When talented, high performing team members leave the organization, everyone from peers through leadership likely feels a sense of loss and disappointment. Often, once a resignation has been announced, everyone quickly assembles to identify and close whatever knowledge gaps will be created in the wake of the departure. This survival-mode mentality is understandable, yet short-sighted. That departing employee holds far more valuable information than just how they functioned in their role. They also hold the secret to how you can retain the rest of your staff.
The concept of exit interviews is well-known. However, very few organizations effectively and consistently take a proactive approach to collecting and acting upon the insights a departing employee can offer. A well-planned exit interview allows you to see the role, organizational processes, culture, and even your leadership, from an insider perspective. If a departing employee feels they can be honest, you have a unique opportunity to learn where you should spend your energy when fighting to retain the rest of your team.
The key issue, as always, is trust.
When there is low trust, the departing employee will keep things simple. They’ll say they’re leaving for higher pay, more flexibility, shorter commute, better hours, or more growth opportunities. They’ll stick to common reasons given for leaving an organization. Those reasons are easily accepted by HR and managers, and are unlikely to result in an awkward conversation. But there’s usually more hidden beneath the surface. Where there’s high trust and psychological safety for the departing employee, they may be more open with sharing their concerns about the future of the organization, culture, management practices, internal politics, and interpersonal relationships that were a contributing factor.
So, how do you encourage a departing employee to share the real reason why they’re leaving?
In addition to holding an exit interview during the employee’s last week, try meeting with them again 3 months after they’ve left. Granted, this will take effort and commitment from both parties. But the quality and tone of the conversation is likely to be significantly different from the first exit interview.
Once the person is established with their new employer, take them out to lunch or coffee and ask them more about why they left. There’s something unique about having this conversation off-site and after the company has sent the last paycheck. The power balance has been neutralized, and the relationship has changed. You’re no longer the boss they must face as they walk down the hallway for the last week. You’re just a person asking to learn more.
There’s also something unique about asking someone to reflect on why they resigned after they’ve become established in a new company. It’s possible they may have found that the grass isn’t always greener. They may see that some problems (like a challenging coworker) will exist in any company. But other times, they will be able to more clearly articulate the things they didn’t know were a problem. Often when someone says they “needed a change” they just know they aren’t feeling challenged or fulfilled anymore, but struggle to explain what would challenge and fulfill them. It’s only once they’ve broken free from what had become familiar that they can compare and contrast roles, organizations, cultures, processes, etc.
Aside from the valuable insights you should gain from the conversation, there are many other reasons to conduct a delayed exit interview. It shows that you care both for this person and your organization so deeply that even after all formal commitments have been fulfilled, you are still interested in learning from their perspective in order to make meaningful changes. This is powerful. It shows you respect them enough to ask tough questions and reflect on your own behaviors. It also shows all your remaining employees that you truly welcome feedback, and are open to hearing what needs to be changed. Perhaps most importantly, your remaining team will remember how you demonstrated a commitment to the organization’s core values.