How Can Effective Exit Interviews Improve Workplaces?

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75% of companies conduct exit interviews with at least some of their employees, but in many cases, it has become more of a routine procedure than a genuine attempt to utilise findings to improve the company.

By changing just a few practices, companies may be able to improve their working environment, and therefore attract more employees and gain a better reputation. Many HR departments are too keen to ‘check the box’ where exit interviews are concerned. It’s an offboarding procedure that needs to be carried out, but just like a number of other well-meaning initiatives, it’s not always conducted in a way that benefits everyone.

What is an Exit Interview?

An exit interview is an interview carried out with departing employees, either when they have been made redundant, or when they are moving on of their own accord.

The two are conducted differently; interviews with those who the company itself is dropping tend to be more about giving closure and an explanation for the decision. Those done with employees choosing to leave are more helpful in gaining information on their reasons for leaving, listening to complaints and what they think the company could change. We will primarily focus on the latter in this interview, and look at the benefits of using exit interview analysis effectively.

The idea behind these exit interviews is to implement the data gathered from departing employees through analysis and create change within the workplace. However, while the majority of companies do use exit interviews as part of their procedure, it often happens that they’re just not done to the standard they should be.

Why do Some Companies Neglect Proper Exit Interview Practice?

Time Consuming

Exit interview processes are time-consuming. Why focus on past employees when there’s always so much to do regarding the current workforce and the company? Interviews can take upto ninety minutes if they’re conducted face to face. HR usually has got plenty of tasks to prioritize before adding ‘interview a past employee’ to the list. This is why sometimes HR neglect to use the Exit Interview feedback efficiently. 

Confusing Results

Results can also be confounding. Some employees are reluctant to be completely honest in their Exit Interview feedback for fear that they may jeopardize their chances of getting a decent reference needed for future job applications. Others may not have left on amicable terms and so will be more scathing of the company than they need to be. Then there are those who feel uncomfortable giving negative feedback, especially in the case that the interviewer has worked closely with the interviewee. We’ll talk about who should conduct the interviews further on, but in all of these cases, it is hard to know where the truth really lies. It is often therefore hard to utilise the employee responses in a way that genuinely benefits the company and members of staff and the exit interviews can be a waste of time.

Paperwork and More Paperwork

Provocative or serious complaints also have to be documented by the employer, and therefore create time-consuming and annoying paperwork which they would rather avoid. Because of this, employees with the most to say are sometimes not given the chance to give their feedback, and it’s just those with only good things to say who gets a word in.

Sometimes, companies will outsource a third-party interviewer which can be costly, but this is the least common option, and to reduce costs it can be done by an existing member of staff. 

Unwilling to Change

There’s also the drawback that certain companies may be unwilling to admit to the mistakes that they have made, and would prefer to brush them under the carpet rather than bring them to light, risking criticism to themselves. If a conflict has occurred in the workplace, it can sometimes happen that those in high power are able to shut down any bad press (so to speak) and ignore the issues. It has to be said though, that if you’re in a company that’s behaving like this, they’re probably not too concerned about employee wellbeing anyway, so you’re unlikely to get far with any sort of complaints. Smaller companies have been found to neglect doing interviews as they believe they know their staff well enough to understand their reasons for leaving. However, in doing this, they often overlook other complaints or criticisms these employees may have of the company and remain short-sighted in their views.

Ticking the Task but no Takeaways

It’s not always necessarily the case that exit interviews aren’t carried out, or completely neglected, but not utilised correctly. A number of companies do carry out the Exit Interview process through their HR team, however, results are often only handed over to management when asked to, meaning that potentially vital interviewees’ responses are left untouched and practices inevitably stay the same. It would appear that very few collect, analyze, and share information and actually take follow-up action from it. Without doing all of these, however, conducting exit interviews is essentially a waste of time. 

Benefits of Conducting Exit Interviews

While they might be time-consuming and sometimes a hassle, there’s a range of benefits that a company can gain from making exit interviews part of their regular practice. 

Many exit interviews are done with employees who have chosen to leave a company, and therefore it is likely that there are either reasons within the company that have led to their decision to leave, added benefits from the company they’re moving to, or potentially both. 

