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Capitalize on the Power in Exit Interviews

May 1, 2012

Article courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner AdvanceHR

As with some other standard human resource activities, exit interviews sometimes are carried out almost on a perfunctory basis, resulting in missed opportunities — or worse.  There is a better way. This article provides an overview of how employers can gain helpful insights about their businesses, as well as ways to turn what might otherwise be a negative situation into a positive one. 

Why conduct exit interviews?

Ideally, the answer is better than just, “we’ve always done them.” Even with a basic goal in mind, employers may not take full advantage of frank conversations with employees on their way out. According to Robert A. Giacalone, Ph.D., a professor at Temple University’s Fox School of Business, the benefits of exit interviews fall into three categories.

Diagnosis and strategy:  This involves using insights gained from interviews to identify workplace problems and develop ideas on how to fix them. Typical issues include general problems like high turnover or a need for better training in some areas, as well as more specific problems like theft or security breaches in particular departments or worksites.

Public relations: Employees who leave with favorable attitudes, believing they have conveyed important information that matters, can become strong advocates for your company within the community, even after they’re gone.

Positive separations: This goal is purely to benefit departing employees, particularly those leaving under unhappy circumstances, by allowing them to vent and come to terms with the situation.

Employers often fall short of achieving these benefits either because they fail to do anything with the data they collect from exit interviews, or more fundamentally, don’t have clear goals in mind for having them in the first place.

Are They Being Honest?

Recently Dr. Giacalone conveyed another challenge, in a paper published by LPR Publications. That is, departing employees are not always entirely forthcoming about their reasons for leaving. For example, it may be easier to say they have found a job with better pay than to tell the uncomfortable truth that they experienced sexual harassment or an abusive supervisor or other issue. Yet those are precisely the kinds of situations employers urgently need to know about, and address.

What’s to be done?  Giacalone’s recommendations begin with developing and using “methodical, scientific approaches” that yield reliable data. Too often, employers use informal, intuitive methods that may have limited statistical validity.  The marketplace offers a variety of vendors with tools for this purpose. A simple Google search for “exit interview” will turn up many choices. Naturally, the size of your company will influence decisions about how much to invest in outside resources and the requisite level of sophistication.

Once a reliable questionnaire and interview procedure have been established, employers should create a system to ensure that the data will be collected and used consistently throughout the organization — an essential step for statistical reliability. While information learned from an individual departing employee may be helpful, pulling interview results together and analyzing them effectively will provide a much clearer “big picture” view of what’s happening.

Continuous Quality Improvement

Giacalone also urges employers to keep at it — both in conducting the interviews, and in improving the process along the way. That involves establishing goals and criteria for judging whether the effort is worth the cost in time and dollars. Regularly evaluating the effectiveness of the effort and improving it is critical to success, he says.

Since the purpose of exit interviews isn’t research for its own sake, the return on the investment will depend on what you do with what you learned in the interviews. You can establish a foundation for success by setting goals for the program from the outset. Goals might include results like achieving a specific reduction in turnover or measurable improvements in the hiring process.  As goals are determined, roadblocks to achieving them may be identified and a plan of action developed for dealing with those barriers.    

However, keep an open mind. The information learned in exit interviews may reveal that the challenges you are facing are not the ones you anticipated. For example, you may have thought that lackluster productivity was caused by a need for more employees. But exit interviews reveal that the problem is not a lack of manpower. The problem is low morale based on unwarranted employee fears about the company’s future. That new information will mean shifting gears and coming up with solutions that you didn’t expect. But at least you will be acting on a real problem, rather than a false assumption.

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