In a March 21, 2021 article the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) advised businesses to be prepared for a turnover “tsunami” once the pandemic ends.  Although turnover rates were high pre-pandemic, they stalled as employees settled in to whatever their personal situation might have been during the shutdown.  Research and consulting firm, The Work Institute, references a pent up turnover demand ready to be unleashed as companies ramp up hiring again. Recent surveys reveal that as much as 50% of the North American workforce is planning to quit their jobs or seek new employment in the coming year.

Given the anticipated shortage of skilled employees, businesses must focus on retention, and the literature is replete with advice on how to do so.  Companies have been doing exit interviews for years, but do they help with retention?  Ostensibly, the purpose behind the interview is to learn about potential problems in workplace culture, training, or management and then take action to remedy deficiencies to the benefit of current and future employees…and the business itself.  Exit interviews can be an excellent way for an employer to understand the driving factors behind an employee’s decision to leave.  There are at least two critical mistakes businesses make which can render this information gathering process meaningless.  If the wrong people are asking the wrong questions, the business may learn nothing from the interview.  Departing employees may not be candid with people they do not trust, or the company may not be seeking useful information.  Similarly, if the company is not open to hear criticism, they may do nothing with valuable information they do receive.

As important as the exit interview is the “stay interview” where an employer explores workplace issues with existing employees by finding out the things they enjoy the most about their jobs and the things they feel could be improved about the company.

The choice of interviewer is critical.  Both exit and stay interviews should be conducted by someone in whom the interviewee will confide.  Years of research has shown that the majority of employees who have been bullied, sexually harassed and even sexually assaulted at work do not report the offenses.  They simply leave their jobs, hoping to close a painful chapter and move on with their lives.  This does nothing to help a company address systemic cultural and behavioral issues about which its leaders may know nothing.

Individuals in the direct chain of command should not conduct interviews. HR could be a very good or a very bad choice depending upon how the individuals in that role are viewed by the workforce and the C-suite.  HR professionals have long struggled with the image of being the voice of the company.  A good HR professional has the faith of both staff and management and is not seen as the alter ego of either.  If a business does not have someone who fits that role, options for an interviewer might include a manager from a different department or an outside consultant with no stake in the outcome of the interviews.  Exit interviews can also start with written questions or surveys, the responses to which can be explored in a verbal discussion.

The interviews should focus on what prompted the departing employee to look elsewhere as well as whether the company could do to change the outcome.  Does the employee feel he or she was given what was necessary to succeed in the way of training, support, and recognition.  Was the job “as advertised” or did it change?  Did the employee relay any concerns they had to management before giving notice and, if not, why not?  Would the employee recommend the company to a friend?  It is also important to seek specific examples if problems are identified.

Once the information is gathered, it is important to compare it with what others have said on departure (or during stay interviews) to determine whether there are themes. Potential problems should be investigated and, if needed, a plan for remediation should be made.  Most importantly, the plans should be shared with existing employees so they are aware of the seriousness with which the company takes the concerns of its employees.  Since not all issues can be addressed at once, involving employees in creating the plans and communicating them widely and with transparency can be very effective.