Tactics and Techniques for Making Exit Interviews Count

What is an Exit Interview

Employee turnover happens in every business, to a greater or lesser extent.  But, every cloud has a silver lining, and, managed well, employee exit can present a strategic opportunity. An opportunity to find (and fix) the problems that matter to your people.  An opportunity to prevent further exodus.  An opportunity to convey to your remaining staff that their views matter.  And, above all, an opportunity to gain the edge over your competitors.


Conducting exit interviews is an investment, and, like any investment, it’s worthwhile if there is sufficient return.  The gains to be made are significant, be it through improved employee engagement levels, increased retention, raised productivity and profit, or all three.


Here follows our guide on how to make your exit interview process pay dividends every time.


Why Is It So Important?

  • Figuring out why people are leaving is crucial, and it is no coincidence that those companies who invest in a meaningful and solution led employee exit process tend to retain their top employees and (not surprisingly) gain competitive advantage as a result.
  • Your employees may see things through a different lens to either you or your management team. They can shed light on what is or is not working, and where the challenges and opportunities lie within your organisation.  You can’t have eyes on everything all the time, so the more data you gather from within your business, the more realistic a view you will have of it, and the better equipped you will be to respond proactively in the future.
  • Departing employees can be powerful ambassadors for your brand. Make sure they leave with a desire to support and promote your business across their current and future networks.


Who To Involve?

  • In House or Outsourced?

The scale of the process may well provide the answer to this question.  Distributing, chasing and collating exit questionnaires for a small handful of leavers every month may not prove particularly burdensome.  But for businesses experiencing high turnover, this could put a significant dent in time that managers / HR Managers could better invest in other, more strategic, activities.  The option to outsource, using tools such as our  LastOpinion questionnaire, presents a cost effective solution, with the added advantage of securing higher completion rates (resulting in more reliable data sets). With a limited number of hours in the day, and a payroll cost associated to those hours, the bigger question is this; how is the average HR Manager or line manager’s time best utilised?  It’s our belief that your input is more valuable at the feedback and action stage, than at the administrative and data analysis stage.  That’s why we’d wholeheartedly recommend outsourcing the latter, and, armed with the support of detailed leaver profile reports, you can then concentrate on conducting meaningful follow up interviews with your employees, discussing the things that really hit home.

  • Line Manager, Supervisor, Senior Manager or HR?

Whether in-house or outsourced, most companies conduct their initial data collection via questionnaire, and then follow up with a more detailed exit interview.  But who is best placed to conduct this?  Two considerations spring to mind.  Firstly, who will be most likely to elicit honest, candid answers from your leavers?  And who will be perceived to hold sufficient office to influence change?  Ultimately, therefore, it comes down to trust and credibility.  Research suggests that interviews conducted by second line managers (direct supervisors’ managers) typically receive more honest feedback, and send a message to departing employees that the company values the process as more than just an operational necessity (Spain and Groysberg, Harvard Business Review, April 2016).

  • All Leavers, or Selected Sub-sets?
    Once again, the numbers may dictate the answer to this question. Certainly, where the volume of leavers renders it unfeasible to interview everyone, you’ll need to figure out how best to prioritise. We would recommend considering the following sub-sets:

    • Those leaving from parts of the organisation with excessive employee turnover
    • Top performers
    • Those leaving with key skills


What To Ask?

  • If you have outsourced your data collection and analysis you will doubtless be given some steering on the focus of your follow up exit interview. At great{with}talent we produce detailed individual exit profiles for each leaver, and these form an excellent basis for your follow up discussions.  An accompanying interview guide is available on our website, relating specifically to the topics and structure covered in our profile reports, and providing guidance and support for those navigating the feedback discussions with leavers.
  • Whether or not you have used LastOpinion as a data collection and reporting tool, there is value in adopting some of the broad structure applied in our interview guidance notes. We believe the key areas for questioning should be:
    • Overall happiness / key reason for leaving
    • The job – job satisfaction, personal growth opportunity, independence
    • The people – morale, relationships (with peers and managers)
    • The transaction – salary and reward, career progression, loyalty and trust
    • The organisation – organisational confidence, ethical standards
    • The environment – well being, working conditions
    • The new job (if relevant) – factors attracting them to the job/company
  • In order to identify trends in what triggers resignations, a degree of structure is necessary. However, try to avoid the process seeming too ‘robotic’, and encourage a degree of unstructured feedback.  There can be some very useful insight and ideas to be gained from the more ‘free flowing’ elements of the conversation. Open-ended questions are a key tactic in any interview situation, and this is no less true of an exit interview.
  • Be sure to summarise the conversation at the end of the meeting. Reflecting back on the feedback discussed will limit the potential for misunderstanding, and will also serve to convey to the leaver that you have taken notice.


