Understanding why people leave your organisation

Author: PM editorial | Date: 16 Mar 2016

Some attrition is unavoidable but exit interviews can prevent further unwanted departures

Employees moving on can be a costly business. There’s lost productivity before and after they go, the cost of hiring a replacement (and the possibility they won’t work out) and the impact on the morale of the remaining team members.
While some attrition is unavoidable, HR departments increasingly believe that exploring the details of who’s leaving, and why, can help direct some simple interventions that might prevent the pain of unwanted departures.
The basic building block of understanding attrition is to conduct an exit interview with a departing employee. The question is whether they will feel able to tell the truth, particularly if they are leaving because of issues with particular manager.
"You can have a conversation with the person, but they might be reticent about sharing the real reason they are leaving," says Michael Jenkins, chief executive at UK and Singapore-based leadership institute Roffey Park.
Darryl Parrant, group managing director for Align HR Consulting in Singapore, says it’s essential exit interviews are conducted by someone other than the person's line manager – either HR or an outside consultant. Some companies now also follow up with employees a few months after they have left, as this can improve the level of honesty.
"It is important to get constructive feedback that is honest and reflective of their experiences in the workplace," says Parrant. He suggests allowing the departing employee to complete an exit questionnaire which can be held for a specified period – perhaps a month or two after their departure – before being shared with key individuals including managers.
A standardised questionnaire or exit interview questions can enable any data gathered to be easily compared. "The questions need to be carefully crafted and selected. It might ask you to tick the main reason you are leaving - manager support, career development and opportunity, rewards and benefits, moving overseas, family reasons etc. Having a scale for scoring, as well as open-ended questions, is important to ensure the data can be measured and quantified," says Parrant.
"Clearly, within the bounds of confidentiality, there could be scope for sharing it with the person's direct line manager, particularly if there were negative things said, so there is an opportunity to discuss them," adds Jenkins. "Secondly, where necessary, share the findings with the top team and ask 'is this a blip or a trend?', 'Is this a sign that we haven't been as good as we could have been and how can we do better?'"
Parrant agrees. He says exit data should be collated and shared with management on a quarterly basis. If a trend or theme emerges, HR should raise it with management and recommend a deeper investigation. "This is important, as it may require a behaviour change, a structural change, a system or process change, or a personnel change." Some companies are investing in sentiment analysis tools that can forensically analyse key phrases from exit interviews to draw deeper conclusions from across the organisation.
But beware assuming that all staff attrition is the same: it is worth giving more weight to the experiences and feedback of those employees you particularly wanted to keep, or who are particularly difficult to replace, and potentially focusing your retention efforts on such precious cohorts.
Jenkins also suggests businesses should think carefully about succession planning so managers are pressed to consider which employees might leave. "If you assess the people you have on your team, part of that is identifying the people who might not stay. It encourages managers to be alive to how their people are feeling."