Making the Case for Exit Interviews
Supporting and learning from departing employees
The Brief Case 📚→ 💼 → 📊 →📈
In our part of the world (northeastern United States), Spring offers a beauty tinged with urgency. As plants and flowers and trees start to bloom, and a whiff of summer’s sumptuous laziness starts to hang in the air, schools crank into their final countdowns. Somehow, miraculously, always by surprise, time becomes finite: only 8 more classes before the exam, only 2 more staff meetings, only 4 more all-school assemblies. How will we fit it all in — next year’s book orders, re-enrollment details, class selections, final exams, final reports — while keeping our eyes on the details of our closing exercises, of our pomp and circumstance, and of the transition of our learning spaces into summer camp centers or construction sites?
That question is the shuffle. Often lost in that shuffle are the faculty, staff members, administrators, and board members moving on from our schools. Like maple trees among the rest of what's in bloom, schools drop some of their seeds in the spring time. And these seeds lead not only to plenty of yard work — i.e., hiring, transitioning — but also to an opportunity for new growth.
Such growth, potentially across several school functions, can be nurtured intentionally via the conversational work of exit interviews. They are worth the investment because the opportunities they present are myriad and longterm: for the
outgoing employees, for the remaining school, for the health of the school’s network and brand, and if the person is moving on to a new independent school, for the good of the larger independent school project.
📚 The Learning Case for Exit Interviews
Let’s first consider some possible prompts for an exit interview protocol.
Please state your name, current role, and number of years working at the school.
This type of question can be asked at the start or end of an exit interview. As an opening, it is an easy question for the participant to answer. As a closing, it is a definitive anchor point to end the conversation. It may seem ridiculous to ask someone you know to state their name (and even more so in an unrecorded conversation), but it is a helpful icebreaking move.
What has been the highlight of your time at [INSERT SCHOOL HERE]? What has been your biggest challenge? What attracted you to [INSERT SCHOOL HERE]?
These are some of the generative, open-ended questions that can elicit helpful data for the school.
Why are you leaving? If you could develop or transform the school in any way, what 3 things would you do to heighten its vitality and overall health? How was your relationship with your supervisor?
If someone is moving on from your school for a good and exciting reason — say, a leadership opportunity or a family relocation — then they are likely feeling positive about, if not grateful toward, your school. Any questions you ask them about how your school could be better would likely be answered with an honesty borne of deep care for the institution and its people. We learn best in such moments.
On the flip-side, someone moving on for less positive reasons — either because they were asked to leave or because they were so unhappy that they decided to leave — will offer your school a different kind of feedback. What you hear may be emotional or even tinged with anger, but it will still convey information. And in fact, this information may be valuable because of its honest, unfiltered quality. While it can be unpleasant to listen, and learn, under such conditions, preparing to be receptive, and operating delicately and honestly within the guardrails of a good interview and reporting process, can help you to separate signal from noise.
Regardless, exit interviews offer an opportunity to learn from people before they have more distance from your community and their experience as an employee of your school. By assuming an appropriate learning posture toward departing employees — digging in and probing for specificity with positive employees and opening space for and not being defensive toward less positive employees — we will simultaneously activate all kinds of goodwill.
Listening shows care — care that may be cherished by departing employees and noted by employees that are not leaving. Ask yourself: What do I want departing employees to learn about my school as they leave it? How do I want them to feel? What do I want remaining employees to learn about my school as others leave it? How do I want them to feel as others leave the school?
Learning by listening allows you to uncover “low hanging fruit” (hiccups in the system that can be easily addressed) and to begin to understand more systemic challenges (structural issues that might require extensive effort and focus to address). Clarity is often one of the gifts of departure. Invite departing employees to tap into it and share it: What would have allowed you to stay? How can we improve the employee or student experience for those who choose to remain? If the school can do one thing differently for its employees next year, what should it be?
Deepening by resetting a relationship allows for rich connections that can become valuable later on for a school’s learning. Just this week, we both reached out to former colleagues to help us solve current problems. Their sense of our problem-solving contexts proved invaluable; their care for our schools motivated them to borrow time from their schedule to gather resources; their growth outside of our schools allowed them to provide insight that they may not have had access to if they remained with us.
And then there is the benefit to future recruiting and your school’s overall brand, as your former employees teach their new colleagues, in real time, about your school. If you’ve ever been in a meeting and heard, “At my old school, ________, we ________ and it worked well,” you are experiencing firsthand the benefit of having a positive agent in the field. You plant the seeds for such work in all kinds of ways — including the exit interview process.
For fans of your school, exit interviews help to extend and celebrate the deep relationship that helped them to flourish in the first place. For people who have experienced some kind of break from your school, an exit interview can be the beginning of repair — a variation on the kind of restorative practice so many schools are championing these days [See also Making the Case for Eating One’s Own Dogfood].
💼 The Business Case for Exit Interviews
We have stated this before — because it is important — and we will say it again — because it is important. Hiring is expensive. As such, we need to learn voraciously, in as many ways as possible, often and always, how best to retain people.