Actionable Insights from Exit Interviews

Honest Actionable Insights

When departing employees are honest in their interviews, they can give genuine feedback about their experience in the company, which can then be implemented into changing things for the better in the future. Patterns in employee answers can also help to identify issues that are affecting a large number of people in the workplace. In the case that they have decided to leave because they were unhappy with their current working environment. It may be that there are others in a similar position who are also less than content in their job. For example, if four employees with the same manager said that they did not receive adequate leadership and direction which made their work hard, it is essential to then look at the role of that manager, and assess whether they are working efficiently and well. Potentially changing their role and employing a new manager would create a more efficient working environment, better communication and a happier workforce. In fact, SHRM claims that it is not uncommon for employees to give similar reasons for their departure, and in a number of cases, there can be up to 90% overlap. Efficiently conducting interviews and using the data from them can lead to better retention. If a company is able to improve their working environment for other employees, they will be less likely to leave the company. 

If employees have decided to leave, they can also give information about the reasons they chose a different company to work at – it may be that their new salary for a similar job is much higher, or there are better and more perks to the job. In this case, management can look at assessing salaries or opportunities within the company; potentially some people are due a raise or promotion that they haven’t received, and are getting restless, which could lead to them changing companies.

Exit Interviews with Terminated Employees

Even if employees haven’t decided to leave on their own terms – they may have been made redundant or dismissed from their job if the company has reduced certain departments – interviewing them can still be useful. They may have complaints relating to the process in which they were made redundant; there may have been mistakes made or a lack of communication between management and the employer, or they may have felt neglected. In this case, talking to the former employee and finding this information out, while it may be an uncomfortable experience, would enable the company to handle a similar situation better in the future by implementing different processes. It is important to note, however, that the interviewee should not be put on the spot or pressured to answer. Employee exit interviews should be about having the opportunity to speak up if they feel they want or need to, but if they are unwilling, it can’t be forced. Doing an interview with an employee in the case of redundancy can also help to reduce legal issues and make sure that all loose ends are tied up, in order to avoid problems. Plus, these employees may still have relevant information about their work environment while they were employed which can still be used to improve the company. 

Benefits for Employees

There are also benefits for the employee. They get the chance to ask exit interview questions if they’ve been asked to leave or made redundant. It provides closure for them and enables them to understand what has happened. If employees leave on good terms, they may still be likely to give a positive review of the company for the way HR handled things, which they’re unlikely to do if they’re made redundant with little explanation or ability to talk it through.

Improvement of Brand Reputation

Improving a working environment is an obvious benefit for a number of reasons. Not only does it improve employee retention and obtention, but it also means management teams can get to know their employees better and gain respect. Authority figures in the workplace can be resented by employees, however, if they take an interest in the wellbeing of their workers and work to improve their experience, they’re guaranteed to be well thought of and well-liked. There’s no better way to gain respect than being likeable and humanitarian. Getting to know employees better also creates a better rapport between them, and helps management to keep making changes and keeping them happy, which in turn increases productivity and the likelihood that an employee will recommend a company to others. 

When a company gains a reputation as being more attentive and caring towards their employees, they’ll be seen as a desirable place to work, which will therefore lead to being a desirable company. Being open to criticism and dedicated to making changes can also mean that other employees who otherwise would have left, will be willing to stay and give their feedback while they continue in their position, in the hope that it will make a change for the better. 

Who Should Conduct Exit Interviews?

There’s a fair amount of debate around who should conduct the interview when it comes to it. Over 70% of companies use someone from their HR department to carry it out, whereas others use line managers or someone closer to the departing employee. A few sources an interviewer externally, however, this is usually for a follow-up interview a few months after departure. 

As mentioned previously, using someone in the HR department to carry out these interviews can mean that relevant information isn’t always passed on to the necessary people, and there can be a lack of communication if management doesn’t follow up on getting the results and then using them efficiently. It’s also a less personable experience; if the employee has never worked with the person they are being interviewed by they may feel more uncomfortable and less likely to be able to explain themselves fully when talking about certain situations or people. A direct manager might understand more what they are talking about as they know the people and the general environment they have worked in and with. 

