How exit interviews can help you cure "revolving door syndrome"

11 November 2011 -


Ostensibly happy staff leaving without good reason? Unlikely. Get to the bottom of destablising departures by fixing your exit interview, says Nick Huber

People don’t leave jobs, they leave managers – so the old saying goes. People leave jobs for lots of reasons, of course: more money, greater responsibility, or a change of industry sector or profession, and in some such cases there is nothing the existing employer can do to keep them. But even where the real problem can be overcome, many HR teams fail to pinpoint it in time.

Many companies try to get to the bottom of why people leave their organisation by using exit interviews. A survey of HR leaders published in June found that that 86% track “employee engagement” and, of these, 71% measured employee engagement through exit interviews. The trouble is, they often don’t work very well.

Exit interviews are often undertaken by the employee’s line manager, so it’s no surprise that leaving employees often opt not to burn their bridges by revealing that they’re bored senseless by their job or dislike their manager. Indeed, many employees will play it safe and say they’re only leaving for a new challenge, or some similar platitude. These overly-positive accounts from leavers mean that HR departments can struggle to stem the tide of departures, and spend more time and money than necessary on recruitment. And when long-serving staff leave, organisations lose expertise and continuity.

It’s not just reticence from employees that is to blame. Employers often perpetuate staff turnover by being defensive or asking facile questions that are never in danger of garnering an honest – and therefore uncomfortable – response.

Some exit interviews don’t even ask the core question, i.e. why is the employee is leaving? says Jane Sunley, chief executive of Learnpurple, a consultancy which advises companies on recruitment, management and training.

“And it is all too easy for both parties to take entrenched positions,” says Professor Chris Rowley, professor of human resource management at Cass Business School. “There can be organisational insecurity and defensiveness, trying to avoid exposure to possible criticism as well as a ‘good riddance’ and a ‘no-one is indispensable’ mentality.”

If done well, though, exit interviews can give managers a useful insight into how their organisation is really seen by their employees. Comments from departing employees can be used to make improvements in all aspects of work, from processes and systems to management, resources and retention, rewards, career-development opportunities and culture.

Practical matters to consider include:

Who takes the exit interview?

Should it be the line managers or a specialist?

Would an external HR consultant be more effective?

And more impartial?

How should they be taken?

In person, by telephone or by post or email?

Where should they be done?

On- or off-site?

When should they be done?

During notice periods? On the employee’s final day? Or after they leave?

After those details are sorted, it’s important to be clear what the exit interview is supposed to achieve.

Huw Hilditch-Roberts, director of membership and business development at the Chartered Management Institute (CMI), says that exit interviews should enable a “transfer of knowledge” between a departing employee and their successor rather than a “moaning session”.

Hilditch-Roberts adds that managers should “listen rather than talk”; give interviewees enough time to answer; and explain that the interview is not about allocating blame, but rather about reflecting and understanding, analysing good and bad bits of a job and an organisation.

Barney Ely, director at Hays HR, the recruitment company, says: “There are also softer issues that need to be explored, such as organisational culture, career progression, internal communication and management style.”

Technology can also help improve the value of exit interviews, some experts believe. Sunley says online interviews are a “no brainer” because people are more honest when answering questions online than in a face-to-face interview. “Exit interviews are often done by line managers who are possibly part of the problem,” she says. “If you’re asked by your line manager how you rate your line manager you’re not going to say you think they’re rubbish.”

But no matter how candid employees are in exit interviews, they will only have a tangible effect if an organisation tracks the data and is prepared to make changes in response to feedback from employees.

Frost in translation

Why staff say they are leaving and what they really mean…

“I’m looking for new challenges”

(TRANS.) “Your job bores me to tears”

“I’m keen to work in a different field of work”

(TRANS.) “I can’t face going to another AGM in Watford and seeing another speaker try to bring his Power Point presentation to life with cringe-worthy jokes”

“After 10 years I think it’s time to move on”

(TRANS.) “You haven’t promoted me to senior management and I need a decent pay rise.”

“I’d like to work for a bigger company”
(TRANS.) “No one has ever heard of our company and I need a decent corporate name on my CV to restart my career”

“I want to have a career break”

(TRANS.) “My manager’s a bullying, control freak who has undermined me at every turn. I’m too exhausted to take you to an employment tribunal but need to get out now and think about doing something totally different.”

Five good questions to ask in an exit interview:

1. What are your reasons for leaving?

2. What could have been done early on to prevent you leaving?

3. What has been good/enjoyable/satisfying for you in your time with us?

4. What has been frustrating/difficult/upsetting to you in your time with us?

5. How could the organisation have enabled you to make fuller use of your capabilities and potential?

(Source: CMI)

Case study

How a company stemmed the tide of departures by fixing its exit interview

A major London firm was having a torrid time trying to hold on to staff in a key directorate. In the department in question, staff turnover had soared – for no apparent reason. When leaving employees were quizzed at exit interview, they gave benign reasons for leaving: they wanted a new challenge, the commute at the new employer was less onerous, or they just needed some time out.

The head of HR was not convinced. She ordered that the exit interview be torn up and rewritten by a specialist interviewer in a manner that it was almost impossible to give neutral responses. Out went closed questions like “Did you enjoy working for your line manager?”

In came brainteasers like “Describe an event in the workplace that made you unhappy.” The new, CIA-standard interview worked. Within a couple of departures HR had exposed a major bullying problem in the department. The bully was fired – and staff turnover rates rapidly returned to normal, settling the ship.

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