Exit Interviews

Exit Interviews: Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How

Kellie G. Olah, CVPM, SPHR, SHRM-CP

Veterinary Business Advisors, Inc.

 

One of the most valuable assets at your veterinary practice is the people you employ, with skilled ones having the ability to boost the quality of service you provide to clients and their animal companions. Sometimes, though, these employees leave, doing so for a variety of reasons. This can present challenges for your practice, but it also offers a silver lining opportunity if you conduct an exit interview to gather insights from that departing team member.

To help your practice extract maximum value out of these interviews, we’ll share insights into the who, what, when, where, why, and how of it all—starting with the “why.”

 

Why?

Employees often have deep insights into what works well at your practice—and what doesn’t. They may not have felt comfortable sharing their thoughts while working at the organization but may feel freer to have an honest conversation once they will be leaving.

Through these exit interviews, you can glean information about why this particular employee is leaving and then use what you learn to improve working conditions and boost productivity and retention—which in turn can save your practice money. After all, it isn’t cheap to recruit, hire, and train new employees.

Reasons why people leave can range from their salary and benefits to being recruited by another company that appeals to them, experiencing problems with management and/or other employees, and so forth. Some people may be reluctant to share issues of concern, even on their way out, while others will be happy to have the opportunity. So, it’s important to prepare an approach for either possibility.

You can also take what you learn from exit interviews to look for patterns. If one person admits she is leaving because of a particular manager, it may be a personality conflict. If four out of the last five people who left mention that same manager, that’s an entirely different situation.

 

Who?

People involved in the exit interview will include the employee who is leaving the practice, along with the person or people conducting the interview and collecting data. This raises the question of who the interviewer(s) should be. Many companies assume this is a human resources function and so they have their HR manager conduct the interview. Although this can elicit helpful information, this person will almost certainly focus on HR issues—salary, benefits, and so forth—and may miss out on the bigger scope.

Having a direct supervisor conduct the interview can create a comfortable atmosphere, given that the employee and supervisor had an open and positive relationship. However, if the employee is leaving—in part or in full—because of that supervisor, that approach can be fraught with difficulties.

Some experts suggest having the supervisor’s supervisor (or, if part of a large company, even one level above that) conduct the interviews. At a small practice, this may mean the practice owner would be the one to hold them. For some exiting employees, this could feel intimidating. For others, though, it could be viewed as a sign that their feedback is being taken seriously.

Still other companies use a consultant to conduct exit interviews. This costs money, which some practices may not want to spend. On the positive side, employees may feel more comfortable giving authentic feedback to a neutral party. Plus, an experienced consultant has the ability to draw out valuable insights and provide reliable information to the practice. Some companies have in-house exit interviews conducted, following them up with consultant-led ones.

As you can see, there is no one right answer. Think about your practice and make a savvy choice, continuing to improve upon the interviewing process whenever possible.

 

What?

The first part of the process is to schedule and hold the exit interview (more about when and where next). Explain how the purpose of the interview is to get feedback from the exiting employee to improve working conditions and otherwise meet employee needs in better ways in the future.

It makes sense to have a set of questions to use but allow for flexibility. For example, you could start by asking why the person is leaving the practice. Here are two contrasting responses you could get:

  • I got a better job.
  • I’m going to take a break from the workforce to spend more time with my young children.

You would follow up quite differently with each of these. With response one, you might use these follow-up questions:

  • What makes this a better job (salary, benefits, flexibility, etc.)?
  • When did you start looking for a new job? What was the triggering event?
  • Why did you choose to accept the new job that you did? What is more appealing to you there?

With response two, if you wanted to retain this employee, you might decide to ask if there is a way you could restructure this person’s job to allow them to have more family time while still working at your practice. Is a part-time position available?

Other questions, in general, to ask can include:

  • Did we provide you with what you needed to do your job well?
  • Did you receive helpful and clear feedback from us?
  • What else could we have provided you (training, equipment, and so forth)?
  • What are your impressions about our practice’s culture?
  • If you could change some things about our culture or working conditions, what would they be?
  • What would have helped you to stay at our practice?
  • Were you happy (or at least satisfied) with management here? If not, why not?
  • Would you consider returning here if the opportunity arose? Why or why not?

People conducting the exit interviews must be open to feedback and respectful and listen well.

 

When?