When To Conduct The Exit Interview?   

  • Timing is everything. Leave it too late at your peril! All too often, the exit interview is a rushed affair, 15 minutes before the leaving drinks.  By then, your employee has mentally checked out, and may not even bother to show up.
  • Equally, though, the time immediately following resignation can be one of heightened emotion. Arguably, the most productive exit interviews are those conducted approximately half way between resignation and departure.


Where To Hold It?

  • Where possible, a face to face interview will carry a much more personal touch, and is an altogether more powerful and engaging experience for all concerned.
  • Just as you would with any type of interview, selecting a private space, where interruptions will be kept to a minimum, is critical. Even the most ‘benign’ resignation may come with hidden surprises, and everyone deserves the opportunity for a confidential discussion away from listening ears.
  • On that note, it is critical that you establish confidentiality very clearly at the outset. Be clear about who you will be sharing the feedback with, and why.


How To Go About It?

  • Every exit interview will be different, of course. Some leavers will be tight lipped, some will be emotionally charged, and some will frankly have verbal diarrhoea. The chances are you’ll know the key reason for the resignation (the final straw), but there may well be more to the situation than meets the eye.  You need to adopt good interview techniques (open ended and probing questions) and stellar listening skills in order to delve deeper.
  • A few criticisms are inevitable. If everything were perfect, they wouldn’t be leaving (and you’d be a millionaire!).   But don’t waste the opportunity to ask the people who are actually doing the job for their suggestions on how to make it work better.
  • Don’t try to fix problems there and then, and don’t make empty promises. It is best to gather the feedback, reflect on it, and add it into the context of wider leaver feedback.  That way, you can step back, and prioritise what is most urgent or important to fix, rather than fire fighting.
  • Don’t make it awkward! They’ve resigned, and you have to come to terms with that. Using the exit interview as an opportunity to pour cold water on the competition will not reflect well, and nor will asking questions that make the leaver feel as if they have to defend or justify their decision to leave.  The purpose of the exit interview is to gather information on ways to improve the job, the company and the culture, and to possibly gather some useful benchmarking information. It should be factual, more than emotional.   That said, nobody says you can’t express regret about parting ways.


What Next?

  • Managing employee exit requires consistency, and it requires going ‘the whole hog’. That means not just collecting and analysing data, but actually sharing it with key business leaders, and acting upon it. Asking people for feedback and doing nothing with it is almost worse than not bothering to ask them at all. Think of it like taking a course of antibiotics.  Everyone knows you have to finish the course of drugs for it to be effective, otherwise the problem keeps recurring.  Enough said!
  • You may wish to consider communicating and sharing the feedback from leaver reports periodically with the remaining workforce. Much depends on your corporate culture, but some sort of ‘You Said … We Did…’ presentation can be a great way to demonstrate your commitment to improvement, and to encourage people to communicate honest feedback.  Additionally, for any issues you have either been unable or unwilling to address, it presents an opportunity to explain why (far better than leaving people to make assumptions and spread negativity).
  • Maintaining contact with your leavers is also recommended (especially those who you would welcome back). It is by no means unheard of for employees to return to a previous company (all the more experienced) further down the line.  Regardless, alumni groups can be an excellent ambassador network for your business and brand, and allow you to keep ex employees in touch with each other and up to speed with new business developments.  All the more people to ‘toot your horn’, whether via social media or in person.
  • ‘Stay’ interviews are becoming an increasingly popular tool. So we’ll leave you with this thought; why wait until it’s too late?  Why not work with selected and valued employee groups, and meet with them regularly to find out what you can do to enhance the employee experience, make them more effective in their jobs, and ensure that they are fulfilled at work?  Now that would be progress!




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