August 21 , 2017

Improve Retention Up to 50 Percent Because Post-Exit Interviews Get More Honest Answers

Most corporate retention programs are driven by emotion rather than data. As a result, even though a data-driven “loss prevention” effort is common throughout the business, there is no one in the retention team who quantifies the percentage of turnover that could have been prevented.

Because so few measure it, you will probably be surprised to learn that research now shows that “about 50 percent of all voluntary turnover is preventable.” And think for a minute what your CEO’s reaction would be if they knew that up to 50 percent of the costs and the disruption associated with key turnover are unnecessary!

Well, as someone that has been creating retention solutions for over 20 years, I can tell you that turnover prevention has two major components: 1) identifying in advance which employees are likely to leave, and 2) identifying the real reasons why “regrettable employees” leave. And because identifying why people leave is much easier to implement, it should be addressed first.

You can’t prevent turnover among your current employees unless you actually know which factors are causing them to leave. And that is problematic because the standard exit interview approach (that is practiced by 80 percent of firms) routinely produces inaccurate information that can steer you in the wrong direction. The primary flaw of standard exit interviews is that they occur on their final day when exiting employees most need a positive reference. And that fear of the negative consequences from being completely honest during exit interviews often causes departing employees to be less than frank (in fact, 40 percent of departing employees will give a false answer). But fortunately, there is a simple solution: delayed post-exit interviews. Their effectiveness is supported by data. For example, The Work Institute reveals that waiting as little as two weeks can change exit interview answers by a significant 40 percent. So, if you work in a corporation where preventable turnover is costing you millions every year, something as simple as postponing exit interviews for two to six weeks should be the first thing that you try.

Tips for Designing a Successful Post-Exit Interview Process

Fortunately, there is a superior alternative to standard exit interviews, which are known as post-exit interviews. They get their name because the exit interview is delayed until after the employee has exited. So if you want to maximize your opportunity to identify “the real causes of turnover,” here are some tips related to post-exit interviews to consider.

  • Wait at least two weeks — waiting even two weeks to conduct exit interviews after an employee’s departure can improve interview answers by as much as 40 percent. Some firms wait up to three months, but the timing should be based on data that reveals the point in time when the provided answers no longer change.
  • Use a telephone interview rather than a survey — telephone post-exit interviews with a live interviewer get better results and higher response rates. Response rates using online surveys are almost 50 percent lower than when conducting exit interviews by phone.
  • Include a systematic process for taking action — you can improve your response rates and the authenticity of your answers if you make sure that interviewees are aware that there is a formal process for taking action with the provided information. Research by Insightlink indicates that an organization will get more positive results if they have “a track record of taking action based on exit interview data.”
  • Focus their use on high-value turnover — post-exit interviews provide the highest value when they are primarily used to identify the causes of turnover of high-value turnover. So if time or resources are an issue at your firm, you can limit the application of post-exit interviews to former employees who were high performers or who worked in critical jobs.
  • Consider using a vendor — there are vendors who are experts in post-exit interviews (e.g. Insightlink). And data also reveals that when former employees realize that they are talking to a third-party, they are more likely to be honest.
  • Include both quantitative and qualitative questions — using a mixed-method approach that includes both quantitative and qualitative questions will “significantly improve the reliability of the data and provide more actionable evidence.”
  • When necessary, their results can be provided in an anonymous format — if you find that there is continued resistance to being honest, even after a delay. Consider using a third-party vendor, because they can promise to provide this interviewee’s responses only in an anonymous format.
  • You can verify their added value — if you conduct both regular exit interviews and post-exit interviews. You can easily compare the results between the two formats to see if and how much the responses from the post exit interview differ. And if they don’t differ significantly, there is less need for post-exit interviews. Intel for example once found that their departing employees were so frank and blunt that the answers that they provided didn’t change over time.

OMG Standard Interviews Have Numerous Problems

If you’re not fully aware of the many problems associated with the standard exit interview process, this section contains a comprehensive list of their major problems.

