Top 10 exit interview mistakes

I was recently invited to give a lecture on exit interviews as part of the University of NSW Master of Psychology (Organisational) program. This is the first of a series of short blogs where I’m sharing some of the content from that lecture.

This blog focuses on exit interviews that are being implemented as a company-wide initiative, not just on an individual-by-individual basis. Although most HR professionals have experience conducting individual exit interviews with key personnel, often they have less experience designing a process that could be easily replicated and applied across their entire organisation. This blog will assist anyone that is tasked with designing and implementing such a process by helping them avoid some of the most common mistakes that we have encountered at HC (in no particular order):

1. Administering the survey yourself

There are a couple of main issues with an organisation administering an exit interview themselves. The first problem is that, irrespective of the company representative that conducts the interview (or sends it in the case of an online process), respondents are less likely to participate honestly. Like it or not, there are a proportion of employees that will always see Human Resources as just another member of the management team and if you’re feeling a little disenfranchised with that group, then guess what impact this will have on the employee’s responses?!

It is best to assume that most employees are smart enough to know that its best to leave an organisation on good terms. So when you conduct an exit interview with them as a company representative, they are probably going to be a little guarded with their responses. Should an employee’s manager ask them why they are leaving when they hand in their resignation? Of course. However, should they also be the person that asks them what they thought of their own management style, their colleagues and the company’s general approach? Almost definitely no!

2. Failure to consider privacy implications

Almost every company that we conduct exit interviews for has slightly different requirements when it comes to privacy statements. Some companies prefer an “opt-in” approach. They assume that most employees are happy to be identified and want people to know what they thought of the company. Other companies assume that outgoing employees would prefer a guarantee of confidentiality (as a default) then be given a choice about whether to provide their contact details once they have already completed the survey.

Although it is always very hard to measure how honest someone is being in an exit interview, one of our earliest studies did investigate the impact of privacy statements on honesty. In our study, we chose a client that required employee’s to nominate whether or not they wanted to be identified at the beginning of the survey (prior to the employee answering any questions). What we found was that those employees who chose to remain anonymous, far from being more confident and honest, were actually much more likely to select “Unsure” or “Neutral” response options than others. A poorly construed privacy statement clearly has a big impact on whether or not employees will trust your process. This will then also have a material impact on the responses that you will get from your exit interview.

3. Discounting the use of online strategies

It is easy to identify the downsides with conducting exit interviews online: the process seems less personal; there is less opportunity to probe responses in detail; not all employees have access to the internet; and if the process is so important then shouldn’t a company representative be involved from a symbolic perspective?

All of these points are valid (plus there are a few additional challenges that we haven’t listed here). However, the fact is that there are also a range of upsides to using online exit interviews:

–  cost effectiveness and scalability often mean that “all” employees can be
invited to participate when otherwise they might not have been
–  accessibility for a large proportion of employees
–  ability for employees to complete the process from home (if they are more
comfortable doing so)
–  ability to insert automatic probing (depending on response patterns)
–  data is collected in a standardised format and can be analysed very quickly
–  online systems can be utilised to complement a face-to-face or
telephone-based approach (in order to get the best of both worlds)

4. Failure to design the questions in a way that results can be easily analysed

For key employees that leave under unique circumstances, often managers will be interested in reviewing an entire transcript of an exit interviews. However, exit interviews are at their most powerful when trends can be identified at a company-wide level. In order to identify company-wide trends, not only should an exit interview be designed with a mix of qualitative and quantitative questions, but sufficient demographic questions should also be included to enable data to be sliced and diced at a later date. By including a significant number of demographic questions in an exit interview, data can then be analysed at a later of date (often to investigate issues that were unforeseen at the time the survey was designed.

5. Failure to design an efficient way to capture the data

Gradually accumulating piles of interview transcripts in a filing cabinet or storage room is not a data capture strategy! This is where an online system can be a powerful addition to face-to-face or telephone-based systems. By having an exit interview hosted online, not only does your company have an alternative administration method available, but you also have a tailor-made data capture system. This ensures that any data collected in a face-to-face format is then translated into a standardised format for analysis later on.

6. Over-utilisation of content analysis

Any well designed exit interview should include a combination of open-ended qualitative questions and fixed-response quantitative questions. Whereas quantitative questions can be the perfect way to demonstrate trends in an irrefutable way, often some issues need to be investigated in a qualitative fashion. Although verbatim comments can be relatively easily categorised and analysed via a process called “content analysis”, sometimes the most powerful way to demonstrate an issue is by sharing a word-for-word quote from an employee. Getting the balance right when interpreting qualitative data, is a critical aspect of communicating exit interview results in a compelling way.

7. Not utilising external or internal benchmarks

So how do you interpret your first quarterly exit interview results? Although some trends speak for themselves, sometimes you can only interpret exit interview results in the context of robust benchmarks. This is where utilising an external exit interview provider can be most useful. A provider that specialises in exit interviews should not only have robust external benchmarks available, but they will also be constantly segmenting those benchmarks and developing more relevant demographic, occupational or industry-based benchmarks for future use.

It is also important to benchmark your data internally. Some issues are best monitored on a month-to-month basis, whereas others should be compared on a seasonally-adjusted basis. In addition, it will almost always be important to be able to compare the results of various departments, states or occupational groups. Unless your exit interview is designed with internal benchmarking in mind, it will be difficult, if not impossible to achieve when you are ready to perform these analyses down the track.

8. Not considering sampling bias

As simple as this may seem, many HR professionals do not consider the sampling bias that they are creating by designing their exit interviews in a particular way. For instance, by utilising a purely online system, can all employees access the system? By relying on manager invitations are you increasing the chance that only “happy” employees will be asked to participate in the process?

9. Failure to utilise historical data

Even if your past exit interview process was ill-conceived or poorly designed, it is a mistake to discount the data collected during that process. If you engage HC, or an alternative reputable provider, we will always be willing to analyse this data in a cost effective way. Not only can historical data provide a great baseline for comparative purposes, it can also be the most valuable input the design of your new process.

10. Lost opportunity to ask specific questions about recent initiatives

Most questions should remain in an exit interview over a period of time in order to monitor trends (and measure the ROI of retention initiatives). However, an exit interview is also a valuable opportunity to to ask specific questions about recent initiatives or the company strategy. Most reputable exit interview providers will not only enable you to introduce unique, company-specific questions but to change them over time as your strategy evolves.

Introducing an exit interview process should not be something to be feared. However, as with any initiative, it is difficult to get it right first time unless you have travelled that road before. If you are looking for the right organisation to help steer you through the implementation of an exit interview process, then the team at HC would love to talk to you!

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