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Employee engagement: Exit interviews - Time to say goodbye

An exit interview should not only get to the bottom of why valued staff are leaving but form the basis of an action plan to stop them wanting to leave in the first place.

When you consider that people spend an estimated 75% of every wakinghour in work-related activity, it's not hard to see that ending therelationship between employer and employee is a big step.

Regardless of whether someone 'lives to work' or 'works to live', theylay their aspirations at the door of the organisation they decide tojoin, hoping these will become a reality. When the time comes to leave,the extent to which the organisation has encouraged them to realisethese expectations is brought into sharp focus. How an employer handlesthe exit interview can have a lasting impact on the employee'sperceptions of the company. A sensitively-managed exit can ensure thattheir alumni become brand ambassadors who will speak highly of theirformer employer when asked: 'So, what were they really like to workfor?'

Perhaps even more important, the final interview also provides theopportunity for an employer to understand why valued members of staffleave and what can be done prevent it happening in the future.

Measure what matters

Traditional exit interviews often focus on issues such as compensation,benefits and working conditions. While these are important to mostemployees, they are not usually critical factors in their decision toleave or stay. More often, the issues that really count include anemployee's relationship with their manager, a belief that the companyhas a strong future and personal alignment with its mission and values.If these factors are in place, staff are often more willing to acceptlimited areas of dissatisfaction.

High-performing organisations know that to sustain their leading marketposition they must continue to develop a work environment that attractsand retains the very best people and fosters their growth andcommitment. They can only achieve this by measuring attitudes andbehaviours, establishing benchmarks and monitoring progress - thefactors that drive results.When designing an exit interview, the focusshould be on behavioural matters that organisations can easily turn intoaction plans to reduce turnover and increase engagement.

Be consistent

While many employers do carry out exit assessments, differentdepartments may use a variety of approaches and this can dilute theimpact. As a result departing workers can have radically differentleaving experiences or even be overlooked in the short period betweenresignation and heading our the door. It will also be difficult for theorganisation to compare the data these different methods produce andcome up with an effective action plan to resolve the issuesidentified.

It certainly helps if a senior member of staff takes responsibility forgaining commitment to a unified approach. There are a number of benefitsof an organisation-wide exit interview process. All regretted departuresare managed swiftly and consistently, and there is agreement about thespecific areas that are important for the business to explore. Also itguarantees sufficient response rates to allow the organisation toidentify best practice and improvement opportunities, and makes itpossible to compare data between the exit interview and otherorganisational assessments, such as employee opinion surveys, to designstrategies that improve the work environment and retention. The processcan be aligned to other business critical and strategic HR initiatives,too.

When one approach has been agreed, it is good practice to put thatpolicy in writing. That way, individuals know that there is an exitinterview process in place and they can read up on precisely how it isexpected to operate.

Who conducts the interview?

Interviewing of this nature should only be done by experiencedresearchers, who know about the issues that may arise. Exit interviewsare often the responsibility of experienced HR professionals, in orderto encourage a frank exchange between a 'neutral' representative and thedeparting employee. But however trusted the HR department may be, staffoften fear repercussions if the information they reveal were to get intothe wrong hands. Consequently, to avoid 'burning bridges', they may givethe most generic of answers. The two most frequently cited reasons forleaving are better pay and benefits package or a better opportunity.

Many organisations get an independent third party to conduct all theexit interviews because of such concerns about confidentiality. But evenwith a third party, you have to make every effort to reassure allemployees taking part that their comments or ratings will not beattributed. Regardless of who conducts the exit interview, however,employee participation should always be voluntary.

Belt and braces

It is best to conduct two exit assessments. The first is often a web orpaper survey, administered during the last week of the individual'semployment or sent to them at home if the departure was immediate. Thesecond is a follow-up assessment over the phone, four to six weekslater. The initial assessment is done because it is often difficult tocontact and persuade leavers to participate later. At the very least, itprovides an opportunity to obtain their feedback.

The follow-up assessment may reveal a more objective explanation forleaving. The people who have left should by now have experienced a neworganisation and may actually realise that 'the grass is not alwaysgreener'. The passage of time often results in more open feedback on whyemployees left. This increases the reliability and validity of theinformation.

From insight to action

Having spent considerable time and energy collecting exit data, it iscrucial to put the insight gained to good use. For this to happenseveral key people within the business need to receive regular feedbackfrom the exit analysis: recruiters for re-hiring talented formeremployees who want to return - information could be transmitted daily orweekly; first-line managers so they can take pre-emptive action toretain those who have not yet left but whose attitude shows that theyare thinking about leaving; and a strategy group responsible forformulating policy regarding retention.

Transmitting regular pulses of information will keep retention as a toppriority with those who can influence it. The results of Kenexa researchfound that most people think about leaving for up to six months beforethey actually make the decision to hand in their notice. This suggeststhat there may be time for managers or others to detect behaviouralsigns about intentions to leave, well before the decision is actuallymade. Some responses will inevitably indicate that nothing could havebeen done to keep the leaver, while others may simply want help indeveloping a career path within their current organisation.

One way of improving retention rates would be to ask managers toidentify their highest-performing team members. As part of their ownperformance objectives, these managers could then be asked to achieve atarget retention rate for this group. Knowing that they will be heldaccountable for the retention of these high-performers in the longerterm can have a powerful impact on a manager's behaviour.

- Margaret Macafee is managing consultant at Kenexa, www.kenexa.com


- Give exit interviews to people who were productive or eligible toreturn

- Get to the bottom of why people leave - don't accept soft soap

- Let some time pass after departure and then...

- Keep regular quarterly contact with leavers to gauge their happiness -or otherwise

- Make sure that if they know they have made a mistake, you are there toadvise - and would perhaps wecome them back


- In the first instance, make sure the person is in the right job -match talent and training to the role

- Provide feedback on performance - regular communication iscritical

- Be available to your team

- Treat all employees with fairness and respect

- Help team members to balance work and home life.