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How to break up - professionally

Breaking up is never easy to do – especially when it’s a professional relationship. Yet understanding the reasons why employees resign is one of the most valuable tools in an organisation’s arsenal. Here are three reasons why a good Exit Interview is worth its weight in gold. Local and international headlines have seen their share of high-profile resignations in recent months.

From celebrities like South African radio personality Bonang Matheba, who left Metro FM, to MPs Mcebisi Jonas and Tina Joemat-Petersson. Further afield, the corporate world saw four Skye Bank executive directors and Kenya Airlines’ head of marketing resigning.

Breaking up can be hard to do – which is why the vast majority of Top Employers take the time to understand resignations. “Employee exits can be an important strategic tool that many organisations overlook,” says Billy Elliott, Country Manager: South Africa for the Top Employers Institute

The Top Employers Institute, which recognises excellence in the conditions employers create for their people globally, helps organisations stay on top of current HR Best Practices. Its research has revealed that in South Africa, 91% of certified Top Employers have a formally defined channel in place whereby HR officers conduct exit interviews with all employees and an additional 10% have a formal channel in place using a specialist external party to conduct a more in-depth qualitative exit interview.

“As the saying by Michelle Ventor goes, ‘People come into your life for a reason, a season or a lifetime. When you figure out which it is, you’ll know what to do.’” This may be hard to do because it can be difficult to face uncomfortable truths, believes Elliott. But if a company loses good talent, it can be costly not to understand the reasons.

With this in mind, says Elliott, there are three key reasons why an exit interview is worth its weight in gold.

1. A rare opportunity for free and honest feedback
“In today’s knowledge economy, skilled employees are the asset that drives organisational success. Thus companies must learn from them—why they stay, why they leave, and how the organization needs to change. A thoughtful exit interview process can create a constant flow of feedback on all three fronts,” argue Everett Spain and Boris Groysberg in the Harvard Business Review.

“Exit management should be seen as an area for growth and learning – a rare opportunity for a company to get free and honest insight,” adds Elliott. “If there is a pattern in the reasons for employees leaving, it can be time for something to give.

“Use the opportunity to address the employee’s needs and if these needs can be rectified, turn it into an opportunity to encourage the employee to stay. Alternatively, implement the findings from the exit management process into future retention strategies. Any breakup is a sensitive issue, and so the exit management process should be treated with kid gloves.”

According to Elliott, 69% of Top Employers report on exit management KPIs. Of these KPIs, the most frequently used are 1) tracking the number of years the employee worked for the organisation and 2) obtaining specific reasons why the employee is leaving. These reasons are then compared to previous years so that trends can be analysed.

2. A good exit interview can give you a competitive advantage
An exit interview should be aimed at establishing the reasons for the employee leaving the organisation. These insights should be fed into retention strategies. Knowing why an employee is leaving can also generate useful insights into the market and competitor offerings.

According to Spain and Groysberg, using the exit interview as an opportunity to learn about HR benchmarks (salary, benefits) at competing organisations and to see how your organisation stacks up against other employers in terms of time off, ability to advance, different benefits, and pay packages, etc., is one of six key outcomes that a good exit interview should strive for.

Top Employer British American Tobacco South Africa (BATSA) ensures that data from their exit interviews is fed directly into the business strategy, explains Talent Manager Riana Ohlson. “At BAT we aim to conduct exit interviews with all employees who resign. The exit interview is conducted by an HR officer in order to determine what the reason for leaving is, as well as to provide us with meaningful insights into retention opportunities for the future. These exit interviews also shed light on our competitive landscape,” she says.

In order to gain these insights, however, it’s crucial to follow a few golden rules. To improve the quality and veracity of the exit interview process, the Top Employers Institute recommends that the interview not be carried out by the employee’s immediate superior and, and where possible, is anonymous. The Top Employers Institute reports that 63% of Top Employers have a formally defined channel in place to use anonymous questionnaires for exit interviews.

“An anonymous exit interview can provide deeper insights, as it gives the employee the freedom to express their true concerns without feeling that he or she will burn their bridges when leaving,” explains Elliott. “It can take place in the form of a questionnaire or be conducted by a third party.”

3. A good exit interview is the first step in recruiting future staff
An exit interview is not always the end of the road with an employee. In fact, it can be an opportunity to learn to do better. HR expert Susan M Heathfield writes in The Balance that it’s crucial to commit to taking the employee’s feedback on board and end the interview graciously; in that way they leave the organisation more likely to be an ambassador than a critic.

Santam Organisational Development Manager Annemarie Christodoulou concurs. “Our view is that an exiting employee must leave with a sense of resolve and pride,” she says. “We regard leaving employees as our potential future staff, because they may return to Santam after having gained further knowledge and experience. Therefore we recognise them for their contribution, acknowledge and celebrate their past successes, in such a way that they leave on a positive note.” Santam places a great deal of focus on understanding the reason for exit and creating open, effective dialogue between the employee and management.

Andre Muller, Head of HR at Top Employer Pernod-Ricard, agrees. “We believe that we create ambassadors for life when people join our business and place enormous importance on the exit process being treated as professionally as the on-boarding process. As a result people often want to come back after they have left,” he says.

“In a rapidly changing HR environment, employers need all the understanding they can get,” concludes Elliott. “Exit interviews open a valuable door to that insight. And a good employer will take care to ensure that the quality of the exit interview is high. It is no coincidence that 99% of Top Employers ask HR to evaluate the quality of the exit management process,” he says.