Career Coach: Talk to employees before they leave

February 5, 2012

Some experts are warning of a “resume tsunami” as the economy recovers. They are predicting employees, particularly top performers, are likely to look for greener pastures as the job market improves. This means employers need to be at the top of their game to hold onto their talent.

Many firms have relied on exit interviews to learn why their employees decide to leave. The goal is to gain candid information about the company that can be used to address the reasons why some leave. But to do this, employers need to ask the right questions.

Too often, exit interviews are poorly conducted by ill-trained individuals who don’t really know why or how to use the information they collect. Or, employees don’t tell them the real reasons they are leaving the firm because they are fearful of burning bridges.

All firms, even small ones, should take the time to meet with employees before they voluntarily leave the firm. When conducting an exit interview, the interviewer must make sure to treat the information confidentially (i.e., using the date in aggregate form only and not revealing who made what comments).

Interviewers need to be well trained in active listening and be sure not to overreact to any venting done by the employee. Using structured questions, interviewers can ask about topics such as the work itself, pay and benefits, training and mentoring, performance reviews, career growth opportunities, management issues and the culture and environment.

Or they can have employees complete a survey and mail it in after they have left. Using an outside person can also be effective in providing a neutral party that an employee may feel more comfortable openly talking with.

While exit interviews can yield valuable information, they only offer a partial picture of how employees feel. At a recent Society for Human Resource Management conference, presenter Dick Finnegan talked about using “stay interviews” to glean insights. As he noted, exit interviews are “autopsies that seldom lead to improvements.”

Instead with stay interviews, managers let employees know they want them to stick around, and ask them what they can do to keep them at the firm (i.e., “How can I make your work better?”). This sends a powerful signal to current employees that you value them and want to meet their needs.

I think stay interviews make great sense. Why not periodically ask employees how they feel about their work, supervisor, working conditions, pay, colleagues, etc.? Why wait until they leave to finally ask for their views? At that point they are out the door and the firm has lost a good employee.

Another idea for retaining top talent is for the firm to reward its managers for holding onto their stars. This would encourage them to be more proactive about collecting feedback to find out how their employees feel about working at the firm.

It is critical to your company to gain information as soon as possible and then use this knowledge to revise the company’s strategic plan, recruiting strategies, training plans or management development programs. And most importantly, make sure the information is given to senior managers so action can be taken in a timely fashion to hold onto the top talent you have.

Joyce E. A. Russell is the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership and career management. She can be reached at jrussell@rhsmith.umd.edu.

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