Opportunity Knocks During Exit Interviews

Thursday, August 1, 2013 - 11:10

Sitting down with departing employees before they leave can provide managers with valuable insight. By Amy Birchall

Exit interviews are often – and perhaps unsurprisingly – referred to as the cockroaches of human resources practice. They can be viewed as unnecessary, invasive and irrelevant, particularly if a boss has waited for an employee to resign before bothering to ask how he or she rates their work environment.

AIM facilitator Stephen Abraham says exit interviews have "great potential to give valuable feedback about what's really going on in the organisation and how it can be improved", however, often they're too little, too late for the departing employee. "Organisations who invest in initiatives to keep their employees engaged will outperform their competitors through their motivated, productive and innovative people," he says.

However, when carried out correctly, exit interviews can be useful, as a major US technology company found when trying to reduce its 51 per cent annual turnover among call centre staff. Exit interviews revealed that workers were leaving because of issues with flexibility, coaching, compensation and the nature of the job itself. Management fixed these problems, and in two years reduced staff turnover by 25 per cent, saving 3750 employees a year.

Tudor Marsden-Huggins, managing director of recruitment solutions firm Employment Office, says exit interviews are crucial for effective people management.

"In the same way you do an interview before someone starts working at your organisation, you should conduct one when they leave. It ascertains people's motivations and experiences, and the strengths and weaknesses of both the individual and the organisation," he says.

It's not uncommon for employees to be guarded in exit interviews, fearing that honest comments may affect their chances of receiving a positive reference in the future. Marsden-Huggins says asking a third party to conduct the interview can help eliminate such concerns.

"You should have a reasonable and objective person, like the HR manager in larger organisations, conducting the interview rather than the person's manager," he says. "Hopefully the HR manager takes the good, the bad and the ugly and turns it into data, leaving the person's direct manager to write an objective reference later on."

Marsden-Huggins recommends conducting exit interviews between one and two weeks after an employee has left the organisation. "You're asking for objectivity. If he or she still has their final payout outstanding, they're not going to be objective. Once the dust has settled, they're less likely to be worried about entitlements. They would also have had a chance to calm down if they left the organisation on bad terms," he says. His preference is doing exit interviews by phone.

When it comes to conducting the interview, Marsden-Huggins recommends beginning by stating the purpose of the call. "Let the person know that you're keen to use the feedback to improve the organisation and to benefit future staff," he says

Once the interview is over, Marsden-Huggins says it is important to remember to use the data."Don't just leave it in the employee's file and never look at it again. It's one thing to do exit interviews, but if you don't do anything with the data then it's a waste."