The exit interview could be an invaluable tool for law firms, allowing them to delve into the psyche of their former staff members on why they are heading towards the door. They can then use the insight to better hang on to their top talent; likewise, leavers can use them as an opportunity to show what consummate professionals they really are and that they hold no ill will towards that boss that made them work until midnight and never said thanks, ever.
But the reality is that the outgoing employee either feels too guarded to say what they feel or they let rip, doing untold damage to their previously untarnished reputation. So are they worth persevering with? Opinion is divided.
The fact is that many companies don’t conduct exit interviews. And of those that do, ‘only a few collect, analyse, and share the data and follow up with action,’ according to research by Harvard Business Review.
There are likely many reasons for this, not least a concern that any such interviews will lack credibility. Others dismiss them as a cynical exercise in risk management. If an employee later decides to take their former employer to a tribunal, and they haven’t raised their grievance at the exit interview, then the business can use that to its advantage.
But, if handled correctly, the exit interview can, at least, give the organisation some insight into where they might be able to make improvements in their talent retention strategy. Harvard Business Review, for instance, cites the example of an international financial services company whose exit interviews revealed real gaps in management and leadership ability. It was able to use the data to change its promotion processes accordingly.
Benefits can go further too. Exit interviews can improve brand reputation: if an individual leaves feeling respected and listened to, then they may become an ambassador for the organisation; a disgruntled former employee, meanwhile, can wreak untold damage. It can be an opportunity to smooth over any bad feelings.
Tips for success
The process should be one of calm information gathering. Given that it can be an uncomfortable situation for all concerned, think carefully about how the interview is set up. Indeed, simply by calling it something other than an interview can take away some of the formality and pressure. Offering a choice of how and when the process can take place also helps. It should also be voluntary, confidential, and that confidentiality respected.
Look at how the process is carried out – is it a paper or online questionnaire, on the phone or face-to-face? The first allows people to be more candid but there is no opportunity to probe for further detail and misunderstandings can arise.
Think who is best placed to carry out the interview. A direct boss will probably not be able to elicit the most honest of responses out of their former employee. Managers that are one step removed might be more suitable. It may also fall under the remit of HR, or an unbiased third-party.
Timing is important. Emotions may still be high in the initial stages of a resignation. There is a strong argument for having an initial conversation before the employee leaves (they may want to make a clean break and not want to be contacted later) and then a follow-up a few months later. They may be more objective by then and feel they can be more honest. They will also have seen that their new role and environment also has it pros and cons.
Both the business and individual should think about the questions that will be asked. They should be open-ended. Examples include:
- What prompted you to start looking for a new job?
- Did you have the resources and support you needed to do your job to the best of your ability?
- What would make you consider returning to this business?
The outgoing employee should use it as an opportunity to bolster their professional brand. Exit interviews should not be used to rant, get personal, nor say how doomed the business will be without you. If your slave-driving unappreciative boss is the main reason you are leaving, try to make more general comments about how the company can improve the working environment or the feedback process rather than actual name-calling.
Make constructive comments, and end on a high note, and when talking about what you liked about the firm weave in a few of your accomplishments, such as, ‘I really enjoyed being able to work with several departments to bring in that £50m deal.’ Okay, that’s perhaps overblown, but you get the idea.
Both parties should make clear that they do not hold any grudges. Say thanks for the help and support that has been given. Use it as an opportunity to build bridges for the future, and not as exercise in burning them – no matter how therapeutic that might seem at the time. It is a small world, especially in law, and you never know whose path you will cross again in the future, or what role they will be in.
The information gathered, with the caveat that the employee might have been particularly guarded or wildly emotional, should then be analysed and actions taken to improve retention. The latter is crucial and organisations shouldn’t pay lip service to the process. It really can make the difference in showing that a business is listening, which is a powerful tool in morale-building and talent retention.