From the horse’s mouth: how to uncover the real reason your people are leaving

7 August 2022

When someone decides to leave your workplace, you have two options. You could send them on their way with a few farewell beers, a friendly wave and mention nothing more about it. Or, you could use the opportunity to get some important information about their experience working for you and ultimately, what caused them to leave. In the HR world, this is known as an exit interview.

When done well, an exit interview can reveal a lot about what it’s really like to work at an organisation. Not just what your “values” poster says it’s like.

It can uncover crucial information about why people felt they needed to leave, and more importantly, what may have kept them happily employed.

But, an exit interview is not just a series of questions or a tick and flick exercise. There’s a skill to it.

Here are the ins and outs of an effective exit interview.

What is an exit interview?

Rather than give you a dry definition of an exit interview (a quick Google search will probably give you that), it might be more helpful to lay out what it’s not.

An exit interview isn’t:

  • a handover of outstanding tasks
  • a chance for you to grill your departing employee about why they left
  • a way to win employees back with bonuses or pay rises

In simple terms, an exit interview is a chance for employees to reflect on their time working at your organisation and share feedback to help create a better working environment for those still there.

You may not feel like you need to do an exit interview. After all, there’s no legal obligation in Australia to do one. But by not doing one, you’re giving up the chance to:

  • identify the real reasons staff are leaving
  • pinpoint trends and validate informal feedback
  • create a positive employee exit experience
  • proactively address areas for improvement
  • improve workforce retention

And when you consider the average cost of recruiting has skyrocketed from $10,000 per candidate to $23,000 in only a year, that last point becomes pretty compelling!

Exit interviews: The basics

If you’ve decided that an exit interview is something you need to think about for your organisation, there are a few things you need to know about how to do them well.

  • Who: Ideally, get someone who’s at arm’s length from the departing employee to run your exit interview. Involving line managers in exit interviews is not a great idea considering people often leave managers, not companies. Using an independent provider to run your exit interview can help remove the emotion and help departing employees feel safe to share honest feedback.
  • Where: Find a private room to hold your exit interview. Somewhere without a lot of passing foot traffic to limit distractions and help make a comfortable atmosphere. Alternatively, find somewhere off-site to do it – this can be a good option if you’re interviewing someone who has left.
  • When: If you’re doing your exit interviews while your team member is still employed, aim to do this in their final week. Some people may feel more comfortable doing an exit interview after they’ve left – if so, it’s a good idea to get this done within a month after their leaving date.
  • How: Always do an exit interview face-to-face, or if that’s not possible via a video call. It should never be done via a paper or online form – there’s little chance you’ll get the quality information you need.

Build trust early on

Successful exit interviews are built on trust. Without trust, you’re likely to get some generic, safe feedback. Not the honest information you need to start making positive changes in your organisation.

Here’s how you can build trust upfront:

  • Set expectations: Let people know in advance why you’re doing the exit interview, who will be doing it, and what questions you’ll cover. Make sure there are no surprises.
  • Address concerns: Let people know what will happen with their information – specifically who will be seeing it. If they think it’s going to get back to their manager, they may be less willing to share, especially if they’re relying on them for a reference for their next job.
  • Build rapport: Departing employees are likely coming into the interview on edge. Start with something unrelated to work such as the kids or the footy to put them at ease. Keep things relaxed and informal.

Topics to cover in your exit interview

Ideally, you’d do some quantitative feedback first in the form of a stay survey or employee engagement survey. You can then use this information to pinpoint areas to discuss further during the exit interview.

Try to use open-ended questions to encourage longer more detailed answers.

Reasons for leaving: uncover the main factors that prompted the person to leave. This could be as simple as asking the question “why did you leave?”

Recruitment and Onboarding: Dig into their initial experience with your organisation and find out whether their experience aligned with their expectations.

Work culture: Culture can be a hard thing to describe so ask them questions about how easy it was to share ideas or how willing their team was to assist when needed.

Leadership: We know people leave bosses, not employers so this is an important area to explore. Ask about the level of feedback and guidance they received, and how well they were recognised by their managers.

Purpose: This is all about finding out how well your departing employee understood their role and how it contributed to the success of the organisation. Was it clear what they were expected to do to achieve the required standard of performance?

Resources: Did they have the tools, technology and resources needed to perform their job well?

Pay and Benefits: Did they feel their pay and benefits were fair for the job performed?

Learning and Career Development: How satisfied were they with the learning, development and career progression opportunities?

Communication: Gain insights on both the communication they received from their immediate team and within the organisation more broadly.

Flexible work: Everyone has a different view of what flexibility means, so how well did their experience match with their definition of flexibility?

Improvements: Often the simplest questions can be the most valuable. Simply asking “If you could change one thing, what would you do?” can often provide some excellent ideas for improvement.

Don’t let crucial information walk out the door along with your departing employees. By incorporating exit interviews into your regular offboarding process, you’ll gain some incredible intel about your culture. As for what you do with that information, well, that’s another story.

If you’re looking for help managing your exit process, let’s chat. We can tailor an exit interview to your organisation, give you a report of the results, and provide actionable items to implement.

Get started: Book a free 30-minute consultation

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