6 ways to improve the exit interview process

Conducted properly, exit interviews can provide valuable insight into employee turnover and retention solutions


In the 2020 EMS Trend Report, we asked EMS providers, managers and leaders about why people are leaving their agencies. Learn more about what makes providers leave, and the issues respondents report as having a significant impact on the future of the profession by downloading your free copy today.

By Maria Beermann-Foat

The premise behind exit interviews is centered on capturing information to reduce future employee turnover. As business research has shown high turnover rates are linked to increased recruiting costs, decreased worker productivity and an adverse impact on workforce morale, it makes sense that we should find ways to retain employees.

It is expected that exit interviews will bring to light specifics of why an employee is leaving and help identify systemic issues contributing toward the turnover rate. Armed with this type of information, leaders can then enact organizational changes and stem the flow of departing staff.

It is expected that exit interviews will bring to light specifics of why an employee is leaving and help identify systemic issues contributing toward the turnover rate. (Photo/Getty Images)
It is expected that exit interviews will bring to light specifics of why an employee is leaving and help identify systemic issues contributing toward the turnover rate. (Photo/Getty Images)

Institutional knowledge loss is a primary risk factor when high turnover exists. When an employee leaves an organization, they leave with specific knowledge about the organization’s culture, activities, personnel, and – most importantly – why they are leaving. The more tenured the employee, the greater the loss of expertise – gained through their years of work efforts and relationships built – leaving with the employee.

Organizations with low turnover rates benefit from reduced recruitment costs and increased productivity, but also with a greater retention of the organization’s established culture. When personnel stay with the organization longer, they develop a deep understanding of the organization’s core mission/purpose, values and cultural norms. They, in turn, are able to help instill these in newer employees trying to assimilate into the organization.

Organizations with high turnover rates risk cultural expectations becoming “muddy” or rapidly evolving, as new employees are more likely to be mentored by employees not much more tenured than themselves. Having a less established foothold in the organization’s desired culture may translate into personal interpretation of the organization’s mission and values instead of those intended by the organization. While on the surface, this may not seem like a major risk, it can be when policy language is vague enough and those actions that make your organization special (e.g. taking the time to fill the food and water bowls of a patient’s pet, turning off the lights, and ensuring there are no burning candles in the home prior to transport) are passed on from tenured provider to newer provider through daily demonstration and reinforcement.

An insight into competitive advantage

Exit interviews may provide leaders an opportunity for insight into workforce factors impacting retention and may assist in determining an organization’s competitive advantage. In theory, having an open dialogue with a departing employee, may reveal the existence of a problem manager or some other not as obvious issue, identify training gaps, and (if the employee is leaving for another job offer) a comparison of benefits and workplace features to those of a competitor.

However, obtaining this type of information may not be easy. Employees, afraid of burning a bridge or reprisal, may only offer superficial feedback. In contrast, employees leaving on unfavorable terms may overemphasize negative critique.

A study by Feinberg and Jeppeson (2000) examined the consistency between employee reasons for leaving during exit interviews conducted immediately and again 2-years post-departure. The responses differed significantly, with immediate exit interview responses being more careful or positive than those shared once the separation was complete and time had passed.

Additionally, a 2013 review of exit interview programs from 210 organizations in 33 industries revealed that very little positive organizational change resulted from the feedback (Spain & Groysberg, 2016). An ineffective strategy in conducting exit interviews and following up on the information received can limit results.

Here are 6 strategies to formalize the exit interview structure to guide the process, ensure consistency and achieve improvement:

  1. Interviews should be scheduled with the employee to allow ample time for the employee to prepare for the conversation. Let the employee know the purpose of the interview (i.e. what the organization is looking to gain from the conversation) and possibly provide the employee with a list of the questions that will be asked in advance. This will help the employee to reflect on the upcoming conversation and potentially provide more thoughtful responses than off-the-cuff ones.
  2. Communicate the expectations of confidentiality and reinforce this expectation by having a neutral party conduct the interview (some organizations use their HR representative or a manager from a different agency for this role). This can be beneficial in instances when the employee is leaving on negative terms and there’s a risk of increased tension.
  3. The interview itself should take place as the last item for the employee to complete before formally leaving employment. If it can be held just prior to ending the workday, it provides a clean break of employment and eliminates a need for the employee to have to return at a future date.
  4. Use the meeting to provide final paperwork, go over any benefit information or changes, return employer-owned equipment and/or uniforms, and answer questions.
  5. Implement the feedback! Submit a summary of identified organizational key issues or trends to executive leadership and respective managers. Better yet, share these with all staff and ask them to help identify solutions. The best solutions are usually those conceptualized by the people impacted directly by the issue/problem.
  6. Lastly, share these exit interview follow-up successes on a regular basis with all staff. The more accustomed the organization becomes to follow through from exit interview feedback, the more likely current employees will gain confidence in the process. In turn, they may see the benefit of their parting words, increasing the likelihood of conveying useful feedback.

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