Exit Interviews – A Way Forward to Retain Employees

“Clarity creates control. Most employees know what they don’t want – fewer know what they really do want.

We have delved into the realm of a company’s responsibilities towards their ‘first customers’ – their employees. We covered employee friendly processes and even great on-boarding to create a lasting impression on new employees, how the costs of employee attrition are huge and we also said that despite best efforts, employee attrition is a given – a reality. Amongst the top things that companies can do to ensure that employees are not irate and disgruntled when they leave is to conduct exit interviews. These exit interviews are crucial tool for companies to learn about what the company is doing wrong and what strengths they need to build on. The data / information provided by exiting employees can help organizations put more robust procedures in place that will keep employees happy and retain them for a long time. Just like companies learn what they need to do for external customers through customer feedback, so also exit interviews provide some crucial points for companies to become better.

When an employee resigns, the first thought for most companies is to replace the person such that work does not suffer. However, it is a colossal blunder to ignore the outgoing employee – compare it with an external customer who has decided to leave. Would you let them go as easily? In the same manner, exit interviews provide the employee that is leaving with a forum in which to voice their grievances, let the company know what went well for them while employed and the prime reasons for leaving. This is very valuable and rich data that companies can use to improve their retention strategies and employee policies. Once an employee leaves, they take all this data and their talents and skills with them, leaving the company ‘poorer’ because of missing out on this opportunity. A friend worked in this company for long but with time began to feel stagnated and ignored but as a good employee spoke about this to her manager and HR. They would listen but nothing concrete was done. Confident of her skills, this friend applied elsewhere and soon enough landed a plum job worthy of her talent and subsequently put in her resignation. The manager and HR then panicked and offered ‘band aid’ solutions in an effort to make her stay but by now she was so disheartened that she even refused the exit interview. This should have been a learning experience, but the HR of the company simply shrugged their responsibility by saying that they could not stop her because there was no exit interview!

The example above shows that exit interviews are not to be used as a quick fix but rather take it as an opportunity to know that other employees do not leave for the same reasons because they would have implemented some robust changes to ensure that their employees love working in the company and would not think of leaving. To be fair to companies, they do have a lot going on – from strategizing to enhanced customer service for their external customers to day to day operations, which if did not work well could prove detrimental. The focus of the company tends to shift from their internal customers to everything other than that. So when employees do decide to leave, companies can be sure that they did lose their focus for their most important resource and ensure that the exit interviews are engaging interactions where the person conducting it is equipped to elicit and handle the feedback. Exit interviews must not be conducted because it is ‘as per the rules’ and therefore must be done – this mind-set makes exit interviews only a formality and an effort to comply with the ‘rules’.

Ideally regular feedback must be given and received from employees. The reasons they give for leaving in exit interviews should not come as a shock or surprise since you would know what the employee’s expectations are and if you have done all you could to try to meet them, it would be a while before an employee ‘walks’. In fact, it would be a great idea to have an external agency conduct mock exit interviews through anonymous surveys given to the employees while they are still here. The questions in these surveys must be able to elicit why employees would leave and also what would make them stay. Ensure that the data you receive through these surveys is actually used and employees can perceive the changes in the organization based on their feedback. You would not know who made certain suggestions, but the employees that did, would know – so be careful and wise while using those suggestions.

Typically exit interviews are conducted with employees who have resigned and usually on the last working day of the employee in the company. Irrespective of size and industry, all companies, as a rule, conduct exit interviews to gain valuable information about management, the existing work ethics and culture and why an employee would be willing to move away from a niche they have created with you and join a new company where they would need to work harder to prove their worth. Companies really must get this outward focus – no one really wants to have to prove their capabilities repeatedly and they would rather use and enhance their capabilities in their current workplace. However, if your company is pushing them to the brink and disregarding all their efforts, you will lose some of your best talent – the least you can afford them is a robust and effect exit interview. Their feedback would help your company retain the existing employees and save the company from valuable resources including huge amounts of money to rehire and retrain new employees.

Just like historic customer data is matched with current data, so also the data received from exit interviews in the past must constantly be matched to the current in order to understand whether there is a pattern or trend in the reasons that employees leave. A proper analysis could reveal that a certain manager is the reason a number of employees have left and it would behove your company to provide coaching and mentoring to the errant manager. If there is improvement, it is good else it would be wise to ‘sacrifice’ one such employee rather than letting go of many employees. The more disgruntled employees are ‘out there’, the greater the danger there is for your company in terms of reputation and soon your external customers also learn about the ‘unrest’ within your company and also decide to do business with a company that treats its employees and other stakeholders better.

There have been many occasions where companies have been able to retain an employee because of the preciseness and effectiveness of the exit interviews. This is great news for any company and even they are unable to retain the employee, they would at least be able to iron out some of the issues such that the employee leaves happier rather than disgruntled. The company representative conducting the exit interviews, must actually thank the outgoing employees for the valuable feedback they provide which if used prudently can prevent more exits. It is said that employees don’t leave companies but bosses / direct reporting managers. This must therefore be one of the key questions in exit interviews – how the employee perceives their immediate manager. The answer to this question often reveals that the employee has decided to leave since the manager’s style of working or management was proving to be thwarting for the skills and talents of the employee.

In most companies exit interviews are conducted by a senior member of the Human Resource department or at least a member who is an expert with the exit process. The exiting employee is able to speak without fear and the interview is more objective since the person conducting it is in no position to take sides as there is no direct involvement. Employees who have resigned still might feel threatened but when the exit interviews are conducting by an impartial person of the company, it makes it easier for them to open up and let the company know the real reasons for their decision. The person conducting the exit interviews must take notes when the employee is speaking, even if an exit interview form has been filled out. Exit interviews must be seen as an opportunity to better your company and raise its standards such that not only does your company’s reputation grow but you are also able to serve your external customers better and attract more customers and better talent from the market.

Exit interviews are the time to apologize to the employee for the poor experience they had, give them heartfelt appreciation and let them know that their contribution has been valued. The onus of conducting and making exit interviews effective and meaningful lies with the company – because it is your chance to ensure that what you didn’t do right can be remedied such that you can prevent more ‘wrongs’ that over time would prove detrimental for your company. Also it is the chance to make your most valuable resource – human resource – feel valued and special.

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