Flexible working hours. Supportive managers. Permission to head home when your work is finished, even if it’s before 5:00. Cultural elements like these strongly influence employee engagement on the job, and hopefully, the people you hire will be a good fit for the culture you’ve designed. But sometimes, the work isn’t what the employee expected it to be, personalities clash or they receive a more lucrative offer from another company, and you find yourself parting ways. Employees come and go, but while they’re in your office, they accumulate treasure troves of data about your culture, management style and expectations. Those leaving your company may be in the best position to share honest opinions with you, and it would be short-sighted to let that information walk out the door.
As windows into the true state of employee engagement at your company, it’s hard to beat a well-designed exit interview.
What Exit Interviews Can Tell You
Exit interviews sometimes get a bad rap for being gripe sessions, but in reality they can tell you a lot about what you’re doing right as well as where any friction points might be.
Engaged employees are happy in their work, and they are productive contributors. Both descriptors must be true if you want to boost engagement and retention, but when things go awry, it may not always be obvious where the hang-ups are.
That’s where the exit interview can help. Speaking with departing employees about their experiences provides critical insight into your culture and workplace experience, including:
- Opportunities for improvement
- Effective or ineffective leadership styles
- Manager perceptions and interactions
- Negative experiences
- Communication hang-ups
- Expectation mismatches
For example, did you promise a collaborative work environment that turned out to be a one-person show? Is there a manager on your team who is exceptionally good to work for? Is there someone who could benefit from manager training? Were salary or career advancement expectations unmet?
How to Design a Fruitful Exit Interview Process
Unfortunately, exit interview participation rates are often dismally low, and fewer than one in three companies can demonstrate positive changes they have made as a result of exit interview data.
Here’s what you can do to change that:
- Start with an online survey – Email surveys to departing employees to collect and quantify data in a systematic format. Ratings systems are quick and straightforward, but unstructured data (text-based answers) can give you more insight into the employee’s true thoughts.
- Follow up – Employees who don’t fill out the survey (two out of three, on average) may participate with an extra nudge in the form of a follow-up email, text message, or phone call. Calling the employee is often the most effective, since you can ask them to complete the survey over the phone immediately.
- Aim to share knowledge – Departures can be emotional for both the employee and the employer. Remember, however, that this is not the time to become defensive or assign blame. Your goal is to learn from the employee. Give him or her the freedom to express real opinions without fear of repercussion.
- Affirm contributions – While it’s important to give the employee an opportunity to share frustrations, it’s equally important to affirm the contributions they made while working for your company. Thank them for their time and achievements and let them know you are sad to see them go.
- Ask strategic questions – Choose neutral questions that encourage the employee to share his or her true opinions and thoughts. Ask them why they are leaving, what you could have done differently to keep them on your team, whether they might consider coming back and what their relationship with their manager was like. Solicit honest feedback in both structured and unstructured questions, and aim for a balance between positive and negative answers.
Cultural issues, problematic management styles, below-market compensation and frustrating workplace logistics may all emerge during the exit interview. These are engagement killers, but pinpointing them is the first step toward correcting them. Use the information you glean from the exit interview to make adjustments so that your current and future team members can benefit.