The importance of an exit interview: Why they matter and how to run them
Updated 19th February 2022
Employee insight is an incredibly valuable resource. In fact, it's half the reason our weekly check-ins are so useful for employers. The other half is that it helps managers to guide their team members and shape performance.
An interview with a departing employee can be an especially useful addition to your existing check-in data. But even in organisations that use them, uptake isn't necessarily ideal. As a result, many businesses simply don't bother at all.
So today, we're breaking down the importance of an exit interview to answer the vital questions. What is the goal of an exit survey, and why do they matter so much?
How common are exit interviews?
What is the goal of an exit survey? Well, before we answer that question, it's worth talking about their prevalence a little first. There's enough content on exit surveys on the internet that you might think they're standard practice.
In fact, all the way back in 2009 during the global recession, they were actually pretty popular. CIPD found that exit interviews were the most popular method used by UK employers to find out why people left organisations. They were trailed in second by anonymous exit surveys.
But we have more recent information from The Balance Careers. Their findings show that the average participation rate for exit interviews is between 30 and 35%. This means that the vast majority of exiting employees are leaving without providing insight as to why.
Of course, exit interviews are purely voluntary, and you can't force someone to answer your questions. But it's in your best interests to try and improve and possibly incentivise higher rates of exit interview participation.
Exit surveys can help to reduce turnover
What is the point of an exit survey, if not to manage turnover? When an employee leaves a business, their reasons for doing so can vary widely. They can be amicable splits a lot of the time. Maybe there is an opportunity the individual just can't pass up. Perhaps there is simply a lack of progression in your organisation.
Or burned-out employees might just want to get away from an awful manager as quickly as they can. Regularly checking in and exchanging feedback is a good way of managing it. But in the end, a bit of turnover is usually inevitable.
But the cost of it can vary significantly. Employers must advertise the position, negotiate the replacement's salary, and depending on circumstances, provide their ex-staff member a severance package. The average cost of turnover in the UK during 2019 prior to the pandemic was approximately £30,000 per employee.
And a Work Institute survey from 2020 found that the costs of voluntary turnover alone cost US businesses over $630 billion. And that's before 2021's Great Resignation, and without accounting for involuntary turnover. To make matters worse, turnover costs generally escalate with the seniority of the position.
Interviewing people on the way out gives employers the opportunity to keep an eye out for trends. If everyone's quitting for the same reasons, then that's a solid indicator that something is going unaddressed. It could be an unbearable manager, an HR issue, a health risk, or just plain old office politics.
It's obviously better to resolve these problems before they result in turnover and preserve your top talent. But if someone is on the way out, you might as well can any insight you can from them. Just because you're losing a skilled staff member doesn't mean you can't gain something back.
Employees on the way out may be more honest
The importance of an exit interview lies in its ability to help generate positive change. Getting honest, uninhibited insight is the real trick when it comes to collecting feedback. At Weekly10, we help employers achieve that by building up good feedback and communication habits week to week.
But not every organisation has that sort of framework in place. Even if they do, a little bit of scepticism towards your own findings is a healthy attitude for data collection. It's hard to totally discount the idea that an employee's reluctance to upset their manager could limit how forthcoming they are.
And that sort of pressure can really stymy a person's ability to provide effective feedback. That's why insight from departing staff can potentially be very useful.
Exit interviewees are seen as less encumbered by this anxiety. They don't have to worry about pleasing anyone in the organisation anymore. As a result, they may be more willing to discuss problems affecting company morale. Ex-employees will have been pushed away for a reason. So they probably have ideas about what's damaging the engagement or wellbeing of their former colleagues.
That said, it's still best to keep exit interviews confidential. If at all possible, don't have someone's interview be conducted by anyone who used to manage them. You should also try to supply a reference before you conduct the interview. That way, ex-employees don't feel like you're holding it hostage.
Exit interviews help to align roles with employee expectations
Sometimes, we feel compelled to leave our position because the role just isn't what we envisioned. Aligning expectations is a key aspect of engaging your employees. It's something that needs to be done right from the recruitment process, and reinforced at every performance review.
But maybe you find you keep losing staff to job dissatisfaction despite your best efforts. If so, it might be worth reflecting on how you're presenting roles in your organisation to prospective applicants. As a business leader, you're very close to everything, which can be a biasing factor. The importance of an exit interview stems from its ability to make you step back and look at the bigger picture.
In this way, exit interviews can provide insight you can use to improve your onboarding process for new staff. It's important to set realistic expectations of what your would-be employee's day-to-day experience will be like.
People would apply in droves to look after wildlife on their own private island. Considerably less would want to tend irate geese on a spit of rock in the middle of the Irish Sea. But if that's the role you're advertising, then glossing over the demands of the job won't get the sort of applicants you need.
An exit interview can help you tie up loose ends
The main answer to the question, "what is the goal of an exit survey?" is to collect insight and reduce turnover. But these interviews also give employers the chance to deal with any remaining issues and set expectations going forward.
For example, the exiting employee might have unused holiday, or there might be a severance package to discuss. There might be overhanging projects you need to debrief them on before they go. Or you might want to see if they'll have any remaining involvement with the company.
Employees also retire or leave for other completely amicable reasons. In those circumstances, you could offer them the opportunity to become a mentor for your organisation in the future. The importance of an exit interview for smoothing over employee departures is yet another reason that employers should utilise them more widely.