How to conduct exit interviews to effect real change

During her exit interview, Claire Smith (name changed per her request) explained that she was leaving her job after only one year because of an amazing opportunity that had practically fallen right in her lap. That was not entirely true.

“It didn’t land in my lap; I was actively looking for a new job. The truth is that my manager was toxic, and I felt everyone knew it. But it didn’t seem as if they were ever going to get rid of him, so I had to leave.” During her exit interview, however, Claire chose to focus only on the positives of her brief tenure to avoid burning bridges that could affect her job search down the road.

A properly conducted exit interview can provide invaluable feedback to improve your organization. Here’s how you can get the most out of the exit interview and what to do with the information once you have it.

Create a Safe Space

Employees like Claire need to feel that their information will be handled discreetly. The fear of retaliation is very real. So, how do you create a safe, non-judgmental environment where employees feel comfortable voicing their concerns?

Begin by assuring them that their comments will be kept confidential. Karen Gaski, Human Resources Manager at CareerBuilders, offers, “We let employees know only Human Resources has access to exit interview data, and their answers will be shared in an aggregated summary for leaders.”

Randa Reford, a human resources executive with over twenty years of experience, adds that HR should be seen as a safe space long before the exit interview. “You want employees to have a comfortable relationship with human resources. We want to be seen as trusted and reliable, a source they can turn to for help. So at their exit interview, we already have an established relationship of trust.”

Prepare for Scorched Earth

On the opposite end of the spectrum are those who see the exit interview as an opportunity to unleash pent-up frustrations. Several people we spoke to for this article happily admitted that they “let them have it” during their exit interviews. It would be easy to dismiss them as not being a “good fit.” But listen closely to what your disgruntled employee is actually saying. Even the scorched earth exit interview can provide valuable insight.

Alissa Chaim, SPHR, says, “We don’t always expect that exiting employees will be happy and cheerful during their exit interview. When they vent, I engage them in a professional manner to try to get to the root of what the issues are so that I can discuss and notate them appropriately to provide that feedback to senior management.”

The timing of the interview can also help lessen agitated exit interviews. While most companies conduct the exit interview before the employee’s last day, some interviewees have found that conducting it a month later allows time for those heated emotions to cool down.

Stick to the Script

The exit interview should be relaxed enough to allow for a productive dialogue to flow naturally, but you’ll want to have a standard set of questions and forms to fill out to guide the interview. A recent trend is to ask, “I wish the company would just ___.” Let the employee finish that sentence. A recurring theme in these answers is akin to a finger on the pulse of company morale.

An Ounce of Prevention

An employee heading out the door is often more candid and forthcoming regarding concerns about your organization’s work culture, harassment, managerial misconduct, or other issues. Acting on their feedback can protect your company from being exposed to litigation or negative reviews on online job boards, which can damage your brand reputation and make it even harder to attract new talent.

Speaking of New Talent

In an extremely tight market where employers struggle to find and retain qualified talent, you really want to stand out from the competition. According to an SHRM article, “What employees want and what employers think they want in terms of benefits and compensation are often misaligned.” The exit interview is a good time to listen to what influenced an employee’s decision to leave and determine how your benefits and salaries compare to your competitors who are actively siphoning talent away from you.

“If you want to be an employer of choice, your benefits need to be the best benefits. The best medical, vision, dental, 401k, employee assistance, tuition reimbursement,” Reford argues. Find out what attracted your employee to leave during the exit interview; if they left for a higher salary, that might mean your compensation package is not competitive enough.

Now, Act on It

How you gather information is almost as important as what you do with it. Skim the key factors: Are there common themes? If your organization respects your human capital, you need to address the information before you start hemorrhaging talent. Identifying the problem and acting on it is the first step to preventing it from becoming systemic.

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