The growth of every company depends on the efforts of everyone. Unfortunately, companies often focus on those they call talents and mistreat the regular employees. But more excellent results do not come from skills. They come from those who work in their areas of expertise and deliver the tasks and projects work, defined by the talents and senior leadership teams. And one day, when this “ordinary” person gives his resignation letter, the company starts the generic procedure of escorting him out, without even taking the time to listen to what happened and what led to this decision. In a form everyone conveniently calls “exit interview,” a person (mainly from the HR department) asks a series of questions and prepares some notes, and then goes to the leadership team. In many cases, if the average person quits the company, the reaction is like if this same person is a replicable material the company can buy again.
Many organizations miss the power of the exit interview and the impact they can make on the company culture if listening carefully and analyze the information collected through it. The power of the exit interview can shape the culture and the company if only people in leadership roles listen carefully to what is said during this type of interview.
Many people in HR or leaders generically use the exit interview, collecting meaningless information that cannot help them make a fundamental change in the company or just scratch the surface of the challenges they can meet on the way to improving culture and environment.
There are many ways and forms to use the exit interview. Still, the information shared within such a conversation must be used wisely and intended to improve the current situation.
I have recently spoken to several leaders who told me that the exit interviews are HR’s responsibility. They expect the HR person responsible for them to collect and share information.
What a wrong attitude.
While in the team, the person does not need to share his pains with the HR but to be listened to and understood by his boss. The closer the team’s relationship is, the more open and transparent sharing information the person will be. Sounds easy? Well, try then to do it in reality.
In a class I led in December 2021, we talked a lot about the exit interview. What I missed in this class was the leadership perspective. Experts in HR, people who are first-line managers, were there, but not even a single leader.
After the lecture and the training, I have asked half of the people how they plan to implement the exit interview principles. Not surprisingly, they told me that the leadership teams in their companies run from the task to conduct such type of interview or if they do, it is more like a generic and formal conversation. But doing the exit interview in such a way is a waste of time and does not lead to anything meaningful and impactful.
That is why I decided to write a shortlist of actions to help any leader who wants to benefit from the power of the exit interview.
Here is my list of actions to take if you aim to change the company, culture, and environment and want to believe what the people are saying to you.
Inform the team
In most situations, the team knows long before you that a particular person will leave. But no matter that, the group expects you to say it officially to them. This step is crucial because it shows that you care who is in your team and what makes people leave. With the information that you are aware of a person’s resignation, you will need to stress that you will invest time talking to that person and collecting some information that may help you and the team overcome possible future resignations. The strong point here comes from the commitment you show to everyone to understanding the situation and acting toward changing it in a positive direction.
Ask the person for a one to one meeting at a time that suits them best
Showing that you care about the person and see it as an individual is crucial at this moment. It can boost the sharing of information or make the person more resistant. You need to understand, but if you do not act carefully, your source of information may be lost forever. People living in the company do not have much to hide and are ready to share. They do not feel threatened by others and do not see any consequences that their words or actions can cause. You only need to give them time and space where they will feel comfortable sharing. Anything you can learn during such type of meeting is helpful, whether it is a positive or negative thought.
Prepare only your basic questions by category
There are several methods to manage an exit interview. Some leaders and HR people enter the meeting with a list of questions and write all the answers they hear word by word. If you have a complex or straightforward list with many questions, you may need to put it backside. This meeting is for talking and listening. Trying to listen and write focuses more on you than on the person you invited to share feedback. If that happens, many people may feel like they are used only as a source of information, that you do not understand them, which can lead to limited willingness to share. You must prepare a list to follow a specific agenda, but try to memorize the list and remember the answers or the essence of those answers during the meeting. That can demonstrate respect to the other side and boost the sharing of the information process.
Empathy on the horizon
Many leaders or HR people enter an exit interview with the intent to defend instead of listening and accepting. That creates a wall of defensiveness for the person who is there to share. What is crucial during the interview is to let the person talk about the environment, culture, and, most importantly – feelings. And what you need to do is listen and show empathy to what you hear. Empathy is the right strategy because it shows the person you are not here to blame but to attach to what he feels and try to understand it without any hesitations or constraints. Being defensive and showing aggression toward what you disagree with can not only break the relationship but won’t give you enough information on topics that are crucial for you. You have entered the exit interview to collect information that can help you change the environment and not defend it against the liver words or actions.
