What To Do When Exit Interviews Tell You Tons About Recognition

There is an employee in your organization who just submitted their resignation to HR. They have graciously given a month’s notice before they start their new job.

Now it’s time to do some efficient offboarding following the blindsiding of this unexpected departure. One way to offboard an employee the right way is to invite them to take part in an exit interview. Your intent should be threefold. To learn why they are leaving, what we could have done to prevent this action, and support them in their new direction with an open door for them to always come back.

You will also glean some interesting information about how well valued and appreciated they felt on the job. As you compile and look through all the exit interview reports and the recommendations, your role is to gain a picture of your organization’s recognition efforts. 

Let’s look at the exit interview process and the insights on employee recognition you might gain. 

Effective Employee Exit Interviews 

Everett Spain and Boris Groysberg, in their Harvard Business Review article Making Exit Interviews Count, found one organizational scenario where multiple resignations had occurred. They discovered following exit interviews that the manager of these employees lacked critical leadership skills, such as showing appreciation and other skills. They show that engaged and appreciated employees are more likely to contribute and much less likely to leave. 

Inviting a departing employee to participate in an exit interview should intend to gain their feedback and solicit recommendations to prevent others from leaving, too. You should not expect that they must participate.

Hopefully, the time they have given you before leaving allows you to act promptly and schedule a time to meet as soon as possible. Research suggests interviewing at the midpoint between submitting their resignation and their date of departure gets the best results for the individual leaving and for the organization.

The right people to interview an employee would be someone from your Human Resources. Or you could ask another manager, especially who the employee’s manager reports up to, if you don’t have access to HR positions. And, for the most objective process, you could use an external consultant to conduct the interviews.

The setting for the interview should be as warm and inviting as if you were recruiting a new job candidate. This is a positive opportunity because they are happy with their decision to leave. For the interviewer, it is a chance to acknowledge and respect their decision and ask for their help before they leave. 

Your goal is to find out why your employee is choosing to leave the company with as candid and transparent feedback as they are comfortable in giving the interviewer. This feedback will help you address concerns from the remaining staff members. And it will give you useful information and insights to take to your leadership team. Always go with recommendations to your leadership team and suggest a plan of action to be acted on as soon as possible. 

Typical Exit Interview Questions 

Most people conducting exit interviews use standardized questions. However, asking some spontaneous questions that result from the standard questions is also useful. Some of the exit interview question that you will find searching on the Internet cover the following areas of focus. 

Discovering the reason for leaving.

A natural starting point is getting straight to the point. Find out why they are leaving. It might not be a negative for the organization or their manager. It might simply be an opportunity for career growth or a change. Answers to this will steer the rest of the questions you ask.

  • What prompted you to search for another opportunity?
  • Why did you look for a new job?

Determining the level of management support and direction.

If there is ever a common reason for leaving, it will probably be an employee’s immediate supervisor or manager. Finding out the level of support and direction they received from their manager will be an important line of questioning. This gives you things the organization can work on. 

  • Do you feel your manager gave you what you needed to succeed?
  • Were you satisfied with the way they managed you? 

Work or job satisfaction. 

Learning why the employee joined the organization and what they enjoyed most about their work will give you a lot of insight. And, of course, finding out why their job lost its lustre and appeal is equally important. Expectations and the overall employee experience are very revealing. 

  • What did you like the best and least about your job?
  • If you could change anything about your job or the company, what would you change?

Work skill capabilities. 

One’s work will often develop beyond what the original job description had written down. Finding out how the job role changed and the level of education and training they received will be interesting to know. Did the training match the needs of the job? 

  • Do you think your job has changed since we hired you?
  • Did you feel we equipped you to do your job well?

Feeling of being recognized and valued.

Employees need to feel that their work contributions are valued and appreciated. See if you can find out how often they felt their manager recognized them. Was working with their team a positive experience where peers acknowledged one another? 

  • Did you feel they recognized your achievements throughout your employment?
  • Did you receive constructive feedback to help you improve your performance? 

Areas for organizational improvement. 

Some feedback that you receive from exiting employees will go beyond individuals and focus on specific organizational concerns. The collective mindset, organizational culture, and the leadership of an organization can either be invigorating or toxic.

