The importance of exit interviews during the “Great Resignation”

Black large sign stating “EXIT” on a white wall in a parking garage
Organizations should be doing them already. But if they aren’t doing them or aren’t doing anything with the data, how will they recover from this most recent pandemic side-effect?

I just updated my CV last month. Disclaimer: because I got a promotion, not because I’m looking for a job — lots of my coworkers and my boss read my articles, so I felt the need to add this detail 🙂

I’ve worked in tech and the legal profession for more than 35 years at this point, at a total of eleven jobs at companies ranging from 50 employees to hundreds of thousands. Only three of the ten jobs I have left asked me to do an exit interview, and one of them was because I *demanded* an exit interview to tell them how very screwed up their company was.

Why are exit interviews important?

Even before the #GreatResignation, exit interviews were an important but largely overlooked device in the HR toolkit.

Organizations frequently underestimate the cost of turnover because it doesn’t show up as a line item or have a cost center. Specialized employees cost up to 400 percent of their annual salary to replace. At Silicon Valley prices, one senior developer leaving can easily cost a company north of $1 million.

Professional burnout was on the rise across the board long before the pandemic started. All the pandemic has done is accelerate it. People have crystallized in their minds what is important to them after having lost time with friends and family members, in some cases, permanently. More “fully remote” positions mean a broader array of employment opportunities for good employees.

Finally, burnout is largely preventableOrganizations that pay attention to feedback, career opportunities, team dynamics, and organizational culture have much lower rates of burnout than organizations that don’t. “Preventable attrition” describes when an organization can change a policy or find a solution to keep employees from leaving but doesn’t do so. One of the ways you avoid preventable attrition is to find out why people leave. Exit interviews are one way of doing that data gathering.

Exit Interview Best Practices (or lack thereof)

In the exit interviews I have conducted (I did them for 4 years at a previous employer) or been part of, people on both sides of the table struggle to have hard conversations. “The relationship is over, so talking about it won’t help,” seem to be the prevailing view. But when you are looking at exit interviews as a device to prevent *future* attrition, that is really not true.

There is not a lot in the way of consistent “best practice” advice on exit interviews for either the employer or employee and some of the readily available advice is downright contradictory.

  • One outdated article from Forbes, which comes up first in the google query “exit interview best practices,” suggests one best practice is to “exit with grace by focusing on the positive.” Unfortunately, this approach results in no actionable data being uncovered by the employer. It is entirely possible that the employee won’t provide the information if the employer tries to dig past the “it’s not you, it’s me,” deflections but the interviewer should at least try.
  • One article suggests “What Could We Have Done Better?” and “Would You Ever Consider Returning To This Company?” are in the top 5 questions to ask. Another article suggests those questions should NEVER be asked.
  • FOLLOW UP on the data your organization does get !!!! Organizations ignore data gathered at exit interviews and the patterns that data demonstrate at their own peril. Trust me, ex-employees who experienced discrimination talk to each other after they’ve left, and that has resulted in some pretty large EEOC settlements and litigation awards.

My take on exit interviews is as follows:

  • #COVID19 has created a whole new playing field concerning employee resignations.
  • Your organization can either get ahead of it or get steamrolled by it.

These are the only two options. There is no middle ground.

Exit interviews should focus the majority of the conversation on only two things:

  1. Why did the employee leave?
  2. What could have been done to prevent the employee from leaving?

Even if the employee was on a performance improvement plan or the employee’s manager is not sad to see them go, getting to the bottom of these two questions for each employee departure is important. Bad manager or organizational practices that impact low-performing employees can also easily impact mid-level or high-functioning employees. Those are the really expensive folx that you don’t want to lose, the ones whose departures rip at the soul of a company no matter what the size.

Exit interview structure

Consider contracting with an outside agency to conduct exit interviews. That shifts the exit interview narrative from “employee on their way out the door talking with HR” (who the soon-to-be-ex employee may have had a bad experience with), to an employee on their way out discussing the reasons behind their preventable attrition openly and honestly with a neutral third party.

One critical piece of data is discovering what the employee will be doing in their new role.

