Why an Exit Interview Won't Help You Reduce Attrition

The exit interview is often seen as the best way to combat attrition, but it's an inherently flawed system. Our research has revealed a method that pays far greater dividends, and actively stems the tide of staff turnover—regular employee feedback.

No matter how good your company is, it’s inevitable that employees will leave, but it’s not always easy to figure out why—especially when it happens unexpectedly. The most common way that HR departments dig into a departing employee’s motivation (or lack thereof) is an exit interview or exit survey. These can provide valuable information on the underlying issues that contributed to someone’s departure.

If you want to optimize your exit interview process, then there are methods to increase the chances of uncovering useful information. For example, second- and third-line managers are more likely to receive honest feedback from exiting employees. However, despite the fact that exit surveys and exit interviews are widely used, there are some core flaws that limit their validity and effectiveness.

Why the Exit Interview Process Isn’t Effective

1. Most Employees Check out Pre- Exit Interview

Many people leaving an organization view an exit interview as a formality. Handing in your resignation is the hard part, which means most employees have very little motivation to dig into their reasons for leaving and explain them in a way that could benefit the business.

Even if an employee is leaving because they’re unhappy, it’s unlikely they’re going to say anything negative in their exit survey. Most employees want to avoid burning bridges, which means they’re more concerned with keeping the peace than telling the truth in an exit interview.

2. Some Employees Are Willing to Burn Bridges

On the flip side, a minority of people will go into an exit interview with a score to settle. It can be difficult to know what feedback to trust when it’s emotionally charged. This is especially true when the interviewer (often from HR) has little context to understand what is authentic, and when criticisms aren’t constructive.

3. Exit Interviewers Don’t Want to Hear the Truth

When someone leaves unexpectedly, it can reflect badly on management, especially if the person leaving is one of your top performers. Even though an exit interview usually comes with a structured set of questions, some managers will try and direct conversation away from sensitive areas in order to avoid recording any negative feedback.

4. Recent Events Impact Our Perception

As humans we tend to judge our experiences based on how they feel at their most intense, and when they’re coming to a close—which is referred to as the peak-end rule. How people respond in an exit interview can vary dramatically based on their final weeks at a company, and it might not be a reflection of their time as a whole.

5. A Lack of Action After the Exit Interview

HBR survey found that fewer than a third of executives could name a specific action that was taken as the result of an exit interview. Even if you’re lucky enough to avoid the pitfalls mentioned above, the feedback you collect can end up going nowhere. This can be down to a lack of transparency or accountability; often the findings from an exit interview just get filed away.

Why Regular Feedback is Better Than an Exit Interview

The main drawback of the exit interview process is that you are only using a single point of reference to draw conclusions about a person’s experience and the lead-up to their departure. Not only is a one-off event much less reliable than having multiple data-points, but it also makes it much easier for the data to go unutilized.

More and more companies these days are collecting regular employee feedback in place of singular events like the annual engagement survey, the six-month performance review, or the exit interview. When you gather feedback regularly, you end up with a far richer and more valuable dataset that has three clear advantages when it comes to improving employee experience and retention.

1. You Can Address Issues as They Arise and Prevent Regrettable Churn

If you’re collecting regular feedback from your employees, it gives you a chance to spot any negative issues in your business or culture that might lead people to leave. This means you have the chance to rectify problem areas—or at the very least communicate to your team that you are aware of them—instead of trying to uncover what went wrong after it’s too late.

At Workday, the data from our employee engagement surveys has revealed a set of trends we call The 9-Month Warning. Essentially, there are several warning signs that an employee is considering leaving their role—9 months before they actually do so. Rather than identifying issues after an employee leaves via an exit interview, regular engagement surveys give you the chance to tackle problems ahead of time.

2. You Have Historic Data to Identify Common Themes

You won’t be able to prevent every departure, but if you’ve been gathering regular employee feedback, you will have several months of historic data from those employees that have left. You can use this much larger dataset to uncover the common themes among departures, and reliably identify the primary underlying reasons that lead to attrition.

This extra insight into how your employees were feeling during their final months will give you a lot more to go on than the one-time information gathered in the exit interview.

3. You Can Track Whether Your Attrition Initiatives are Effective

Not only does this data give you a better way of investigating issues, it also allows you to measure the impact of any changes you make. Collecting feedback from your employees regularly allows you to see if factors that were previously significant issues are no longer impacting your team now that changes have been put in place. Meanwhile, an exit interview is a singular, final piece of data that can’t be followed up on.

Moving From an Exit Interview to Ongoing Feedback

Exit interviews rarely give you all the facts about why someone is leaving. They also have notoriously low response rates, which makes it difficult to paint a meaningful picture about what’s leading to employee turnover in your organization. Even when you are able to collect accurate data, there is often a lack of a follow-up, which leaves issues unaddressed.

Being able to see how engagement changes in the months leading up to someone’s departure makes it easier to identify attrition risks, and even if you can’t do anything to prevent someone leaving, it gives you the historical data to make changes. Over time, you’ll be able monitor the impact of those changes and address the causes of employee turnover.

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