Despite all these problems, 80 percent of firms still use them in their traditional “last day format.” And unfortunately, not only will using them prevent you from finding “the real reasons” why employees are leaving, but you may spend millions on solutions that don’t directly address the actual causes of turnover.

  • Often they are not done at all because of time constraints — many HR departments are so overworked that there is simply not enough time to conduct them. As a result, exit interviews are often missed, or they are not even attempted. Time is less of an issue with post-exit interviews because they are often done by vendors.
  • Many now simply refuse to participate in exit interviews — many employees have learned to take the advice that they find on the Internet come and to simply refuse to participate in exit interviews. Practically and legally, firms can do little to force them to participate.
  • The need for a good reference dramatically limits honesty — when an employee is departing a company, it is obviously a highly emotional and worrisome time. Highly emotional employees are extra fearful. Departing employees frequently withhold accurate answers in a conscious effort to increase their chances of receiving an immediate positive reference from their manager, HR, or the firm.
  • Employees assume that nothing will change — departing employees know that nothing will likely change if they reveal problems during their interview because nothing changed when past departing employees spilled their guts. So even if they care about their current colleagues, they aren’t honest because they realize that their frankness won’t help other employees or new hires.
  • There is no systematic use of the interview data — in many cases employee skepticism is accurate, because in most organizations there is no systematic way for applying the exit interview information that you receive. In many cases, the information is simply inserted into the exiting employee’s file to languish forever. In other cases, however, it is fed back to the manager. But unfortunately, HR seldom requires managers to respond to the issues that are raised. And if the information is critical of them, there is no pressure for them to take any action.
  • Weak interviewers — the interviewer is often so inexperienced and untrained, that they really don’t know how to probe to find the real truth in an interview. As a result, you only get shallow information.
  • Weak effectiveness metrics — the common success measure for exit interviews only covers whether they were completed. However, there are seldom any measures covering whether they were accurate.
  • There is little time for departing employees to reflect — departing a company is a highly emotional time for the employee because exiting employees are under extreme pressure to prepare for their next job. And with little time to reflect, they might not yet actually know the “real primary reason” why they decided to leave.
  • Exit interviews may not be physically possible — in firms that require that all exiting employees be “walked out,” it is often simply not possible to conduct an exit interview. Traditional exit interviews with remote employees can also be problematic.

Should You Still Do Regular Exit Interviews?

So with all of these problems, you may wonder if traditional exit interviews are even worth doing.

In my experience, the highest value add comes from converting the regular exit interview time slot to a process that is known as “offboarding.” And the primary goal of offboarding is to smooth any ruffled feathers so that the individual leaves happy, and as a result that they won’t disparage the firm. The second goal of on boarding is to let an excellent departing employee know that if they want to return as a boomerang rehire, they would be welcomed back. And if you use post-exit interviews, it’s a good idea to let the employee know on their last day that they will be asked to respond a few weeks later.

Follow-Up Action Steps to Consider

Don’t stop with post exit interviews. After adding them, my next recommended approach is “shifting to a data-driven approach” to managing turnover. Only with the heavy use of data can you determine if your attempted solutions to turnover reduce the causes that you identified in your post exit interviews.

Other important action steps include quantifying the complete cost of turnover (which can exceed three times an employee salary) so that your executives pay more attention to it. Next, you should develop a process for identifying who is likely to leave, so there is enough time to develop a personalized plan to fix their problems. And finally prioritize your employees/jobs, so that you focus your “Stay Interviews” and other retention efforts on those employees who would create the highest negative business impact if they left.

Final Thoughts

As a practicing thought leader in retention, the most common question that I get is “What is the quickest and the highest impact action that a firm can take to improve retention?” And my answer is always the same, “Institute post-exit interviews, so you get more accurate insights into why employees are leaving.” They are my first recommendation because they are intuitive, low cost, easy to implement, and they produce spectacular results. And more importantly, they produce results in the most critical area — retention, which is “What are the real reasons why employees are leaving?”


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As seen on ERE Media August 7, 2017.

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.