Exit interviews are a common human resources and leadership practice when someone is leaving an organization, but I’ve never found them to be of much value. I’ve been in Human Resources for over two decades now and conducted more exit interviews than I can count and only rarely have they ever uncovered information that was of much use. So, why do organizations continue to do them?
Unless HR professionals or leaders have the luxury of time to spend (and I don’t know any that do), I think they should stop conducting exit interviews as a matter of routine and instead, spend that time investing in building relationships with existing employees in an effort to retain them. Rounding and stay interviews are two tactics that can be a far more effective use of human resources and leadership time than exit interviews.
Why don’t exit interviews work? People are on guard during exit interviews – even if they have a great deal of trust with the interviewer, they have a fear of burning a bridge if they are fully honest with anything critical that they may share about the organization or their leadership when they are exiting. With their own self-interest in mind, (which is only human nature) they are reluctant to share what they really think because they might want to return to that organization someday. Because of this, spending time gathering information from employees who are leaving is simply a waste of time because it won’t provide a balanced and accurate picture.
The exception to this is in high risk situations when someone is leaving and may be disgruntled with management or something else related to their employment. In these cases, a confidential exit interview with someone in Human Resources can be a useful outlet for their anger or frustration. Conducting an in person exit interview allows an opportunity for them to vent which may reduce the chance that they go to an outside organization such as the Bureau of Labor & Industries or even an attorney to get their concerns heard. In these cases, it’s important to take their concerns seriously and follow up on issues that may surface. You don’t owe them follow up (although depending on the situation you may choose to provide some), but you do owe it to the organization to follow up and investigate concerns they may raise in an effort to address issues, manage risk for the organization and prevent further employee turnover.
This brings me to my point about time better spent. At the time of an exit interview it’s too late to address an issue of concern in a way that might have retained the employee. So rather than conducting routine exit interviews with all employees leaving the organization, that time is better spent on preventing turnover by surfacing issues early and addressing them. Spend time building trust with employees so that when issues of concern are happening, they bring them forward in the moment. This way they have a chance to be addressed before someone gets to the point where they feel the need to leave the organization.
Focusing on Retention
Human Resources Rounding. It’s so important for human resources staff to have a regular and visible presence in the workplace. If the only time HR shows up is when someone is being terminated, something is wrong with the way HR is operating. HR should be seen as a trusted advisor to both leaders and staff and in order to build this trusting relationship, it takes regular interaction and “face time” which means HR needs to be out of their office and rounding in the workplace on a regular basis with employees.
Attending staff meetings to talk about a variety of subjects using an educational approach is another way to build trust as long as the subject matter is either neutral or positive, such as reminding staff about benefit plan offerings that they have or about organizational changes. Informal rounding in the workspace to just “check in” with employees can often surface questions or concerns that employees may have long before they become serious problems. This allows HR to help guide, advise or problem solve with employees in a way that can effectively resolve workplace issues and facilitate employee retention and is a good use of HR time.
Stay interviews – the role of leaders.
There is a lot of literature out there about stay interviews and how to conduct them. Dick Finnegan is an author that has written several business books on the subject and I had the opportunity to see him speak at an HR conference several years ago. According to Mr. Finnegan, “A Stay Interview is a structured discussion a leader conducts with each individual employee to learn the specific actions she must take to strengthen that employee’s engagement and retention with the organization.” It is a key to retention of employees.
Finnegan recommends five simple questions that will elicit a powerful retention conversation with each employee:
1.When you travel to work each day, what things do you look forward to?
2.What are you learning here?
3.Why do you stay here?
4.When was the last time you thought about leaving our team? What prompted it?
5.What can I do to make your experience at work better for you?
Click here to learn more about what each of these questions are designed to assess and encourage from employees: https://c-suiteanalytics.com/the-original-si5-and-why-they-still-matter/
Additional probing into the answers the employee gives to these questions can lead to a powerful conversation. However, the dialogue cannot just stop with the conversation. Follow through in problem solving issues that may arise in these conversations is critical. Some action may be necessary - either on the part of the employee or on the part of the leader to make some changes.
Leaders should be having regular 1:1s with their employees to ensure smooth communication is occurring about their work. The stay interview can be incorporated easily into a 1:1 a couple of times per year, but leaders need to be sure to allow for enough time to sufficiently discuss the questions and consider giving the employee some advance notice that they’ll be deviating from normal agenda items. Some employees may want some time to think about the questions in advance. I’d also recommend trying to keep the conversation casual and even consider having it over coffee or while taking a walk in the fresh air.
If leaders do this in a meaningful way, it will increase engagement and improve retention in the workforce. Isn’t that time better spent than in an exit interview or a conversation with an employee asking them why they are leaving at the time they are handing in their resignation letter? At that point, it’s much too late to show the employee you care what matters to them.
Laurie is an experienced Human Resources executive who is passionate about organizational culture, creating great workplaces and employee engagement.