gossip or venting session, this is the opportunity for the organization to take their information and make positive changes.

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More than 50 percent of employees who voluntarily leave their job, said that they would stay longer if their bosses showed more appreciation. Without appreciation for their participation in the exit interview process, they have little or no incentive to provide useful information.

An asset to the organization

Quick Fix: If at all possible (i.e., the person is not leaving due to a performance-based termination) assure them their answers will do nothing to affect references. In fact, many companies do not make it a practice to provide references aside form confirming the dates an employee worked there from start date to end date, or any other assistance the company can receive.

This person is already coming into the exit interview process with the idea that transparency is not in their best interest. You have to let them know that their information is valued as an asset to the organization.

It is also a helpful practice to check out Glassdoor frequently, and keep documentation of the entries to share with recruiting teams, line managers and executives. In this way, you can make sure that the feedback from exit interviews is more highly valued.

What is the point if your exit interview simply turns into another piece of paper in another file cabinet? This information is gold; study it, look for patterns of behavior, find the opportunities to create positive change.

Properly executed and documented exit interviews can provide a wealth of information to reveal hidden issues in the workplace, before they become part of your company employer brand or fodder for a legal battle with a former employee.

“All too often, exit-interview responses are simply filed away with the employee’s profile, to be used only if litigation looms later,” said  David Hakala in HR World. “It is vital to track these answers, look for long-term trends and take action to correct mistakes or improve areas in which management excels. The exit interview is your last chance to get employee feedback. Be sure to make the most of it. ”

Don’t just go through the motions

Quick Fix: You can’t track what you don’t store. Create a process that makes sense to everyone conducting and studying exit interviews and then add to it, every time you conduct an exit interview.

The bottom line is that HR needs the proper resources and training to reap the benefits of exit interviews. This process that we are all already doing, doesn’t have to remain in going through the motions mode.

Exit interviews can be the effective process that they were intended to be with a proper framework, the right incentives for employer, and employee and the correct attitude.

Deborah J. Muller is the CEO of HR Acuity, a technology firm specializing in human resources applications like the HR Acuity On Demand family of applications. Muller brings more than 25 years of HR and investigation experience to both the consulting practice and software development sides of the company. Prior to founding HR Acuity, Muller held executive HR in numerous Fortune 500 companies, including Honeywell, Citibank and Marsh & McLennan.

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