  • What suggestions do you have for the company? How could we improve?
  • How would you describe the culture of our company?

Preventing employees from leaving. 

Besides exit interviews, you should also conduct periodic “stay” interviews. You could ask questions like, Why do you choose to stay with the organization? Or,

What might make you consider leaving the organization? 

Meanwhile, when it comes back to typical exit interview questions, here are a few that address preventing others from leaving. 

  • Is there anything that would have changed your mind about leaving?
  • What could we have done for you to remain employed here? 

Sentiment towards the organization. 

It’s important to find out the emotional feelings people have towards an organization. Besides asking the exiting employee how they felt when they started working and now that they are leaving the organization, ask how other employees are feeling right now.

If they would recommend working for the organization to a family member or friend, why? And especially find out why they would not recommend working for your organization to family or friends.

  • Would you recommend this company to a friend? Why or why not?
  • Would you consider coming back to work here in the future? In what area or function? What would need to change? 

Looking at Recognition and What You Can Do

Spain and Groysberg lay out some basic suggestions for dealing with the results from exit interviews. They recommend that compiling and distributing the data should be done strategically. This should respect the privacy and sensitivity of interviewee content regarding comments made about their previous manager.

How can the information and data revealed from exit interviews be used to better train and develop managers? What needs to be done right away to improve the organization? And what about employee recognition practices? 

Improving employee recognition practices one step at a time. 

Observations from exiting employees can cover a wide span of perceptions and experiences about employee recognition. Look at the following feedback from employees to sense the diversity of feelings, yet common threads needing action. 

“We have a culture of blaming people and finding fault in our work versus recognizing our effort and contributions.”

“I hear of recognition in some pockets of the organization. But it is not consistent across the organization and I never received any.”

“Senior leaders show no commitment or support for recognition practices or programs. No wonder our division leaders don’t recognize their managers and cascade this downward.” 

“I believe we are so caught with rewards that leaders and managers don’t even know what recognition really is. I think managers would be surprised how many employees just want to be acknowledged for what they are doing.” 

“There isn’t a great deal of positivity in our organization. Leaders and managers rarely give positive feedback to staff.” 

“It seems like there is a small group of employees that always feel that they are not recognized often enough. They would talk to me about their concerns and I would make suggestions to them. Often, they acted on speaking up, but nothing ever changed.”

“It appears to me that managers don’t know what kind of recognition to give under different situations or performance outcomes.” 

Organizational Improvement Recommendations 

From these few exit interview statements, you will probably see some areas where an organization could strategically improve employee recognition.

  • Find out whether they have a written recognition strategy. If they do, they should review it to see how well it has been implemented. If none exists, then that should become a priority to create one.
  • Organizational culture reoccurred either directly or indirectly. There needs to be better alignment with the organizational values and consistency with living the behaviors associated with them.
  • Evaluate if the organization needs appropriate online recognition programs to assist with recognizing all employees across a hybrid workforce.
  • They need transformation management processes to ensure changes occur with implementing recognition and create a positive future state for everyone.

Leadership Improvement Recommendations 

Besides looking at recognition organizationally, there are some apparent indicators that leaders need to do to help improve recognition practices and programs.

  • There definitely needs to be a lot of education and training around recognition principles and practices. Leaders and managers are unclear and lack confidence in being able to give meaningful and effective recognition to people.
  • Senior leaders need to be exemplary givers of recognition to all levels of employees, whether online or in person.
  • Looks like accountability needs to be put in place for everyone regarding giving positive feedback and as well as giving memorable recognition.
  • Need to create expectations of similar levels of recognition and consistency across all departments so everyone can feel more valued and appreciated for their contributions. 

Find out if there is information you should draw on from exit interview data to improve employee recognition organizationally and from a leadership perspective. 

Recognition Reflection: How often do you receive insights from exit interview analysis to help you with improving recognition?

Roy is no longer writing new content for this site (he has retired!), but you can subscribe to Engage2Excel’s blog as Engage2Excel will be taking Roy’s place writing about similar topics on employee recognition and retention, leadership and strategy.

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