The Importance of Why
The art of exit interviews and their importance to your company.
When a valued employee hands in a resignation letter, it’s an unquestionable loss for a company. But can it also be used as a learning experience?
That’s the idea behind employee exit interviews as company executives try to capture the real reasons behind workers’ departures, as well as their thoughts on the inner workings of the business.
“The more you learn about what’s going on in the trenches, the better you can make the day-to-day operations,” said Bob Franklin, president and CEO of Tallahassee-based Franklin Employer Solutions, which helps businesses with their administrative needs.
William Anthony, a professor emeritus of management at Florida State University, says one of the keys is determining whether the person is being “pulled out or pushed out.” Someone who is being “pulled out” is leaving not because something is wrong with the company, but because of other reasons, such as going back to school or embarking on a new career path. Someone being “pushed out” is leaving because of problems with the workplace, like issues with a supervisor or co-worker.
There’s no consensus, though, on how employee exit interviews should be conducted — or even how valuable they really are. While some of Northwest Florida’s major employers, such as Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare and CenturyLink, offer exit interviews to their departing employees, other companies don’t.
Advocates of exit interviews say that for entrepreneurs, talking to departing employees about why they are leaving can be one of the most important things they can do for their business.
“Too often you think you know what is going on in your business and you really don’t,” said Jerry Osteryoung, director of Outreach Services of the Jim Moran Institute for Global Entrepreneurship at Florida State University.
Robert Moore, director of colleague relations for Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare, said he’s never learned of a “smoking gun” from such interviews, but they provide a cross-check to ensure that employees’ issues have been thoroughly aired out.
He said he wishes departing employees would be more inclined to participate in the exit interview process. For every 50 employees who resign, only a few complete the hospital’s exit interview questionnaire.
At CenturyLink, most employees leaving the telecommunications company agree to participate in exit interviews, but many do not follow through, said company spokeswoman Carmen Butler.
Business and management experts say companies that offer exit interviews must recognize how tricky it can be to get a departing employee to open up. Many employees leaving on their own accord tend to hold back, even when they agree to exit interviews.
The reason why is simple: They don’t want to burn any bridges.
This has become especially true in recent years, with the tight economy and the rise of social media such as Facebook and LinkedIn, said Michael Roberto, a professor of management at Bryant University in Southfield, R.I.
Before social media, the only references a potential employer had for prospective employees were the ones at the bottom of a resume. Now that employer can peruse a site such as LinkedIn to get names of former co-workers or supervisors and contact them for additional scouting on a possible hire.
“We are all out there,” Roberto said. “People are more transparent.”
Roberto said business executives he’s interviewed are considering using outside firms to conduct exit interviews and synthesize the information in a report. That way, departing employees are ensured that their confidentiality is protected, and executives can use the reports to identify trends.
In asking exiting employees to participate in interviews, companies need to frame the voluntary meetings as something positive. It should be emphasized that the purpose of the interviews is to figure out what needs to be done to retain employees and improve the workplace, Roberto said.
Many companies that conduct exit interviews offer employees the option of doing it in either a face-to-face meeting or by filling out a written questionnaire, usually with guarantees that their names will be kept confidential.
William Anthony, a professor emeritus of management at Florida State University, said exit interviews always work best when they’re conducted as sit-down interviews in a one-on-one setting. A written questionnaire doesn’t allow for the back-and-forth needed to delve into why an employee is leaving, he said.
One of the keys is determining whether the person is being “pulled out or pushed out,” Anthony said. Someone who is being “pulled out” is leaving not because something is wrong with the company, but because of other reasons, such as going back to school or embarking on a new career path. Someone being “pushed out” is leaving because of problems with the workplace, like issues with a supervisor or co-worker.
Anthony said he recommends that someone from the company’s human resources department or an independent consultant conduct the interviews. Hiring a consultant can be especially important for companies with high turnover, he said.
Osteryoung is a big believer that business owners should conduct face-to-face interviews with exiting employees. It’s important to watch employees’ facial expressions and body language, he said, adding, “I want to see the emotional message behind the words.”
At least 30 minutes should be set aside for the meeting and the business owner needs to delve into as much detail as possible, Osteryoung suggested.
That means the entrepreneur should review the employee’s personnel files in advance and know what positions and responsibilities the employee had with the company through the years.
The worst possible setting for an exit interview is having two people sitting on opposite sides of a desk, he said. The business owner should come out from behind the desk and pull up a chair to the employee, making the conversation seem more personal.
“It’s so important for the entrepreneur to make the employee feel at ease,” he said.
Before asking tough questions, a trust needs to be established with the exiting employee, Osteryoung said. The business owner should praise the employee’s various accomplishments and time with the company. As the employee begins to talk, the interviewer should ask if it’s OK to take notes because, “It sends a message that what the employee is saying is important.”
The business owner can then start asking open-ended questions such as: “Did you feel prepared for the first job we gave you?” The general questions should eventually give way to very specific ones about the company’s operations.
Many exiting employees cite salary as the reason they are leaving, but an incremental increase in pay is usually not enough for someone to experience the uncertainty of starting a new job, Osteryoung said. The “real” reason many employees leave companies is bad management, he said.
The business owner shouldn’t set up any parameters of what’s off limits to discuss, nor should the owner go into the interview with the mindset that the employee is disloyal for leaving, Osteryoung said.
Franklin said regardless of who conducts the interview, that person should establish a neutral tone. What the employee says must not be taken personally and the interviewer should always remain calm.
Moore, who handles exit interviews for Tallahassee Memorial Hospital, said he’s found employees prefer to answer questionnaires rather than have face-to-face encounters.
People who elect to do sit-down interviews tend to overemphasize or underemphasize why they are leaving, Moore said. He puts more faith in questionnaires because he believes people are more honest when they know their names will be kept confidential.
Whether on paper or in person, Moore said it’s important to factor in the departing employees’ work history and the circumstances in which they are leaving to gauge how much credence should be put in what they say.
CenturyLink uses exit interviews to look for trends to see if the company has any issues that need to be addressed, Butler said.
“However, at CenturyLink, we frequently survey our employees so that we can be sure we have an understanding of the topics that are most important to our employees,” she said. “We do not wait until they leave to ask for feedback and respond or make adjustments based on their concerns.”
In asking exiting employees to participate in interviews, companies need to frame the voluntary meetings as something positive. It should be emphasized that the purpose of the interviews is to figure out what needs to be done to retain employees and improve the workplace.
That is one point all the experts agreed on. While an exit interview can be used to confirm hypotheses about the inner workings of a company, it shouldn’t be when an employer first learns about a problem.
“If the employee has a deeply personal issue and you haven’t heard about it until the exit interview, that’s really alarming,” Roberto said. “You would need to ask, ‘Why is this something I wasn’t aware of?’”
Anthony said he has seen the practical benefits of exit interviews. He’s aware of one company that called in a facilitator for conflict management resolution in part as a reaction to complaints in exit interviews about a particular supervisor.
If an employee is jumping to a rival company, the exit interview also can be an opportunity for some fact-finding about the competitor, offering a chance to compare salaries and benefits, Anthony said.
And whatever the employee’s reasons for leaving, it’s always best to stay positive throughout the interview. If the employee walks out feeling good, he/she will be more inclined to speak well of the company in the future.
“You want to leave a good impression in their minds,” Osteryoung said.