Exit-Interviews small

What emotions face the owner of a small business when a key member of staff tells them they are leaving?

Mixed emotions!

Many business owners, MDs and directors of companies have said to me “If only we could have done something to prevent that decision”? In a smaller business the chances are that little preparation or succession planning has taken place.

Staff retention is a more significant factor in smaller businesses than in larger ones, the impact is greater when there is a small team. One key person leaving from a company of 25 is very significant. A departure from a company of 250 is less so.

You may feel happy for them that your loyal employee (up-to-now anyway) is going on to bigger and better things.

But you are probably very unhappy and frustrated that a person – whom  you recruited and trained, spent hours coaching, and co-developing business systems or new client relationships – is leaving.

What to do?

  1. Check to confirm why this key member of staff is leaving, is there something that can be done still?
  2. Learn! Have an outline succession plan in place for every key member of staff, have someone identified who can take up part of the role.
  3. Insert a 3 month notice period in relevant employment contracts (with agreement of course).
  4. Keep in touch with existing employees. Hold twice yearly performance reviews, keep close to staff, be aware and listen when discussing career objectives and ambitions
  5. Delegate the training of a successor to the leaving employee (appropriate sometimes).
  6. Cut down the hunt for a replacement by gathering a bank of CVs
    • Have a variety of roles advertised as “available” on the company website, invite interested applicants to apply for future vacancies
    • Network at industry events and conferences, keeping a look-out for potential employees
    • Maintain a close relationship with a good recruitment company that has potential candidates on its books


Why do people leave?

Most people who leave a job mention job dissatisfaction, relationship issues with managers, lack of recognition, lack of reward and few career development opportunities.


Exit interviews – as an employer how to approach them?

Sometimes as the Managing Director you are the most relevant person to conduct an exit interview, many SMEs do not have the resource of an internal HR person who could conduct the interview.

Be consistent in the exit interviews, this will enable you to gain a different perspective of the business over time. And be careful not to ask “leading questions”. They may be spotted and a truthful response may not ensue.

Remain impartial, some businesses invite an independent third party to conduct exit interviews. Regardless of who conducts the interview, employee participation should always be voluntary and confidentiality be respected.

When to do it? Aim to conduct the interview during the second or third week of a month-long notice period, (or half-way through a three month notice period), when the emotion of resigning has died down but before the final week when people are either very busy handing over or actively disengaging with the organisation. If your resources are short then focus only on employees who were high performers and those whom you would like to hire again.

Focus the interview: Traditionally, exit interviews have focused on issues such as pay, benefits and working conditions but these are not necessarily the factors that will cause someone to leave. Research shows that if employees are happy with the relationship they have with their manager, believe the company has a strong future and agree with the mission and values of the organisation, they will be more willing to stay even if pay, benefits and working conditions could be better elsewhere. When making contact with people, stress that the interview is an opportunity to ask for their honest opinion on aspects of the company. And ask for their advice on areas that could be improved. Always stress that their departure is regretted and explore any opportunities to win them back, even at this late stage.

Positioning and tone of the interview: This is more a conversation than an interview, so what you are looking for is insights into the strengths and areas for improvement in the company.

Increase future retention: Take note of the reasons for leaving, these should have an impact on planning your retention strategy. Give feedback to line managers, this guidance will allow them to take pre-emptive action for retention, such as changing behaviours via coaching or training.

Protect your business and employer brand: this stage can be emotional for the employee as they reflect on the time and effort they have expended on a career with their employer. Consequently, the way their departure is handled can have a lasting impact on their perceptions of the organisation. A sensitively managed exit can also ensure that past employees become brand ambassadors who will speak highly of their former employer. Word-of-mouth references are very important in a tight recruitment market. How an employee exits is  watched closely by their former colleagues.


Useful questions and tips for an exit interview

  • What have you enjoyed the most/least about working for the business, and in your role?
  • What sorts of problems have you found?
  • How well did you understand your role?
  • How effective is communication, and consultation in the company?
  • How easy was it to get on with your manager, and colleagues?
  • To what extent do you feel your work was valued?
  • To what extent were your skills and talents used effectively?
  • To what extent did you feel your role was secure?
  • How satisfied were you with salary, terms and conditions, facilities, equipment?
  • How does your current role compare to your new job?
  • When did you begin looking for another job?

And of course the employee’s answers may be influenced by their need for a reference.

If, during the interview, the employee starts making accusations against a colleague, don’t act hastily. Often the departing employee is taking it out on a colleague or manager as a parting shot. Maintain your neutrality and investigate the issue.


We might wish this would happen - thanks to Kronos for cartoon

We might wish this would happen – thanks to Kronos for cartoon

Further reading

You will get more ideas on exit interviews from http://www.businessballs.com/exitinterviews.htm

As well as reaching into my own experience I have sourced information  from the www.NIBusinessinfo.co.uk  website and CIPD UK’s online magazine People Management.


Billy Linehan is an independent business mentor based in Dublin Ireland. He works with owners, managers and directors of different types of organisations, “solving challenges together”.