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“I need to talk to you today or tomorrow.”

It is one sentence that strikes fear in the heart of any manager when spoken by an employee. Most of the time employees don’t request to talk to you, but in my experience, 9 out of 10 times when I hear this sentence it is because someone on my team wants to give notice.

Finding great people is difficult, and then once someone is up and running and firing on all cylinders, the last thing you want is to lose them. Replacing employees is expensive.

Yet on many teams, the only times managers think about employee satisfaction is when someone leaves or gives notice. In fact, most companies have exit interviews where the sole purpose is to get feedback from employees that can be used to improve the organization for current and future employees.

So here is my big idea for you for this week – do exit interviews with your current employees now. Call them “Happiness Interviews” or “Satisfaction Surveys” or something else clever of your choosing, but this week schedule time to check in with every person on your team about how you can be making their life better now, before they are thinking about leaving.



Conducting your happiness interviews

The trick to doing these meetings well is treat them like a real exit interview. In an exit interview, the employee has little to lose – they are leaving the company, after all.  Of course, that won’t be the case with your current employees, so to create a similar effect for them you will need to insulate them as much as possible from the people who have control over their career. You want to make it easy for them to be honest.

Here are some ideas to help you get forthright answers:

  • Make it clear *why* you are doing the interviews. Be transparent about your motivations. You want to make your company a great place to work, so there’s no need to hide that fact. Let the employees know that their opinions are for information only and won’t be used against them.
  • Pick the right interviewer. The best circumstance would be to use someone outside the company whose sole job it is to collect feedback and then work with the executive team to analyze it. Of course, this may not be possible with your budget so if you don’t want to hire someone trained to do this, then try to get someone from a different department or HR to conduct the interviews for you. Ideally, the interviewer would not be at all within an employee’s chain of command.
  • Make the interview one-on-one and conduct it in private. This should be obvious, but it is important each person gets the chance be heard individually, in confidence.
  • Reassure the employee before the interview. Make sure that they really know that the feedback is just to make the company better and their opinions won’t be stored as part of their permanent record etc. It helps to remind them before – and even during – the interview, since it can feel really nerve-wracking to critique your manager or company leadership. If it helps, the interviewer can even explain the process of how their information will be anonymously recorded and analyzed; the more details the better, so people feel reassured that they can truly speak their mind.


Asking good questions

Your feedback is only going to be as good as the questions that you ask. You want to ask things that are open-ended and encourage a healthy conversation. You also don’t want to dig too deeply, since it can make the employee uncomfortable or cause regrets after the fact.

As for the specific questions, you can Google exit interview questions and find all kinds of options. I would err on the side of a few simple questions that can highlight actionable things you can address, rather than trying to ask as many questions as possible.

For example, questions like “what kind of benefits do you wish we had?” are bad. Those sorts of pie-in-the-sky questions may generate some creative responses but I bet a lot of the answers might not be in your budget.

It is much better to say something like, “We are considering adding new benefits next year. Which would you rather have: a gym membership, free lunch on Thursdays, or a quarterly team dinner?”

In addition to specific things you want feedback on, you can also ask touchy feely questions like:

  • How do you feel about working with your supervisor and coworkers?
  • Do you believe you work is recognized and appreciated?
  • Do you see opportunity for promotion or advancement here? What do you want to do next?
  • How would you describe our morale? How would you describe our culture?
  • Do you feel you are compensated fairly? (This can be a hot one if you have someone asking the questions that actually has control over compensation, which is why it’s great to get someone outside the chain of command. However, it is a great way to identify people who feel like they are undercompensated before they leave for a bigger salary.)

Like any line of questioning though, establish your goals first. Do you want to know who on your team is at risk for leaving the company? Do you want to get feedback on managers and leaders in your organization? Do you just want to take the temperature of the organization?

Pick one goal, and focus on asking really good questions about it. Don’t try to get every single answer possible in one interview; better to get really good answers on something you want to know about now.

If you establish your goals ahead of time, you can communicate those up front (hopefully encouraging employees to give you more directed answers) and help you address the feedback afterward.


Closing the loop

If you take the trouble to conduct these sorts of interviews, then make an effort to take action with the feedback. If you don’t make changes, then people will feel like they weren’t heard.

At a minimum, I would encourage you to summarize the themes from the feedback and share it in a meeting or email with all the employees that participated. It also helps to let people know that if they said something specific they want addressed and don’t see it in the summary that they should follow up with their manager directly, since this feedback is not part of their record and won’t be referenced in the future.

By being concrete about what actions you plan to take (or not take) and sharing what you heard, you are building a transparent culture. Success comes from people’s ability to work together, share ideas and insights, and their ability to trust one another. If you are a leader in your organization, don’t you want to take a step towards a trust-based culture?

If you have other ideas or suggestions, or you have done something like this at your office – leave it in the comments.


Tags: better leader, change, communication, exit interview, leadership practice, opportunity, team,

2 Responses to “Why doing an exit interview with your employee now could help you avoid one in the future”

  1. Brendan Gregg

    Great post and idea. Maybe I’d call them “retention surveys”: “retention” to imply the goal, and “survey” to imply anonymity.

    Exit interviews themselves are broken for a number of reasons, as you’ve described.

    Airing new grievances in an exit interview may also be a sign that your company has a communication problem. I try to let my management know what problems I’m having early, and suggest fixes. And often they do those fixes. If I do leave a job, I aim to have nothing new to say in the exit interview. But this approach doesn’t work for everyone: approaching management in this way can be intimidating, especially if the problem is management (as you said, “nerve-wracking”), and employees may also be reticent due to culture, specific relationships with management, and/or individual character traits. Retention surveys, as you’ve described, may well be the most practical fix.

    Some IT employees are also top talent: someone who can work 10x or 100x faster than average. But I suspect that’s only if they are motivated and happy. If they become demotivated, it may take them months before they finally find a similar job with the same specializations elsewhere and leave — months where they may have been working at a fraction of their fast rate, say, 5x. The company lost 95x productivity. But only when they quit will many companies take notice. However, at this point the company is only losing the remaining 5x productivity. The real problem was months ago when they were demotivated. A retention survey can not only help retain the top talent, but keep them motivated and fully productive.

    I once had a dream job with a great team of top talent, but we got a new manager who wasn’t interested in fixing any problems, even though we were communicating. Over time it became really annoying and demotivating to put up with, and we spent a lot of time doing our own workarounds. The job was specialized and there was no where else to do it. We finally called the manager to a crisis meeting to ask why the easy stuff wasn’t being fixed, and his response was:

    “Until we see attrition, there isn’t a problem”

    We exchanged looks — who, on this top talent team, would give up their dream job so that the others could be happy? It was an absurd situation. There was indeed a problem, but someone would have to quit to have it taken seriously. That’s exit-interview thinking.

    Thanks for the post Kate, this is an important idea. Some companies already do something similar — checking employee satisfaction using outside consulting — however, treating it as an early exit interview really nails the problem.

    • katemats

      Thanks for the comment, Brendan.
      I definitely liked hearing about your experience – and that you found the ideas in the post useful. :)