Do not promise anything
The exit interview is to be there and listen. According to their feedback, many leaders make the mistake of promising that they will change things in the company. Do not forget that the employee is leaving the company and talking to other employees. The chance that they will share parts of your conversation with others is quite significant. And if you have promised something that you are not sure how you will execute, that can cause another wave of unhappiness and resignation letters. But when listening carefully and letting the employee speak without interrupting him, you create space where he understands that you care and will engage with what he has to say.
Take your insights from the talk
Many leaders and even HR people think of the exit interview as a formality that has to be done. They organize meeting mechanically, invest time in them and then do nothing about what was shared in the discussion. A leaving person is a gold mine. He does not have anything to lose, anyone to fear anymore, and he shares his thoughts freely and directly. It will be a crime not to consider these thoughts and do anything about the situation around you. Going through the notes from the interview, the leader can quickly identify what pain points are to be spotted in the team. And that allows him to go safely and confidently into the next phase of changing the culture and the team for good.
Share your insights with the team for opinion
Many leaders do after hearing the leaving person return to the team and start changing some things. Before starting this, you will need to understand at what level it covers the primary concerns in the group. The best approach here is to share your insights from the meeting and ask the team members to contribute by saying if you understand the environment and the specifics in the right way or if there is something you have missed. As a leader, you have blind spots like everyone else. And suppose you act driven only by the information you have received from the exit interview. In that case, there is an excellent probability that your ego will cover some of the essential parts that may harm your position, role, and reputation. With the insights and the feedback from the team, you as a leader can be sure that your actions will be aligned with the team’s expectations
Plan based on the insights, but within the environment
Some of the things that the leader may hear can be easily changed, while others may be impossible to change. Considering the current environment and matching the feedback and the insights collected, the leader’s role is not to promise everything but create a balanced plan that is achievable now. Anything that looks good but is placed somewhere in the future won’t change the attitude and the impact of the culture in the team. A plan based on an exit interview must have three horizons – short, mid, and long-term goals – ensuring real change by delivering consistent results within the whole time frame of the change initiative. Focusing on one of the two lines on the horizon can quickly fail the plan, and the change promised.
Execute with involvement
OK, you have created the plan, communicated it with the team, and now it is time for you to execute it by putting all your efforts into it. WRONG from the beginning to the end. A plan concerning a group of people who do not involve people from this group is doomed. To change the environment, you need to get support from others. “The lone wolf” approach may work if you are a sales representative, customer service person, or even a cash desk officer, but not if you are the team leader. Executing change in the right ways means focusing on things that will make the biggest impact in a shorter time and influencing others to participate and take responsibility for the new environment together with you. No matter what you plan, not involving others in it is a prerequisite for failure.
Deliver and ask for proper and timebound feedback
While the execution involving others is a crucial element of the environment change initiatives, the leader must stay on track with everything happening within the team. Some people may like the change, while for others, it may mean discomfort and cause stress, provoke conflicts, etc. This is easily manageable if you go to people and share your thoughts on the results and ask them their opinion on how the change is happening. But the thin line where you do not have to cross is asking just for the sake of the ask and then moving forward the way only you think you should proceed. Constant feedback during culture change is essential because you will need to navigate the right course. If there is no feedback or one you only listen to, without any clear and purposeful reaction, it can lead the change to a dead end.
Celebrate the milestones
People like prizes and rewards. We live in a world where we want to be recognized for every success. We expect to get praise from our families, from the groups and societies we participate in. Starting the change as a leader, you must consider that little thing. The better you plan how to celebrate the steps taken toward change and the results achieved, the more boost you will give to the change. Small celebrations show people that they win toward the status quo and show that progress is happening one way or another. Outstanding small success is a much better motivator for everyone to continue toward the path of change than the promise that they will be recognized when everything happens.
Memorize what has been done
Many teams go through dramatic changes, celebrate success in some form, and then move back to their monotonous daily schedules. To get people’s pride ahead of time, the leader must think of a way to help the team memorize the victories. This can be a physical or virtual place where everyone can see what the team has gone through and how the results made them feel. This simple act of presentation can prolong the positive effect of cultural change and keep the level of internal engagement and motivation high for an extended period while at the same time ensuring that next time when a change, I need people will be more active in it, knowing that success is on their path.
An exit interview is an excellent tool for executing change; the wiser it is used, the more significant impact it can bring to the system. Its intelligent use can create a completely new environment where everyone feels more engaged and accountable toward the bigger goals set for success.