Exit interviews, if handled with consistent discipline, can increase retention by identifying issues within a school’s control. Additionally, they can assist with risk management in that they can help you to identify and correct issues that could become costly if unchecked. From a business perspective, then, exit interviews can be a helpful net for catching those pests that have not been previously nabbed by other ongoing systems of review in the school.
An exit interview might surface:
Inequitable practices (or ones that feel that way). For example, on the way out, some people might reveal feeling that they were discriminated against if not given housing or some other 'exceptional' benefit. Even though there is no legal reason that certain benefits can't be discretionary, you will want to uncover perceptions around such things if your school offers them.
Details about poor onboarding experiences or never feeling fully included. Both point to cost or retention risk.
Indications of poor discipline issues in a division. This one points to student or wellness risk.
Behaviors in supervisors/leadership that are unsavory. The risks latent here are abundant.
It is worth dwelling for a moment longer on why exit interviews have the potential to surface items that often remain buried. An effective evaluation system or communication flow should help you to ‘get ahead’ of most problems. Yet that only works if those channels are functioning effectively, and you might not hear a critique of either until you find yourself sitting with someone with no ‘dog in the fight.’ Often, in schools, issues are not surfaced because school personnel want to avoid conflict rather than address it. The dynamic of people, especially at schools, means that some employees feel uncomfortable sharing certain things out of concern for upsetting/disrupting the community (a questionable kind of selflessness) or out of concern for making things uncomfortable for themselves in the short run (a common form of selfishness). As Jay Gatsby said, when commenting on an imperfect relationship, “It was just personal.”
Last, and on the other side of the spectrum (i.e., not risk), exit interviews are good for our larger business model. If activated and engaged by a good exit interview, an outgoing employee may be more fully primed to contribute at their next school, to speak favorably of their previous school, and to share the belief that independent schools offer dignity and grace, at all phases of employment, to the professionals who choose to work in them.
📈 Return on Investment for Exit Interviews
There is certainly a setup cost (mostly time) to build an exit interview process into the larger off-boarding process your school may have. Yet, taking the time to learn about what is within your control to adjust will reduce wasteful spending in the future due to high turnover (recruiting costs, etc), or in the worst case, litigious situations.
The setup costs include designing a protocol, training interviewers, and building out (or in, if a module already exists within an HR platform) the system that will be the place of record. From that point in future years, the cost is simply the time of the process owner, the interviewers, and the data analyzers/reports. We would argue that this kind of work is already baked into the responsibilities of those who should be doing the work (company officers, HR folks, and institutional data handlers). Following that logic, the one-time investment in starting up the process will have annual returns with regular maintenance.
The return on investment from each exit interview cycle will be seen in next year’s budget. That is, by addressing issues and amplifying strengths gleaned from the interviews, a school can correlate its retention in any given year with the initial startup investment of time and energy in the process.
A grimmer angle could be to consider the costs or risks of not having such a process. What future risks are not being mitigated (i.e., what risks are being blissfully or calculatingly ignored)? A quick Google search will let you know the range of damages from discrimination suits, but they do not also necessarily include the somewhat unquantifiable costs to reputation (for attracting new families, for recruiting employees, for retention, and so on).
📈 Return on Learning for Exit Interviews
It is important to create a repeatable, improvable protocol and process for exit interviews that is also sustainable.
Once you’ve collected your likely narrative-based data from interviewer notes, ask at least two people who have been designated with privileges to review the data to each take two passes at analyzing it. The first pass (per assigned person) is to jot down the significant issues raised regardless of frequency. The second pass is to determine the frequency of those issues as they appear in the interview notes.
The two reviewers should complete this exercise independently, and then they should compare and combine their analyses. This approach will allow the results to be processed in aggregate enough to be shareable to a wider audience (e.g., the school’s leadership team, the entire HR/business office, supervisors, and so on). You should aim to produce a data point for the year in what can and should be an annual entry of exit interview analysis results. Ideally, high frequency negative issues (by percentage of frequency for number of interviews) will diminish in their frequency each year.
Conducting effective exit interviews is something we’d call a win-win-win scenario. The school benefits because it gains insights at a one-of-a-kind moment in an employer/employee relationship (leaving the job). The moment is similar, in its potential impact, to onboarding; someone is only a new colleague and departing colleague once (unless they choose to return, which can be a result of an effective exit interview).
The departing employee benefits by having a moment of formally acknowledged closure, even if the departure was contentious/involuntary; in the long run, the opportunity to participate in such an exercise will be seen as net positive (and ideally, engaging in it will be seen the same as well).
Some institutions will only allow designated HR officers to conduct such interviews. Other institutions will train a small population of respected employees about procedures and best practices, especially those that enhance confidentiality and empathy and limit liability. Just remember that the interviewer benefits as well, so widening that circle thoughtfully will likely have positive ripple effects for your community.
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