However, using someone closer to the departing employee, especially if there is a close relationship with them or with other employees, can mean they are less likely, to be honest about uncomfortable situations or negative experiences. This is also true if there is not a good relationship between the interviewer and interviewee, especially if the behaviours or actions of the person interviewing happen to be reasons for departing. The interviewee may be uncomfortable and not want to fully cooperate, and in this case, it may be better to use someone more removed from the departing employee to get honest answers. An interviewer can also hold a bias in these instances – if they have had a bad relationship, they may be unwilling to share negative feedback about themselves with higher up management and can jeopardize the process. 

Spain and Groysberg, writing for the Harvard Business Review, argue that exit interviews should be conducted by second or third-line managers, as these are the people who are most likely to utilise the information they gather in order to make significant change within the company. Second and third-line managers are also more likely to receive more honest feedback than a first-line manager would, as they are further removed from the employee, and therefore the responses don’t seem so personal and show less bias because of their less close relationship with the interviewee.

External consultants are obviously the least likely to be biased, as they have no relationship with the departing employee and are removed from the situation entirely. They are also therefore more likely to elicit honest answers from the employee as they may feel less likely to directly offend someone if they are talking to someone external. However, an external interviewer should only really be used in a follow-up interview, and not in the first instance; that should still be someone within the company itself. This is best for making sure the information is utilised properly and given to the right people in order to encourage change within the company. Using an external interviewer in a follow-up interview can consolidate previously given answers and potentially get more information from them as well. 

Face to Face Exit Interviews

Face to Face or Mail-in Exit Interviews?

While the majority of exit interviews are held face to face, and this is widely regarded as the best way of doing them, they may also be done by survey or questionnaire via email. There are pros and cons to both of these methods, which we will explore briefly. 

Most people would argue that face-to-face interviews are better in the vast majority of cases. In-person interviews are more personable: the interviewer is able to talk freely to the interviewee and can ask guided questions based off of previous answers. They are also more detailed and more likely to get a longer response than a questionnaire or survey would get, especially as the interviewer should be experienced in probing for further information. This means they can ask for further information about certain aspects of their responses or ask for an explanation. However, they can be time-consuming, costly, and require somebody to take up an hour or more of their time to conduct them. In large companies, it’s often not viable to have every employer take part in a face-to-face exit interview, which is why many companies focus on long-timers and either don’t interview newer or less experienced employees or send them surveys. Some employees may be unlikely to give negative answers about the company as they can often feel awkward, especially if the interviewer is someone they worked closely with.

Mail-in exit interview methods such as surveys or online forms are not impractical, however. They do mean that the candidate’s response is more likely to be more honest about the negative aspects of their time at the company, especially if they are anonymous as it’s a more comfortable way of giving awkward feedback. They’re also much quicker and simpler to do – they don’t require a lot of effort or time in most cases and can be done anywhere at any time, unlike face to face interviews which require travel and appointments. However, they obviously have their downfalls. Because they’re more casual, they may be overlooked and not completed, meaning the information is never collected. There’s also not much of a chance to follow up on answers that have been given if more information is wanted, especially if the survey is anonymous. 

Should Exit Interviews be Done With Everyone?

In short, exit interviews and proper analysis of data received from these interviews are useful for a number of reasons. They help keep employees happy and maintain a good relationship with management, as well as work towards improving productivity.

However, many companies choose to focus solely on high potential employees when doing exit interviews, as they believe that focusing on those who bring in the most money for a company is the best way forward, and it’s obvious to see why. Certain studies have shown that these companies, generally, had the most progressive programmes. This is not to say however that employees that are viewed as less ‘important’ to a company should be neglected. It is essential to make sure that all employees are happy, as this will lead to a better environment and company all around, and benefit everyone. 

If face-to-face exit interviews can’t be done with everyone, then at least surveys or questionnaires should be carried out and should be sufficiently analysed in order to pick up on trends among those leaving the company. This can allow management to identify areas in which they can improve from relationship with staff to the general public and customers, and implement changes that will keep the business running smoothly.