Parting Shots

Why the views of departing employees can be the key to higher retention.
Laura DeMarsFebruary 1, 2007

Want the inside story on your finance department? Ask the people who are quitting. Vince Cook, CFO of home health-care provider AccentCare, does exactly that by reading the transcript of every exit interview conducted with a finance employee. “People are our greatest asset,” he says, “and we can improve retention by listening to them.” Not that Cook doesn’t listen when they’re gainfully employed at his company. But he says exit interviews “often highlight the things you might not notice, including supervisory shortcomings, a lack of training incentives, or salary issues.”

While exit interviews are typically the purview of the human-resources department, CFOs should make it a point to get in the loop, according to Diane Domeyer, executive director of OfficeTeam. “There’s such a war on finance talent right now that listening to what employees have to say has become critical to building and retaining a strong team.”

Turnover is an expensive proposition, and 32 percent of companies surveyed by PricewaterhouseCoopers expect that cost to increase this year. Domeyer says exit interviews can be an excellent way to stem turnover because people are more likely to be candid about problems once they know they’re moving on, especially if they can discuss them with a more objective party in HR.

How Startup CFO Grew Food Company 50% YoY

How Startup CFO Grew Food Company 50% YoY

This case study of JonnyPops’ success highlights the unusual financial and operational strategies that enabled rapid expansion into a crowded and highly competitive frozen treat market. 

Once they do, there’s no telling what problems may surface. Eric Rehmann, co-head of the financial officers practice at Korn/Ferry International, says that exit interviews can reveal trouble with operational procedures, workflows, and sources of poor morale. Cook says he has learned about problems that could escape even the most attentive manager. One employee, for example, left because he was young and single and felt he didn’t fit in with a staff that was predominantly older and married. “It gave me a heads-up to make sure that in future interviews I let candidates know exactly what type of environment they’ll be stepping into,” Cook says. Another exiting employee complained that the company had abandoned the monthly celebration of employee birthdays. Once the company learned that this mattered, at least to some, “we reinstated the cakes,” Cook says.

Eliciting useful information requires skill because departing employees may fear that they will burn bridges, that their views won’t be shared with anyone who will act on them, or that they’ll violate confidentiality agreements. Domeyer suggests that executives make sure their HR departments conduct appropriate exit interviews with all departing employees and explain how their feedback can be helpful to the organization. Asking open-ended questions like, How would you describe the work environment? Under what circumstances would you consider returning to the company? and How would you rate management’s ability to respond to employee concerns? is a good way to get useful responses, Domeyer says.

Veni, Vici, Venting

Some executives are less sanguine about the benefits of exit interviews, arguing that too often they merely provide a chance for ex-employees to complain about perceived injustices and settle scores. Jerome Kaiser, finance chief at Oryxe Energy International, says he puts little stock in them, because “any good statistician knows you need a diverse data sample to eliminate bias.”

Not that he discounts such interviews entirely: he says they provide a way to ensure that the company has not violated any labor laws, to reinforce the view that the company does listen to employees, and to reveal the occasional genuine trouble spot — assuming the data bears it out. For example, when three departing managers all complained that the company’s bonus program rewarded only senior executives, the company amended the plan to include a broader swath of managers. Nonetheless, he says, “don’t get your hopes up that the efficiency of the company is going to be realistically affected by exit interviews.”

The PricewaterhouseCoopers survey argues otherwise: it found that exit interviews are surpassed only by health-care and pension programs as favorable ways to maximize employee retention. Domeyer isn’t surprised by this finding. Employees want to be heard, she maintains, even if it’s on their way out. Toward that end, she recommends giving departing workers a chance to speak twice, once in person and once online or on paper.

“Sometimes it’s best to use the exit interview to express your gratitude to employees for the work they’ve done,” she says, “and then point them toward an online survey or postdeparture questionnaire where they can express their opinions freely.” Online programs can also compile the results of many interviews into charts for quick reference, allowing managers to compare year-to-year results and pinpoint trends.

Rather than cautioning departing employees about the risk of the door hitting them on the way out, it seems, managers would do well to hold that door open and offer a ready ear as to why the employee is leaving. That may be the best way to make sure fewer do.

Laura DeMars is a reporter at CFO.

Say What?

To get useful insights from departing employees, ask open-ended questions.

  • How do you feel you were treated by your supervisor? by your co-workers?
  • How well do you believe your work was recognized and appreciated?
  • Do you feel you were given adequate training and assistance in learning the job you were expected to do?
  • What’s your opinion of the opportunities for transfer or promotion within this company?
  • What could be done to make this company a better place to work?

Source: National Federation of Independent Business