How to use exit interviews to retain talent

    exit interview


    How to use exit interviews to retain talent

    Exiting employees are an invaluable source of insight into a workplace. Employers should utilise exit interviews to elicit feedback that can be used to improve talent retention and attraction.

    But often, when an employee resigns, they are usually left to quietly work out their notice or given pay in lieu of notice. The opportunity will be missed by the employer to obtain feedback from the departing employee as to their reasons for leaving.

    An exit interview can represent an invaluable tool for employers, with questions designed to elicit the reasons for the employee’s departure, in this way helping to identify any problem areas within the workplace where all kinds of positive changes may need to be made in order to improve talent retention and attraction.

    The following practical guide for managers and HR personnel looks at the role that the exit interview can play in the workplace, from why these are used and how to conduct this type of interview, to what to do with any feedback obtained from the employee. The importance of knowing how to get the most out of exit interviews should not be underestimated.

    Why should exit interviews be used?

    Once an employee hands in their resignation, it is all too easy to shift any focus away from that individual to concentrate on finding their replacement. After all, the recruitment process can be extremely time-consuming, from creating and listing a suitable job advert to interviewing candidates and selecting the right person for the role. With so much to do, to keep the day-to-day running of the business running smoothly in the short-term, it is not uncommon to lose sight of the value that an exit interview may offer in the long-term.

    However, obtaining feedback from a departing employee as to their reasons for leaving an organisation can be one of the best ways to identify any problem areas and to generate positive changes. This is because an exit interview is perhaps one of the few opportunities during the lifecycle of employment where an employee will feel most able to be open and honest about any complaints that they may have about the workplace and their working experiences. Even if the employee in question is easily replaceable or relatively junior, by ascertaining why they are leaving, this can give insight into any problematic areas that may need to be addressed to help reduce staff turnover rates and recruitment costs.

    By understanding an individual’s reason for resigning, managers and HR personnel will be better placed to create working conditions, and to foster a workplace culture, in which other members of staff are more than happy to stay. This feedback can potentially create some of the most useful and reliable data to help with staff retention levels.

    Of course, the reason(s) for an employee leaving may be wholly unrelated to anything wrong with the workplace or their working conditions, for example, where the employee is looking for a change of career or change of location. Still, even in these circumstances, the departing employee may have some constructive criticism to make, where they see some room for improvement or things that could enhance the employment experience.

    How should exit interviews be conducted?

    There is no right or wrong way of conducting an exit interview, where much may depend on the circumstances, although there are various best practice tips that can be used to help ensure that managers and HR personnel get the most out of this opportunity. Below we set out the key considerations when deciding how to approach this important task:

    Choose an interview format

    An exit interview can either be conducted in person, by telephone, online or on paper, where there are various benefits and drawbacks to each of these options. For example, by giving a departing employee a written questionnaire to complete, this can be less time-consuming than the other options and help to avoid any uncomfortable discussions.

    In contrast, conducting a face-to-face interview will usually give greater insight into the reason(s) for an employee’s resignation, where this will allow the interviewer to ask follow-up questions, clear up any ambiguity and explore any closed answers that may have been given. The flexibility that an in-person format can provide, in contrast to the rigid structure of a written questionnaire, will usually result in more detailed and useful feedback.

    However, a departing employee cannot be forced to participate in a face-to-face interview, and to insist on this would be counter-productive. Still, the employee could be offered a telephone interview instead, if that would make them feel more at ease. Even by telephone, the interviewer can still ask a series of standard and follow-up questions to help understand why the employee is leaving and to identify any problems areas that could help others.

    Decide on an interviewer

    An in-person or telephone interview can be conducted by a supervisor or line manager, or someone from HR. However, deciding who is best to conduct an exit interview may depend not only on the context of the resignation but available resources. Some organisations may prefer to nominate a single individual or team of people designated to undertake this task, whenever the need arises, whilst others may prefer to be more flexible, deciding who is the best person to elicit honest answers from a departing employee in all the circumstances.

    In some cases, an employee may feel more more comfortable chatting with someone they know and have worked with. However, by having the interview conducted by someone completely removed from what may have resulted in the employee’s resignation, this is far more likely to elicit honest responses. This is because, even though the employee is leaving, they may still be reluctant to be brutally honest with certain people about their working experience for fear of burning bridges or being given an unfavourable reference.

    Wherever possible, a departing employee should be given the choice of being interviewed by their supervisor or line manager, although providing the option of a confidential exit interview with someone from HR can lead to greater uptake and better quality feedback.

    Create a safe interview space

    When conducting an exit interview, it is important to create a safe space in which an employee feels able to openly talk about their experiences within the workplace. Exit interviews are typically designed to be relaxed and informal, and whilst the employee should be encouraged to be open and honest about why they are leaving, it is a matter for the employee to disclose as much or as little as they choose, so part of creating a safe space is letting them know this. There are various ways in which a safe space can be created, to encourage an employee to fully participate, from adopting a causal and friendly tone to reassuring the employee that anything said will not negatively impact on their reference.

