Job turnover in Britain, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, is the highest in Europe: average tenure is now little more than six years. Yet whenever an employee leaves, the company is liable to lose something of value. His or her knowledge, views and experience walk out of the door. One way of capturing that knowledge is via an exit interview.
Exit interviews can be an outstanding source of feedback about an organisation, according to Jeff Grout, managing director of the recruitment agency Robert Half. A formal, structured and confidential interview, conducted by a line manager or member of the personnel department, will provide the company with useful insights that could be of direct assistance in recruiting a replacement, for example. `During an exit interview you can learn how a person's role has evolved. That gives the employer a better idea of what sort of skills and qualifications are required by his successor - or perhaps whether a successor is required at all.'
In a recent survey of 150 executives conducted by Robert Half International, over 40% said that exit interviews provided valuable information on departmental matters, and more than a third claimed to have learned how aspects of corporate policy could be refined.
Consultancy Pencorp Heritage also favours exit interviews as a means of smoothing the transition between one employee and the next. `Our technique documents the outgoing individual's memories and experiences for the benefit of the incoming appointee,' explains director Arnold Kransdorff. `We capture the intangibles such as corporate culture, management and communications style, and recent events that all new appointees need to assimilate in order to operate effectively.' It can take up to 12 months or longer for an individual to settle into an unfamiliar job and become fully productive, argues Kransdorff. Exit interviews help to cut this time.
When John Antcliffe, a merchant bank executive, left the company, he spent half a day talking to Pencorp personnel. His former personnel director reports that `The project went far beyond any of our expectations. Unless a new employee reads the culture here right, then they are going to find it extremely difficult to be productive. This interview was an efficient way of reflecting the reality of the job and the company. '
UK business in general has not exactly taken to the idea. Fewer than a quarter of UK companies use exit interviews, Grout estimates. The reason, he suggests, is that management believes it will hear nothing but criticism from job leavers. `Not all employees leave because of dissatisfaction - it may be there are better opportunities elsewhere.' So the employer loses the chance of gleaning useful information about the way the company is perceived. But acceptance may be growing. Jackie Brock-Doyle, corporate communications manager at Kingfisher, believes that exit interviews have a value. `They can be a good barometer of the company's health,' she says.
Barclays Bank, which has seen 18,500 employees depart over the past four years, has no formal policy of exit interviewing except for graduate recruits. Spokeswoman Jane Vidler explains: `If staff leave then we would of course encourage managers to find out why.' Exit interviews should not be necessary. `If an organisation is working correctly there should be mechanisms for staff feedback along the way, and comprehensive means of monitoring staff views. At Barclays we have staff focus groups, an ideas committee, staff forums and an active trade union, so we are very well aware of staff views and their feelings on issues that directly affect them.'
It's possible that these views might be expressed with increasing candour as the day of departure approaches. But what intelligent company could fail to be interested in the image of it that its once-valued employees carry away?