Sitting through an exit interview can be like meeting a partner you’re about to end a relationship with. It’s awkward but it’s necessary for closure.

At best, exit interviews let staff share long-standing thoughts about the workplace and employers get a sense of what they can do to keep their employees. But will staff actually be honest as they prepare to leave?

Despite the potential for employees not to be honest, human resources consultant Martin Birt still sees value in exit interviews. “There’s a sort of theme in some writing about people saying you don’t get anything of value from them, that an exiting employee is not going to want to burn bridges and tell you the truth,” says Birt. “And I know that can happen, but it certainly overwhelmingly hasn’t in my experience.”

One of the alternatives is, instead, to conduct so-called stay interviews and ask current employees for their thoughts about the workplace. Meridian Credit Union is among the employers giving stay interviews a try after it started conducting them a few months ago.

Read: 70% of employees wouldn’t return to a former employer

“We’re interviewing people at various times in their employment about what they value about Meridian,” says Kevin Zarosky, a senior human resources business partner. “So it’s almost like an exit interview but with people still employed. It’s not a common practice yet but it will hopefully be something we do across the organization in the future.”

Despite the potential drawbacks, DST Consulting Engineers Inc. is among the companies that rely on exit interviews for valuable data. “What we’re looking to do is capture information that can otherwise walk out the door with that employee,” says Paige Phillips, manager of people development.

Phillips asks about several areas that could cause dissatisfaction: their thoughts about the employer and their job, as well as compensation and benefits, working conditions, career advancement, and managers and supervisors.

While it’s now giving stay interviews a try, Meridian, an organization with more than 1,000 employees, has also been using exit interviews for 10 years. Zarosky says while some people hesitate to say anything negative about the company, confidentiality helps foster plenty of opinions. About 90 per cent of those invited choose to take part in the process, he notes.

Read: How to keep your star employees

“Employees don’t want to burn bridges when they leave but they love to have their feedback heard,” says Zarosky. “Respecting the fact that it’s confidential is very important.”

In many ways, it’s also about what the employer does to create a positive relationship in the first place. “Exit interviews are misunderstood sometimes,” says Phillips. “Having an employee care starts long before the exit interview. They need to believe that the company cares about them as an employee.”

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Making use of the information

After numerous exit interviews, Phillips and Zarosky share recurring ideas with senior leaders.

“If we solicit feedback and we don’t do anything about it, then the participation rate would drop drastically,” says Zarosky.

“We don’t get into specifics of individual interviews but we address issues or trends with management about why people are leaving.”

For instance, after discovering through the process that many employees wanted more emphasis on career development, Meridian introduced a mentorship and leadership development program.

Read: Why it’s important to understand diverse employee population

For exiting employees who become emotional over grievances with specific managers or supervisors, Zarosky brings up issues with managers only after he has enough information from several exit interviews. Phillips, on the other hand, sometimes offers people the chance to speak directly with their managers.

“An exit interview can provide an opportunity for us to walk through [complaints] with employees and help understand how they arrived there,” says Phillips. “There are some big lessons that employers can get from someone who gets to that point.”

Jann Lee is associate editor of Benefits Canada.

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Copyright © 2018 Transcontinental Media G.P. This article first appeared in Benefits Canada.

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