Exit Interviews – are they worth the effort?

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Why is hiring so hard and so expensive right now? The numbers speak for themselves:

  • Full employment is typically defined by economists as the point at which less than 5% of the workforce is unemployed. The UK unemployment figure is currently 3.9% there few, if any, “spare workers” in the system.
  • Over 1.3 million non-UK workers are estimated to have left the UK since 2019. Many will not return.
  • An estimated 200,000 more workers than expected have retired and left the workforce early during the pandemic.
  • At the same time demand for workers is at record levels – with over 1.3 million vacancies advertised in the last quarter.

It’s a sobering thought is that the situation will likely only get worse. More baby boomers are due to retire in the next few years than there are young people entering the job market to replace them. Unless there is a change in the economy (eg “stagflation” or a recession) demand will likely outstrip supply for the foreseeable future.

The last thing you want in an employment market like this is a revolving door where people potentially leave faster than they can be replaced. It isn’t rocket science: improving retention reduces the amount of recruitment you need to do.

To reduce attrition, you first need to understand why people are leaving. One way to get at that information is the exit interview.

As a business, Chiumento has spent nearly three decades understanding why people make career decisions. And along the way, we’ve learned that what leavers tell their employer in an exit interview can be very different to what’s really driving their decisions.

Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of a leaver. What’s actually going on in their minds in the period between handing in their notice and finishing their last day?

Many will simply want their notice period over as painlessly as possible. Unless they have a huge axe to grind they’ll probably want to avoid uncomfortable discussions. That’s why they often opt for the easy answers when asked: why are you leaving? They talk about things like pay or a job nearer to home. Or maybe they’ll explain that their new employer is offering some training they have been hankering after for a while. Anything in fact that avoids confrontation. If all else fails, the classic fudge answer is: “I just feel it’s time for a change”.

As a nation, we are not particularly good at having “I’m not OK” conversations that might result in conflict. Hence people are unlikely to say: “its because my boss is an idiot” or “my colleagues don’t pull their weight and I am not propping them up any longer”. They won’t talk about the toxic culture in the business or about how they are angry the MD has just had his new Porsche delivered while they are struggling to make ends meet. They’ll likely just hold their tongue and muddle through to their final day rather than rock the boat.

They’ll also potentially be thinking “I can’t afford to speak out and ruin my chance of a decent reference”. Especially if that reference is being written or authorised by the same boss who they’d have to criticise when HR drop by to have that exit interview. References often act like a “gagging clause” – until they are out of the way, why risk speaking out?

Over the years we’ve formed an opinion that the timing of exit interviews and who conducts them has a huge bearing on the quality of data gathered. Many years ago, I was involved in a project for an organisation that routinely did exit interviews in an employee’s last week of employment. No surprise, the data consistently indicated people were leaving for one of three reasons:-

  • Better pay.
  • Nearer to home.
  • More attractive shift patterns.

The client had addressed all three and yet turnover was still over 20%. When we repeated those exit interviews independently and confidentially six weeks after people had left, the picture couldn’t have been more different. The new top three?

  • Poor management behaviours ranging from bullying to discrimination.
  • A long-hours culture – with no respect for work-life balance.
  • Poor working conditions.

That’s a hugely different picture, requiring a very different HR agenda.

Are you getting the full story from your current exit process? We’ve been working with a number of clients looking to improve and/or outsource their exit interview process. We are happy to share what we’ve learned and offer some ideas. Just drop a note to info@chiumento.co.uk or give us a call on 0207 224 3307.

‘Exit interviews – are they worth the effort…’ was written by Mike Burgneay, MD, Chiumento Ltd. If you like what you’ve read why not follow us on LinkedIn and read all our future musings on the world of work.

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