It’s right up there with squabbles over office temperature and complaints about internet speed as a fact of modern-day working life: People leave companies every day—it’s a naturally occurring phenomenon. But even so, we still can’t help but to be shocked when someone hands in their resignation.
One of the best ways to approach a voluntary resignation is to use it as a learning opportunity. What’s working at your company? What isn’t? What’s prompting an employee to look for or accept other opportunities? Guest author Cecilia Landholt offers some tips on how you can set up exit interviews to learn as much as possible from departing employees—and how to communicate those findings to effect change.
Exit interviews: the crux of effective offboarding
Employee turnover is a very normal occurrence during the lifetime of a company. There are many reasons why an employee might leave, but voluntary exits have the best potential to offer insight into what’s not working and promote internal change.
While many companies, if anything, focus on ensuring their onboarding program is a success, a smaller number of companies prioritize making the end of an employee’s tenure smooth and seamless.
But here’s your chance to change that. There is a huge opportunity to set up your offboarding program for success.
As the first and most crucial step, you must prioritize the exit interview. Just think: You give job candidates who don’t get an offer valuable feedback on how they could improve their interview or skill set, and so in the same vein, it would be beneficial to you to hear why employees are choosing to leave your company. Many companies just let employees leave without thoroughly collecting their valuable insights. This is a shame since those insights could later be put to good use.
I’ve been People Operations and Happiness Manager with companies where there were waves of turnover, but even so, teams would still be on edge when they didn’t fully understand why someone was choosing to leave the team. I realized that by inserting exit interviews into the offboarding process and learning as much as I could from them, I could take this feedback and work with leadership teams to influence change.
Here are 4 steps to implementing an effective exit interview program so that you can get a clear understanding of why people are leaving your company and put that knowledge to use:
1. Get support from leadership
The most important thing you need to ensure is that the leadership team will be open to feedback and options for change if recommended. Without this buy-in, an exit interview becomes a black hole that ends up representing wasted time and energy. Employees know when feedback is respected—and when it isn’t. If they see multiple coworkers leave for the same reason and nothing changes, they’ll wonder what the point is of even participating in an exit interview. So make sure it counts and that the exiting employee can sense this.
Ideally, you should aim to present the feedback you’ve gathered and your recommendations for change during the same meeting. This makes it easier for leaders to act upon your suggestions instead of making them feel responsible for finding a solution. Finding out if someone left due to culture, management, money, or location can make a big difference. Employees talk to each other and so a few employees will already know why someone is leaving, but when a leadership team can get insight into an exit, they can explore options proactively instead of simply reacting after employees leave.
If employees are leaving because of a better opportunity at a similar company with a heftier paycheck, it might be worth exploring compensation packages and assessing whether they are competitive in the market. If an employee is leaving due to management issues, you may want to take some time to explore the morale of the team and whether their manager needs support or one-on-one feedback. Some employees leave and then completely change industries or start their own companies. In these instances, you can generally receive great feedback about the company and the culture, which is something you can share with the whole leadership team and company so you know what’s working and what you should continue doing.
2. Communicate the value of the feedback to the exiting employee
Sometimes exit interviews can have a lot of emotions attached to them. Whether someone who has become an integral part of the company culture or someone who has really thrived at your company is leaving for another opportunity, it’s usually hard not to be bummed about an exit. There’s also the element of how an employee is feeling around their departure. Sometimes employees submit their resignation on the day of and that leads to a scramble to get things done. In other cases, with a longer transition, there’s a period of a team helping someone wrap up their projects and get ready to depart.
To ensure that an exiting employee has a seamless and friendly exit (from the People Ops end), it helps to create a system for exit interviews. You can schedule in 20 minutes of a departing employee’s time before their last day to gather feedback. During the exit interview, interviewers should reassure the exiting employee that their feedback will be a valuable contribution to the People Ops team.
This final contribution can be particularly beneficial, especially from a culture perspective. If you want to get solid feedback, be appreciative and respectful of what you hear. People will usually be very honest about their exits because, frankly, they have nothing to lose, and many of them genuinely want to see your company improve and succeed. Interviewers can use this honest feedback to pinpoint issues and work towards resolutions with any of the stakeholders involved, whether it’s a specific team, manager, or the entire leadership of your company. So even as someone is ending their time at a company, let them know that their feedback can still provide a lot of value!
3. Keep the interview consistent, objective, and simple
Exit interviews should be conducted by a member of the People Operations Team or another HR leader. If these roles don’t exist in your organization, try using a manager/director from another department. Since a significant number of employees leave because of their relationship with their direct manager, asking managers to conduct exit interviews with their direct reports can create an awkward and potentially inaccurate (read: unhelpful) exit interview. Having someone who wasn’t directly involved in the employee’s day-to-day work life conduct the exit interview will ensure a somewhat objective stance for both parties.
Now for the interview: Keep it short and simple, with just a handful of questions. Interviewers should touch on highlights, lowlights, and recommendations for the future. You can also just let people talk about their experience with the company if they want to. Because the meeting is scheduled for 20 minutes, you know that it won’t go too long, and there will usually be a nugget of information that you can learn from. You can then opt to take feedback to the entire leadership team if you have a month with multiple exits or simply present it to the team manager if there’s only one exit that month.
4. Share the feedback with all stakeholders
Keep all exit interviews in one place and put together a process for sharing feedback. A leadership team might want access to where the exit interviews live, or maybe they just want you to work out any suggestions for change with the appropriate stakeholder. Sometimes it depends on timing because exits come in waves and one-offs and it might be best to present all the feedback at the end of the month or at the end of the quarter. In any situation, make sure time is scheduled with appropriate stakeholders and there are recommendations for change if needed to avoid a black hole of feedback.
There might be a month where one person exits and the feedback can directly go to a team manager to work out any recommendations. It’s a great idea to try to get to the root of the problem and update the leadership team with the actions you’ve taken. In the case where you get one-off exit interview feedback, you can work directly with management to reach a solution. For example, if several employees mention issues with team meetings, you can work with the manager directly to explore different ways to achieve the goal of the meetings or potentially change the meeting structure. This type of feedback and the actions taken to make changes can be brought up as an update during a leadership meeting at the end of the quarter.
Or you may notice a pattern or similar issues when conducting several exit interviews in a row. In this situation, you can explore the feedback with the leadership team and get help from the executive on that team to figure out a solution.
Sometimes people move on in order to pursue a new passion, or they want to travel the world or go back to school. Even this information can be helpful, as sometimes change isn’t even needed. However, having this knowledge and sharing it with the team can make a huge difference with morale.
Exit interviews are learning opportunities
When people leave due to management issues, team conflict, or lack of recognition for their efforts, it’s important to talk to managers or leadership and see if there might be any changes that can help the situation. It can make the biggest difference to change a meeting format, or how often a one-on-one happens, for example. But knowing where a potential problem is stemming from and then trying out new methods can help turn an occurrence like a volunteer exit into a learning opportunity.
People are always going to leave your company, and that’s something you can’t change. But you can take a proactive approach to understanding why they’re leaving and make sure that you’re addressing any serious issues you discover. Exit interviews offer invaluable insight into what’s working at your company—and what isn’t. It’s up to you to transform that knowledge into action.