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Making the Most of Your Exit Interview Data

Posted by: Ben Eubanks

Exit interviews are used by approximately 75% of companies, but as is often with HR programs, they have the tendency to become a “check the box” type initiative. Sure, HR uses them to find out why people leave, to make employees feel that opinions are valued, and to identify any potential red flags. However, instead of being seen as part of a feedback loop to adjust talent practices and improve outcomes, it becomes nothing more than a simple checklist of questions that often leads to no changes or improvements. Today we’re going to examine some of the ways this process can be used more strategically to improve organizational outcomes and reduce turnover.

Getting Better Exit Interview Data

Employees that complete exit interviews are at a unique point in the employer/employee relationship. They have already decided that they are leaving, and their input and feedback at this point can offer a range of benefits to the organization. The problem is that many companies simply fail to do them properly. A recent Harvard Business Review study shows the following breakdown of who was responsible for the process:

This is surprising because in most cases departing employees will not speak honestly to a supervisor if the reason they are leaving is because of the supervisor. Yet one in five companies allows supervisors to take the reins in this critical discussion.

The bulk of companies leave this to the HR team. That seems to make more sense, but it can still be problematic. At a previous company where I was leading the HR function, I was tasked with carrying out this activity. There was significant turnover under one of our managers, and I did everything I could to try and pry out of the departing employees what was going on, what was causing them to leave, and how we could fix it. Unfortunately, the manager was such a bully that the employees simply would not come out and say what the problem was for fear of retaliation. That realization came much later, and it still bothers me that I was not able to help those highly productive employees stay with the organization, albeit with a different and better leader.

That leaves us with the smallest portion of companies that use outside support to manage the process. What does this 1% know that others don’t? Here are some of the benefits to this approach:

All of those benefits, and yet we see 99% of companies doing something different. This is a problem beyond a simple lack of honest participation in these programs-it can affect recruiting, productivity, and more.

Using Exit Interview Data Strategically

As mentioned previously, the key to a strategic approach is to look for opportunities to plug data back into the process as part of a feedback loop. This can come in a variety of options, including recruiting and re-recruiting, as well as talent management practices.

If people are leaving your organization and point out a benefit or two that you don’t highlight in your branding, that presents an opportunity. For example, if departing employees consistently talk about the employee social events and other unique perks, those items should be used in recruiting messages to target new employees.

An often overlooked but highly valuable use for exit data is in re-recruiting former employees. For those employees that left who are eligible for rehire, you can identify whether their reasons for leaving were preventable and if they’d consider returning. From here you can then have a strategic discussion and work to re-recruit the employee.

Another option is getting deeper talent insights and using those to target your best performers. If departing staff give you insights into what matters most and what they value, the overall trends in the data can point to better management practices, enhancing employee engagement and productivity.

As long as organizations continue to see exit interviews as a disparate administrative task instead of an integral part of the talent management cycle, the data will never improve outcomes or drive higher engagement for existing staff. As the Harvard Business Review article linked above mentioned:

Regardless of method, the effectiveness of an EI [Exit Interview] program should be measured by the positive change it generates. We asked the executives whose companies had programs to name a specific action taken as the result of an EI (a policy change or an intervention in HR, operations, marketing, or some other function). Fewer than a third could cite an example. Thus two-thirds of existing programs appear to be mostly talk with little productive follow-up. It’s not surprising that many people we spoke with believe that exit interviews have a negative return on investment.

Like any employment practice, companies should be looking for ways to improve existing processes through the data they gather. This was backed up in an interview I conducted with the Vice President of Research and Development at People Element, Alison Elsaesser, last year. She said, “Much of the consulting work [we do] applies understanding the reasons for leaving with turnover rates and then working with clients to prioritize based on their goals and initiatives. From the data, [we can] identify strengths, opportunities, and any quick wins.” Based on that and some of the benefits of using external support listed above, we can plainly see that companies leveraging vendor partner support in this HR process will be poised to reap greater benefits than those relying solely on a supervisor-managed version of the process.


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