lone woman walking underneath several exit signs in a dark corridor
PHOTO: Ross Griff

It's always important to check-in with your employees to deliver feedback and stay connected. However, given that the US unemployment rate is currently at an historic low, it is more important than ever to be vigilant about employee engagement and retention. According to the United States Department of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate was at 3.9 percent at the end August. In June, it was 3.8, the lowest since 2000. “We have very low unemployment, and what's happening now is we're getting high turnover because people are seeing opportunities,” said Paula Harvey, SHRM-SCP, vice president of human resources at Schulte Building Systems. “You’ve got to make sure you're engaging them. You’ve got to give them opportunities for advancement.”

So, if you can't prevent an employee from leaving you should at least take the opportunity to learn. Organizations can improve employee engagement and experiences by conducting exit interviews. The exit interview can help you better understand what went wrong and how you can make things better for existing and future employees. The employee departure can be a goldmine of lessons learned and spark data-collection efforts in crucial areas, HR experts told CMSWire. Departing employees, Harvey said, “can be a good conduit of finding out the temperature of what's going on.”

We caught up with Harvey and another HR professional to discuss five lessons they've learned from departing employees.

Related Article: 7 Tips for Conducting Better Exit Interviews

1. We Need Better Dental

During one experience at a former organization, Harvey conducted an exit interview with an employee who had struggled balancing a side job with his full-time job and decided to leave the company. His exit interview revealed his surprising reason for leaving. He told Harvey that he had been talking to fellow employees who each wished the company had a better dental program. 

This proved to be very valuable information that was acted on immediately. “I went back to the owners of the company, and they ended up getting a much better dental program,” Harvey said. “And I would say about 70 percent of the employees signed up for that new dental program.”

2. Time Off

Another exit interview with an employee from a former company allowed Harvey to recognize that many employees who were working crazy hours longed for some built-in, company-wide time off. “He told me I know the guys feel like they are working so many hours,” Harvey recalled. “They asked if they could just have a Friday afternoon off in the summer.”

Harvey relayed the information to the vice president of operations. The next Friday, all employees were allowed to leave at noon. “I had a line outside of my office of people thanking me for the Friday afternoon off. It was crazy how many people wanted to thank me.”

Related Article: The Forgotten Employee Experience: When People Quit

3. Uncomfortable in Open Office Environment

Ashley Inman, SHRM-SCP, SPHR, who handles talent management at Ferrovial Services North America, said sometimes a change in office structure can have a huge impact on one employee, which can lead to more informed research. She conducted an exit interview with a woman who described the open office environment as being “really discriminatory toward older women.”

The woman went on to explain that she was having hot flashes, and that there was nowhere for her to go when this happened, or nowhere to plug in a fan. Everything she needed to do to care for herself would have to be out in the open. “That kind of stuck with me because I never really thought about it from that perspective,” Inman said.

This experience prompted Inman to do more research and start looking for data about their office environment. Turns out, millennials tended to favor the open office, but the company for which Inman worked was mostly Generation Xers. “That was a huge data point that I used with leadership,” Inman said. “There's only one generation that actually really enjoys the open office format. But that was not the dominant population of our organization.”

4. Illegal Practices Going On

One employee told Inman during an exit interview that she didn’t feel comfortable because of what she described as “illegal practices” in terms of payroll. The employee didn’t want to say anything publicly and instead resigned before it became a problem for her. “It's interesting what people will share,” Inman said. “And sometimes there will be a high reluctance to share a lot of details. So I find myself asking a lot of questions. What made you start looking for a job? When did things change for you?”

Related Article: Understanding The Difference Between Employee Experience And Engagement

5. Things Became Siloed 

Other employees shared that they had begun to feel left out. They told Inman, “Things were great for me up until the past couple years when things became very siloed. I was not invited to meetings anymore. I was cut out of the process, changes and system updates.” Input like this can help HR executives like Inman communicate back to managers about their relationships with their direct reports. 

Conclusion: Get Ahead of Poor Employee Experiences

While you can learn a great deal from a departing employee, Harvey and Inman agreed it’s better to be engaged with employees while they are still with the company. “A lot of different organizations don't care what information is revealed during the exit interview process,” Inman said, “because by that point, it’s so late in the game. I've learned as an HR practitioner to coach the organization and the business leadership to really focus more on the onboarding process. If things are going wrong earlier in the process in the first 90 days or so, and those one-on-one relationships are not happening with the managers, there's time to course-correct and fix the relationship before it gets to the exit interview.”