Six simple steps to conduct a better exit interview

6 steps to improve your exit interviews

They say feedback is the breakfast of champions. But getting and actioning useful feedback from employees or volunteers isn’t always easy.

That’s why whether you’re in HR or managing a team, welcoming honest feedback when employees or volunteers leave your organisation can be a great way to improve your leadership practices and/or your organisation’s processes, and as a result reduce turnover in your NFP.

One way to do this is the often over-looked, sometimes criticised, exit interview.

Exit interviews can be challenging for everyone involved, and some organisations choose not to use them. It’s important to note that there is currently no substantial evidence that using exit interviews directly reduces turnover.

But if the right feedback is collected – and crucially, if that data is shared with the managers or senior leaders who can then act on it – then they can be powerful tools that provide a variety of benefits for NFPs, including:

  • Providing data to feed into coaching managers
  • Helping to improve your processes by revealing what’s working and what isn’t working inside your team or organisation;
  • Clarifying what’s really important to your employees, especially when they have received an offer from a similar or competing organisation;
  • Fostering engagement and improving retention by signalling to employees that their views matter; and
  • Allowing departing employees to feel heard, and helping to turn them into advocates for your organisation.

So if your organisation has been neglecting to do exit interviews – or if you’d just like to improve the way you do them – here are six steps to help do them well:

1) Choose an interviewer

The first – and perhaps most important – thing to do is choose an interviewer for your exit interview.

Most organisations use an HR person to conduct exit interviews – in one survey, 70.9% of employers used their HR department handle the process; 19% had the departing employees’ direct manager do it; 8.9% used the direct manager’s manager; and 1% used an external consultant.

Having the direct manager do an exit interview can be less effective though, since if the employee’s reason for leaving is due to the manager’s style or effectiveness, the employee might be hesitant to open about this when speaking directly with them.

2) Prepare

If you’re the person doing the interview, taking the time to prepare is essential.

Before conducting the interview, review the employee’s position description, their KPIs, their resignation letter as well as anything else from their work performance history that might be relevant, for example performance reviews (if available to you).

If you aren’t the employee’s direct manager, call their manager to see if they have anything to add that may not be on file.

Like a job interview, use this information to formulate some specific questions for the outgoing employee. Unlike a job interview, make sure the questions are broad and open ended enough that the interviewee can bring up issues and concerns that you might not have thought of.

And make sure there aren’t too many questions, so the interviewee doesn’t feel rushed in answering.

3) Keep it professional

Regardless of why someone may be leaving your organisation, they may not feel comfortable in telling you the whole truth – no one wants to burn bridges on their way out.

If an employee is leaving under difficult circumstances, it can be especially challenging to remain professional. At these times it’s likely that an outgoing employee will be critical of the organisation, and a natural reaction to criticism is to be defensive.

Resist the temptation to be defensive and use these simple techniques to keep the interview on track:

  • Stick to prepared, specific, questions;
  • Don’t try to respond to complaints or get drawn into debates – just listen;
  • If you need more information, ask for it, but don’t dwell on specifics if it’s not getting you anywhere;
  • If it’s appropriate, invite a second person sit in on the interview with you to give a different perspective on the employee’s feedback, and to give you someone to debrief with afterwards;
  • If it’s appropriate, offer the employee the option to bring a support person to sit in with them.

4) Listen

The golden rule of any interview is to listen much more than you talk. This is even more important in an exit interview.

If an employee is leaving under difficult circumstances, it’s important to give them the uninterrupted space to voice their concerns about the organisation, even if you completely disagree or think that what they’re saying is unfair to the organisation or their manager.

If it’s not clear why the employee is leaving, it’s possible they aren’t going to pinpoint exactly which reason or set of circumstances has resulted in their resignation. This means you need to have your best listening ears on so that you can identify when the interviewee might be holding back, and gently draw out useful information from them.

Here are some simple tips for active listening;

  • Spend more time listening than you do talking;
  • Don’t try to fill the silence – give the interviewee time to think about what they want to say before answering;
  • Stay neutral – including your words, your body language and your facial expressions;
  • Start general, and then get specific – ask a broad open-ended question first and then listen to their answer before deciding if you need more information;
  • Validate what the person is telling you – for example “That sounds like a difficult experience for you”;
  • Reflect what the other person has said to ensure you understand what they’re saying – for example: “So the key issue for you was…”;
  • Never interrupt;
  • Don’t push too hard – if you keep probing for more information when it’s clear that the employee doesn’t want to divulge anything further, you risk them shutting down the lines of communication altogether. Listen for cues that an employee is uncomfortable with the questioning, and if you aren’t getting anywhere, move on; and
  • Don’t try to respond to accusations – even if you disagree with what’s been said, you’re not going to convince the person that they’re wrong.

5) Provide more than one way to give feedback

A face-to-face exit interview has some benefits over a written survey: it offers an opportunity to dig down into issues to understand them better, and it shows that you genuinely care about the outgoing employee or volunteer’s opinion, as you are willing to give up time to listen to them.

However, not everyone is willing to sit down face-to-face (whether in person or via video). Some other options for an exit interview in these circumstances might include an online survey, email or a more informal chat over the phone.

6) Reflect and take action

This is the most important part of the whole process. However you decide to conduct your exit interview, remember that the information you learn is only useful if it leads to learning or change.

Before you do anything though, spend some time reflecting on and classifying the feedback you’ve been given:

  • Which parts are constructive and useful?
  • How much of it is the employee or volunteer simply not being the right fit for the role or your organisation?
  • Is anything confidential or sensitive, especially feedback about the employee’s boss?
  • What feedback is useful to make short-term changes – for example, a recommendation on salary or conditions for the role, improved training or a change to your onboarding practices?
  • What are the longer-term lessons that could be raised with the employee’s manager or more senior leaders?

Finally, it’s time to take action. This could mean a number of things, depending on what your own position in your organisation is, including;

  • Decide who should receive the relevant data – including the person’s manager, senior management, or those responsible for recruitment or onboarding processes. This decision may need to be made by your organisation’s senior leadership, since the data can be sensitive, and anything confidential or sensitive should not be shared with the wrong people;
  • Make a list of actions can you take or recommend yourself;
  • Consider how the feedback can be used to feed into longer-term strategic changes to management, HR or volunteer management practises or processes; and finally
  • Reflect on what lessons can you learn to improve your future exit interviews.

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