    It is also important to explain to the employee the purpose of the interview and how any data will be used by the employer. By explaining that the interview is to help identify any problem areas in the workplace so as to help generate positive changes for others, and by reassuring the employee that negative feedback is actually welcomed, this can help to create a setting conducive to eliciting honest answers from the departing employee.

    Prepare for the exit interview

    Exit interviews are not designed to persuade a departing employee to stay on in their role, but to identify any issues that may need to be addressed to help the rest of the workforce. As such, the questions must be geared around helping to identify any issues within the workplace itself that may have caused or contributed to the employee’s decision to leave.

    It is important to decide in advance what to ask during an exit interview, where asking many of the same questions in each and every interview, the data can be collated and compared at a later date for any common responses. Equally, however, the exit interview should not be too scripted as this can be limiting. The key is to strike the right balance between obtaining collectable data, but with a degree of flexibility within this process.

    When preparing what questions to ask during an exit interview, it is also important to be aware of what questions not to ask. These are the questions that can potentially make things too personal or create a negative vibe, such as “Could we do anything to persuade you to stay?”, “What were the worst aspects of working here?” Or “Do you think someone else should be leaving instead of you?”. The exit interview is not about asking the employee to reconsider their resignation, nor about getting them to focus solely on the negatives or to partake in a blame game, but rather to highlight things that could generate positive change.

    What exit interview questions should you ask?

    There are no set questions that must be used when conducting an exit interview, although much may depend on the chosen format, for example, whether the interview is a questionnaire style interview or face-to-face, where there can be more flexibility with the latter. However, there are various common questions that can be asked during any kind of exit interview to help elicit the right kind of information from the departing employee.

    The main thing to remember is that the questions should not come across as accusatory, for example, asking an employee why they are leaving in a way which suggests that their decision is wrong. Instead, the questions should be phrased in a neutral way, designed to elicit honest answers as to what prompted the employee’s decision to leave, and what changes they think could be made to help create a more positive working environment.

    Useful questions for an exit interview could include any or all of the following:

    • Can you explain the reasons for your resignation?
    • Were there any other factors that contributed to your decision to leave?
    • Have you been offered a new job role elsewhere?
    • What prompted you to start looking for another job?
    • How does any new role compare in terms of remuneration package and benefits?
    • What did you enjoy most about working here?
    • Were your working relationships positive here?
    • What would you change about the working conditions here?
    • Do you feel that you had the right working conditions to be successful in your role?
    • Do you feel that you had the right training and assistance to be successful in your role?
    • Do you feel that you were given adequate career progression opportunities?
    • Do you feel that management recognised and valued your contributions?
    • What could be done to make the business a better place to work?
    • Would you consider returning to work here at some point in the future?
    • Would you recommend us as an employer to others?
    • Is there anything that we could have done to encourage you to stay?
    • Do you have any further comments or feedback that you would like to make?

    The exit interview should always be ended by thanking the departing employee for their service and wishing them all the best in their future endeavours. In this way, this will help to end the employment relationship on a positive note, where that employee may be more likely to want to return to work for the organisation at a later date.

    How to use exit interview insights to recruit & retain

    People typically represent the most valuable asset that a business has, where keeping the workforce happy can help to boost employee engagement and significantly reduce staff turnover rates. It is therefore important to listen to what any departing employee has to say and use information obtained during an exit interview to effect any necessary changes. This data can play a key role in enhancing the employee experience for existing staff, and providing an organisation with the knowledge and insight to put any problems right.

    Essentially, this means that any data obtained from an exit interview must not only be initially analysed for any obvious and urgent issues that may need to be addressed, such as bullying and harassment, but also documented, retained and re-analysed at various stages.
    This will require a system to store and save the data, although it is pointless having data simply sitting there without putting this to any use. The data will need to be collated in such a way that, collectively, it can be evaluated at a later date with a view to identifying any obvious patterns and emerging trends as to why staff are leaving.

    Exit interview FAQs

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    Legal disclaimer

    The matters contained in this article are intended to be for general information purposes only. This article does not constitute legal advice, nor is it a complete or authoritative statement of the law, and should not be treated as such. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the information is correct, no warranty, express or implied, is given as to its accuracy and no liability is accepted for any error or omission. Before acting on any of the information contained herein, expert legal advice should be sought.




    Gill Laing is a qualified Legal Researcher & Analyst with niche specialisms in Law, Tax, Human Resources, Immigration & Employment Law.

    Gill is a Multiple Business Owner and the Managing Director of Prof Services - a Marketing & Content Agency for the Professional Services Sector.

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