Despite their reputation, exit interviews are not a waste of time. But there’s a catch.
A common complaint from organisations is that exit interviews are a waste of time, effort, and money. The reason for this is that they are simply done as part of the checklist for any exiting employee. Box ticked. Job done. But therein lays the problem. Exit interviews are only as useful as the information gained, but this is just one part of the puzzle. Simply getting information achieves very little. Real value comes from the information being applied. While the old adage says knowledge is power, it would be more apt to say, knowledge applied is invaluable. If this is the case with exit interviews, two key questions need to be answered: how can organisations ensure that they are getting accurate insights from exiting employees and how can the information gained be used more strategically?
How to gain more accurate insights from exiting employees
When an employee leaves an organisation, they could have a number of reasons why they might withhold or distort information they provide in an exit interview. In particular, research has highlighted the lack of personal benefit, fear of repercussions, social desirability, and the presumption that honest answers are a waste of time and effort as the information won’t be used anyway. Herein lies a catch 22 situation: employees are more likely to be honest if they’ve seen action being taken as the result of exit interviews. However, taking action based on inaccurate information is risky at best. Getting to this point is likely to be a work in progress, but some simple suggestions to bridge the gap include:
- Ensuring confidentiality and allowing anonymous responses to reduce risk of retaliation (contracting out can help ensure this)
- Not providing individual reports to managers, instead grouping by division, or aggregating organisation-wide responses on a quarterly or annual basis
- Give exiting employees the option to answer in person, over the phone, or via survey. Each method has its pros and cons, but the option should be put to the employee to decide what they are most comfortable with to ensure the most accurate disclosure
- Increase transparency by demonstrating for employees how exit information is facilitating change in the organisation (e.g. provide annual updates on changes made as a result of employee suggestions)
How to use Exit Interviews more strategically
What is becoming more apparent is that individual exit interview results are meaningless, simply acting as file-fillers. To add value, it is necessary for interview results to be combined, analysed, interpreted, and presented as trends, identifying patterns in the data. From here, it is imperative that action is taken from the results to drive meaningful change; otherwise they are nothing more than a symbolic gesture.
- Make exit interviews more than a symbolic gesture: commit to using data to identify and solve issues
- Know how and why data is being collected and communicate this clearly to all employees
- Have a framework within which exit interview findings can be applied
- Separate involuntary leavers from those leaving voluntarily. While those who are made redundant or who are dismissed may simply use the exit interview as an opportunity to air their grievances, it may offer insight into how to avoid similar situations in the future.
What are you hoping to gain from exit interviewing?
Although exit interviewing is often done as part of the course, it is important to align with organisational goals and aspirations. Using the data positively and proactively should contribute to overall success and the bottom-line in terms of reduction in turnover costs. However, it is important to note that solutions cannot happen in isolation; rather, they need to be considered alongside organisational culture and be viewed as a process of improvement. Without that future focus, exit interviews may not have as much value as they could.
Do you have time to ensure strategic use and change?
Outsourcing might be an option to improve the chances of honest responses. Alternatively, independent analysis of results can remove the time burden from HR allowing them to focus on achieving their set goals.
Is it a case of too little, too late?
Oftentimes hiring good employees and keeping them are two vastly different actions. That said, addressing turnover, should start at selection, attracting the best staff and looking into the future, considering retention factors. Selecting employees that are likely to be high performing should go beyond simple job requirements and look to culture fit and motivations. Once employees are settled in the organisation, it is worthwhile getting an understanding of how they’ve been socialized, whether their expectations are being met, and what support they might need going forward. Post-appointment interviewing offers a way of tracking trends across the employee life-cycle so that issues can be addressed before they push individuals out of the organisation.
Regardless of whether exit interviews are conducted in-house or contracted out, there are some easy and practical steps that organisations can take to help improve their exit processes and ensure the safety and comfort of all involved. For more information about how you can address turnover and use exit interview information more strategically, please get in touch with your local OPRA office.
Allen, D. G., Bryant, P. C., & Vardaman, J. M. (2010). Retaining talent: Replacing misconceptions with evidence-based strategies. Academy of Management Perspectives, 24(2), 48-64.
Carvin, B. N. (2011). New strategies for making exit interviews count. Employment Relations Today, 38(2), 1-6.
Frase-Blunt, M. (2004). Making exit interviews work: Properly collected and analyzed data can provide valuable insight into employees’ attitudes. HR Magazine, 49(8), 109-113.