Don’t Wait for the Exit Interview (Part 1)

While it makes sense to ask a departing employee why she’s chosen to leave, it’s a bit like closing the barn door after the horse has galloped off into the sunset. Employee retention is critical, and engagement is personal. That’s why finding out what didn’t work for the one who’s leaving, may not give you the information you need to keep the people you still have.

Photo by Daivd, Wikimedia Commons

In The Power of Stay Interviews, Richard P. Finnegan suggests a more proactive approach to retaining your best employees. Instead of waiting until they decide to move on to greener pastures and then asking them why; take the time today to find out what they like, what they don’t like—and what would make them stay.

Finnegan sees many common employee retention practices as well-intentioned, but largely ineffective; for example:

  • Exit interviews happen too late and offer information that may or may not be applicable to the rest of the workforce. Management can be hesitant to act on information provided by someone who is leaving. Besides, employees who are leaving may not share their true reasons.
  • Employee satisfactions surveys are lengthy, infrequent and often lead to “one size fits all” programmatic solutions that don’t have the desired results. Survey participation rates are often low and any change based on employee surveys typically comes about slowly.
  • New and improved recognition, appreciations and communications programs won’t make a difference if change is not embraced by direct supervisors.

In sharing his perspective on retention, Finnegan offers the following three foundational principles[1]:

  1. Employees quit jobs because they can: Workplace demographics leave high-performing employs with too many job choices, even in down economies.
  2. Employees stay for things they get uniquely from you:  Who are you as an employer? What does your organization offer that others do not?
  3. Supervisors build unique relationships that drive retention…or turnover: Supervisory relationships are one-of-a-kind levers that deeply impact employees’ stay/leave decisions.

To improve retention and reduce the frequency of exit interviews, Finnegan goes on to provide concrete recommendations, many of which revolve around developing supervisors and holding them accountable for retention in their units. It’s clear that Finnegan sees employee retention as a leadership and management issue as he emphasizes the need for retention accountability to be driven from the top.

The second major theme that emerges from Finnegan’s recommendations is trust. This is not the first time we’ve seen trust at the top of the list when it comes to employee engagement and retention. Here are two resources that share strategies for building trust and one that illustrates what not to do!

Since the relationship with a direct supervisor has such a strong impact on an employee’s decision to stay or go, it’s not surprising that the degree of trust experienced in that relationship is a critical component of both retention and turnover. As such, Finnegan places great weight on supervisors’ responsibility to build trust and the organization’s responsibility to help them develop the skills to do so.  In the end, Finnegan expresses the impact of strong, trusted supervisors (or lack of them) in two equations:

Strong Supervision + Effective Employee Programs = High Employee Retention

Weak Supervision + Effective Employee Programs = High Employee Turnover

If, as Finnegan suggests, exit interviews, employee satisfaction surveys and traditional employee programs are not effective retention strategies; what can employers do to be more effective? First, develop managers and supervisors so they can build the kind of “unique relationships that drive retention;” and second, instead of exit interviews, conduct stay interviews with high-performing employees. Watch for Part 2 of this article, where we’ll consider the implications of conducting regular stay interviews, identify their essential ingredients and determine how best to follow through on what you learn from them.

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[1] Richard P. Finnegan (2012). The Power of Stay Interviews for Engagement and Retention. SHRM

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