Effective Offboarding and Exit interviews

Unwanted attrition generally results from employee job dissatisfaction, not feeling valued, poor management/leadership practices, a lack of career opportunities and to a lesser extent a lack of competitiveness in regard to remuneration.  Providing an engaging employment proposition requires ongoing attention and commitment on the behalf of leadership, and despite this it is inevitable that key talent will leave the organisation from time to time.

It is not the role of exit interviews to prevent an individual from leaving or managing the risk of lost knowledge after they have resigned – these objectives must be managed in advance as part of the organisation’s broader employee engagement strategy.  Instead, it could be considered that the process should enable the organisation to gain insights to help retain talent in the future, prevent bad hires, improve leadership practices, and ultimately drive better organisational performance.  There are several standard themes typically covered by the exit interview process;

  • Understanding why individuals chose to leave
  • Seeking feedback about the role, manager and team, pay and conditions, the working environment, development opportunities
  • Seeking feedback about the organisation’s culture more generally

Besides generating insights that can support future organisational development there are also some related benefits that should be captured, including;

  • Ensuring people leave on good terms and help to ensure advocacy post-employment
  • Ensuring employees understand any offboarding processes and obligations (e.g. equipment returns)
  • Providing an opportunity for the individual to ask any questions or clarify any post-employment matters

Whilst standard practice is typically to interview all employees as they exit the organisation, some organisations will attempt only to interview professional employees, executives, or high potential talent where it is considered that their insights will be of greatest value in regard to developing future attraction and retention strategies (as these employees are more costly and challenging to replace and tend to have greater insight into both the current and prospective employers).  For this reason, best practice suggests making exit interviews mandatory for at least these groups of employees.

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Method of Delivery

It is generally agreed that a face-to-face interview is the best way to generate meaningful, contextualised information and feedback, though studies have shown that telephone interviewing may elicit greater honesty on the part of the departing employee.  This is balanced however by the additional time required to conduct the interview and prepare/summarise the outcomes.  For this reason, many consider the use of online surveys as a ‘lower touch’ option.  Online surveys can also offer an opportunity for employees to provide their feedback anonymously (assuming the organisation is big enough) though this must be balanced by the need to ensure any feedback can be followed up in context subject to the objectives of the process.  If the program calls for more than one interview, varied approaches can help elicit candid responses and test for consistency.  We believe that telephone interviews and web surveys are typically best used as complements to face-to-face interviews, and that at least one in-person interview is essential to promote long-term ambassadorship.

Timing of Delivery

Typically exit interviews are conducted during the last week of an employee’s tenure, however, there is a clear risk that the individual has disengaged at this stage and may not be inclined to engage in a meaningful conversation or provide considered open and honest feedback.  It has been suggested that a more effective time to conduct the interview/survey is around halfway between the resignation and the actual departure.  As a further alternative, some organisations elect to conduct the exit interview process after the employee has left the organisation when it is considered that the individual will be more relaxed and open to providing constructive feedback.

When dealing with high-potential and/or subject matter experts, it can be advantageous to conduct two interviews (before and after departure) to elicit as much information as possible – studies have shown that up to 60% of employees give different reasons for leaving when interviewed before and after leaving their organisations.  Similarly, it has been shown that many employees who had initially failed to cite causes for leaving mentioned specific reasons on the questionnaire.  If taking the before and after departure approach, it is suggested that somewhere between three to six months between the initial interview and a follow-up is optimal.

Interview and Questionnaire Structure

Whilst an unstructured discussion facilitated by a skilled interviewer can help gain the most meaningful insights, it makes consolidating the information more difficult and likely requires thematic analysis to identify trends over time.  On the other hand, standardised interview questions or the use of an online questionnaire make it considerably easier to identify trends – though it is unlikely that unexpected insights will be generated.  The standardised approach can also be perceived by employees as a ‘tick box’ exercise if there is no opportunity to provide their own feedback or ideas.  Clearly then it is likely to be most effective to combine the two approaches to generate a combination of standardised and non-standardised feedback.  If you intend for your leaders to conduct exit interviews internally it can prove valuable to ensure they are well equipped to prepare for and manage these crucial conversations, which can also be beneficially in regard to their day to day employee engagement performance.

Positioning and Content

It’s important to ensure that the purpose and objectives of your exit interview process are clearly stated upfront to provide clarity for the individual and enable them to consider their feedback in context.  It is also beneficial to assure the respondent that their feedback will be treated confidentially and will not be directly shared with their manager without their approval.  For example, in order to encourage open and honest feedback, it may be helpful to clarify that the information provided will not affect any reference that the individual may seek in the future.

General Considerations

  • Best practice suggests starting the process by thanking the employee for their contribution to the organisation to set a positive tone
  • Open questions about the employee’s feelings towards their role, and how it might be improved in the future, can then ensure that the individual leads the conversation rather than the interviewer
  • It can be beneficial to ask how the individual perceives their colleague’s feelings towards their roles to encourage candour if the individual appears reticent to share their opinions
  • After discussing the role and organisation it can then help to ensure a positive feeling by shifting the focus to their new role which can also potentially provide some insight that can be used for informal benchmarking

Interviewer Selection

  • Whilst direct line managers are most typically tasked with conducting exit interviews, research has shown that second-line managers (direct supervisors’ managers) can often receive more open feedback.
  • Utilising the second-line manger can signal to the employee that the organisation takes the process seriously and is genuine about wanting to provide an opportunity for feedback.
  • If there is to also be a post-departure interview, it can be helpful if the interviewer is further removed from the line management chain – many organisations will use the services of a third party in these situations

Manner and Style of Delivery

  • Seek to frame questions positively and constructively.
  • Be patient, friendly and avoid displays of authority.
  • Consider the personal preferences and style of the employee in question with a view to approaching the discussion in a way that puts them at ease.
  • Practice active listening and aim simply to prompt the interviewee or ensure important topics are raised.
  • Use open-ended questions and avoid trying to solve problems that are raised, the focus should be on collating the feedback and suggestions from the employee for consideration later on.
  • Allow the employee to vent. Don’t draw it out. Don’t second-guess management. Again, training is critical, given the emotional nature of most resignations

Employee Choice

  • Particularly in the case of mandatory interviews it can be very beneficial to provide a degree of choice to departing employees for example in regard to selecting an interviewer and choosing the setting/location as well as perhaps choosing the method (e.g. interview vs survey).
  • By enabling employees to participate on their own terms it is felt that the process can generate better insights as well as aiding in ensuring a positive departure process and potentially stronger employee advocacy post departure.
  • Such an approach could also provide an opportunity for high potential/high performing/emerging leaders to be part of a panel of potential interviewers as part of their own development/contribution to the organisation.

Capturing the value from employee exit interviews requires a structured approach – we’re here to help.

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