  • If moderate- or high-performing employees leave for lateral positions at a rate higher than 15 % per year, your organization likely has a compensation, benefits, or work environment problem.
  • If moderate- or high-performing employees leave for higher-level positions at a rate higher than 15 % per year, your organization likely has a promotions, growth, recognition, or training problem.

You don’t know who your moderate or high-performing employees are? That’s a whole different problem that HR needs to get on top of immediately.

The bulk of every exit interview conversation should be a “Five Whys” analysis. Leave five minutes at the end to talk about COBRA, turning in laptops, keys, etc. That is the necessary but mundane part of the interview that provides the employer with no actionable data to prevent further attrition.

Exit interview “five whys” analysis

You can’t come up with actionable items to reduce preventable attrition if you don’t accurately assess why people are leaving.

Why are you leaving?

This is the highest level and most important why. Start with “you’ve probably explained this several times already, but I need to know …” because, believe me, by the time the employee gets to the exit interview, they are really over talking about why. The departing employee may have sugar-coated the “why” to co-workers and their managerial chain, but this is one place an organization really needs the unvarnished truth.

If the interviewer prefers to be less blunt, they can ask the same question differently, like “tell me what your new job is providing you that is important that you didn’t get at XYZ corp.”

Keep drilling down on the details, asking more and more Whys until you have actionable statements like:

  • I was turned down to go to a $1500 conference that was relevant to my job
  • I was passed over for a promotion when non-diverse people with less experience did receive them.
  • or even just, “I got a better offer.”

Then group all of your exit interview results into general categories. Some good groups to start with are:

  • managerial
  • team dynamics
  • lack of growth opportunities
  • lack of belief in executive vision
  • benefits
  • compensation
  • DEI/discrimination

and identify data patterns to help reduce preventable attrition. Then, analyze the data in multiple dimensions.

  • Are women with disabilities more likely to report team dynamics issues in Department X but less likely than their overall representation rate to report team dynamics issues in Department Y? Find out what Y is doing that X is not (or vice versa).
  • Are millennials more likely to leave non-engineering positions than engineering positions? That is something that could be acted on as well.

If the person leaving cites a discriminatory experience, try to get as many details as possible.

  • What was the experience?
  • How was it reported?
  • Why was the outcome unsatisfactory?

Expect to hear stories like the following:

I was on a call where Employee said <insert discriminatory remark here>.

I called this comment out explicitly in a meeting survey and emailed BigBoss about it, requesting follow-up, and got ghosted.

You can ask why the employee didn’t go to HR, but at this point in a discriminatory experience, that rarely happens.

  • The employee who made the discriminatory comment thought it was OK to make that statement.
  • BigBoss felt it was unnecessary to even reply to the employee who called it to their attention.
  • The employee who was on the receiving end of the discriminatory comment likely has to continue to work both with the discriminating commenter and BigBoss frequently.

Employees tend not to bother with HR under these facts because:

  1. they assume that HR will side with BigBoss and the discriminating employee;
  2. their career will be irreparably harmed, and it won’t be on the employee’s terms or timeline.

Instead, they emotionally check out and find a job where they hope they won’t go through that experience again, potentially costing the employer $1 million. This is quintessential “preventable attrition.” Even a one-line email from BigBoss saying that the comment was privately addressed and is not tolerated because XYZ Corp is an inclusive organization is better than ghosting the employee.

If you get those details ahead of an EEOC claim or lawsuit, you might be able to do something to prevent that claim or lawsuit from being filed. If nothing else, your organization should be able to take steps to prevent that discrimination from repeating itself with a different employee.

Hopefully, your organization will glean details about why people are leaving that can be resolved with “checkbook engineering” solutions. ABC Corp reimburses $10K a year for tuition and your organization provides only $5K and there is a huge administrative hassle to get even that? Compare that cost against the cost of losing a single employee, then boost your benefits if the cost/benefits trade-off makes sense. Trust me, in tech it definitely will. But you can’t do that without first gathering the data and honestly assessing the organization’s turnover situation. And you can’t do that without doing good exit interviews.