Using information gleaned from exit interviews can be a data analysis challenge. As more people than ever are losing their jobs due to COVID-19, does this indicate a wealth of data that should be mined?
When Dr Robyn Johns reconnected with individuals with whom she’d conducted exit interviews with several months earlier, their feedback revealed some of the major flaws of exit interviews.
“I’d interviewed employees immediately after they’d left an organisation,” says Johns, a senior lecturer in HR management and industrial relations in the UTS Department of Management.
“Three to six months later, I went back to talk to them about what they’d said. Most of them told me they hadn’t said what they were really feeling,” she says.
Why not? Because they didn’t want to say anything that might hurt or harm the colleagues they were leaving behind, they told her. Also, they hadn’t had time to detach from the organisation, so they didn’t have the benefit of clarity offered by time and distance. Finally, they weren’t feeling the safety and security that six months in a new job brings.
Exit interviews, for most businesses, are a riddle wrapped in an enigma. They seem so simple and powerful, yet the reality is that they require deep management and strict, highly consistent processes to be of any use.
Johns first became interested in the effectiveness of exit interviews when she realised the data from most interviews were stored in the ex-employee’s file, which was then archived. HR professionals at the time simply didn’t understand what was required to effect positive change.
The proper management of exit interviews is increasingly important in our current environment, if employers are going to make use of the richness of data that could come from history’s biggest workforce exodus.
First, however, it’s important to figure out whether exit interviews are useful, or even feasible, when such a large chunk of the workforce is leaving and businesses are, at the same time, having to pivot dramatically.
Gaining honest feedback
Bridget Hogg CAHRI, principal consultant at HR Development at Work, believes exit interviews should be conducted with staff during the current crisis. However, she agrees they must be managed well to have the desired, positive effect.
“It is a good idea to conduct exit interviews at any time because they offer a great chance to find out why people leave, what people loved about working for your organisation and what surprised them,” says Hogg.
Those final two pieces of information – the positive ones – are just as valuable as the negatives, she says.
“Currently, although what they say may be partly influenced by COVID, you will still find out what attracted them to the organisation and the role, including what they expected, what was better than they expected and what disappointed or discouraged them,” she says. “This, of course, is assuming you get the right person to ask the right questions.”
The two most crucial factors, Hogg believes, are:
- Who conducts the exit interview – i.e. if a person is leaving because of their manager’s poor leadership style, it’s pointless asking their line manager to conduct the exit interview.
- What they believe will happen with the information – i.e. will it affect the leaver’s reference negatively? Will it be filed and never looked at? Will senior managers take the information into account and make improvements?
“Exit interviews are most valuable when conducted by a trusted person,” says Hogg. “In my experience, that’s usually an independent, external person, but in some organisations, it could be someone from HR.
“The key thing is that the interviewee trusts that any sensitive information they provide will be handled appropriately. For example, if they are leaving due to their manager, they will want to know the interview is going to remain confidential and won’t be reported to the manager, who is probably the one they are relying on for a reference.”
Importantly in the current climate, exit interviews are most effective when a number of interviews can be conducted over a short period. This is exactly the opportunity many organisations face today.
In this case, “results can be anonymised and collated into key themes before reporting back to the organisation,” says Hogg. “Senior managers must make it clear they are keen to see the results and will commit to reviewing the information and making improvements.”
An even balance of power
Performance psychologist Gavin Freeman, director of The Business Olympian, says one benefit of conducting exit interviews during the COVID crisis is the fact there is a more even balance of power between the organisation and the individual.
In a typical leaving situation, one has greater power than the other. If the individual has resigned to go to a better-paid job with a competitor, they hold the power. If the business has asked the individual to leave, the business has greater power.
“In the case of COVID, it’s likely that the individual is not leaving due to performance- based issues and is not going to a new job,” says Freeman.
“They’re simply leaving due to an awful situation. The organisation potentially doesn’t want them to go and the individual doesn’t want to go.
“Because there’s that shared experience, there is the potential to get deeper insights. They’re more likely to be parting on good terms, and maybe even with the hope of a return,” he says.
“Leaving a job under any circumstance can be very stressful and emotional, and during a pandemic, that stress is only going to increase.”
While Johns agrees there’s value to conducting exit interviews, her experience with the changing feedback from those who’d been the subject of exit interviews just six months earlier convinces her to recommend a slightly different approach.
“First, we need to consider each individual situation,” she says. “Are we talking about a voluntary or involuntary separation? If somebody has been made redundant, how has that process been handled? Maybe if you wait until a few months down the track, when they’ve had some time to digest what has happened, and why, you’ll receive more useful feedback. Leaving a job under any circumstance can be very stressful and emotional, and during a pandemic, that stress is only going to increase.”
Guidance for a fresh start
If the business is having to shift focus for its own survival at the same time as shedding head count, what information can be gathered from leavers to assist with that pivot?
“If a business is pivoting then I would expect a change in products, services or size would be the result,” says Hogg. “Whatever you discover in exit interviews will help you attract and retain future employees and assess if there is any key message you need to communicate to enhance employee retention.”
Hogg gives the example of a manufacturing company that has just begun producing face masks during the pandemic.
“If their previous exit interviews revealed people left because of higher pay elsewhere, or poor leadership skills, then those results would still be relevant and would need addressing.
“If exit interviews revealed people were leaving due to seeking work that ‘made a difference’, then this manufacturing company might decide to communicate more strongly to attract and retain employees based on the fact their work is making a difference to the health and wellbeing of the nation,” says Hogg.
Whatever the results, a business conducting exit interviews during the COVID-19 crisis should be able to use the information to guide its attraction and retention plan, and to adjust its workforce planning and recruitment processes, she says.
In the end, Johns believes, the success and effectiveness of exit interviews very much reflects the skills and know-how of the HR manager. It shows how well they’ve been trained and how empowered they feel.
The results themselves reflect important issues, both positive and negative, within the organisation – issues that it pays to identify.
“Overall, it’s key to conduct them on an ongoing basis so you can make comparisons across time,” says Hogg.
“It’s vital they are conducted by a trusted person, and it’s essential to have senior managers listen to the results and commit to considering how to make improvements. Employees must see consistency in process and consistency in visible results. That’s when you know it’s working.”