In general, it makes sense to conduct the exit interview a few days before the employee will be done at the practice. If held when the person gives notice—perhaps two weeks or a month before actually leaving—then the employee may be somewhat reluctant to share less than wonderful feedback about the practice. After all, they would still be working with the people they may criticize for a period of time.

Conversely, it’s best to avoid the last day. For some exiting employees, all they’ll be thinking about is what lies ahead and so they may not give the interview their full attention. Other employees—perhaps emotionally touched by a going away party given that day—may only give wonderful feedback, thus preventing the practice from receiving constructive criticism.

 

Where?

Exit interviews should be held, ideally in person, in a place that’s both convenient and private. Locations could range from a private office where the conversation won’t be overheard to a restaurant where a reasonably uninterrupted conversation could take place over lunch.

 

How?

How should data collected be used?

After gathering information from exit interviews, members of the practice’s management should analyze what was shared to see if changes should be made to better meet the needs of current employees. Are there, for example, voluntary benefits that you should add to your practice’s menu of choices? Should your practice offer more training opportunities? Seek out ways to build in some flex time?

After you make changes, update your employee manual appropriately and monitor the effects that changes made have on employee satisfaction, productivity, retention and so forth. Composite insights can be used in the practice’s strategic planning and recruiting strategies going forward and otherwise be factored in when making decisions that can affect employee satisfaction, productivity, and retention.

 

Sidebar: Stay Interviews

Valuable as exit interviews can be, they are still a look into a rear-view mirror. This is feedback from employees who will no longer be part of your practice. So, also consider “stay interviews” where you interview the best of your current employees. This allows you to keep a finger on your practice’s pulse. How satisfied are these employees? What issues are the most important to them? Have any of them considered seeking greener pastures? If so, when and why? Are any of them being recruited by other practices or organizations?

This gives you an opportunity to compare what you’ve learned from exit interviews with what current star employees tell you. How will this impact the changes you make at your practice? How can you use what you learn to recruit, hire, train, and retain employees in the future to strengthen your practice?

 

Lawful Terminations: A How-to Guide

When deciding whether or not to terminate an employee, and weighing the pros and cons, you need to assess the costs and benefits of keeping this employee versus firing him or her. Consider the following:

  • the nature of the behavior or performance issues involved
  • the seriousness of these issues
  • how this employee is affecting other employees or clients
  • how easily you can replace this employee
  • the costs of recruiting, hiring, training and retaining a new employee

If this employee is exposing your practice to significant legal or business risks, then the decision to terminate the employee will be different from one where, perhaps with coaching, the employee could potentially contribute to the company.

If the issues are increasing the workload and responsibility of other employees, then it is important to also consider the ripple effects that the behavior of one employee is having on the entire practice.

This article will review the key considerations when beginning the process of a lawful termination. Start with the question of why you are considering terminating this employee. It is important that you can determine the reason before moving forward with the rest of the process.

It may be tempting to terminate someone’s employment because he or she doesn’t fit well into the company culture, or isn’t especially likeable.  It’s easy to revert to the notion of at-will employment when that’s the case. The principle of at-will employment means that an employee can be fired at any time, for any reason, as long as there is not an illegal reason involved. Some people may conclude that there shouldn’t be a problem with this termination.

An issue can develop if you terminate an employee at will, and then that employee states that an illegal reason was involved. In this case, the employer must prove that this was not the situation.  Unfortunately, wrongful termination claims are not always easy to disprove. They can also harm your practice’s reputation, breed mistrust among other employees, and lead to lawsuits.

Next, we will review the following:

  • reasons for wrongful termination claims
  • the actual conversation about termination
  • information about high-risk terminations

Throughout this article, we will also share strategies to protect your practice.

Reasons for Wrongful Termination Claims

One reason for wrongful termination is employment discrimination. It can include discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. An employer also cannot discriminate against an employee because of their disability, age or pregnancy. These are all illegal reasons to fire someone. You also can’t terminate an employee as a form of retaliation. 

An employer has the legal obligation to honor employment contracts, union or non-union, including termination clauses. Not doing so is considered breach of contract. There can also be an implied breach of contract, when a company implies, either in writing or verbally, that employment is protected.

This is not intended to be a complete list of potential wrongful termination claims. Instead, it can be used to show the flaws in simply firing someone, at will. There is a more graceful way to go through the process, and  when followed, it should prevent the employee from being surprised that he or she is getting fired. Therefore, the employer is better protected against claims of wrongful termination.

Poor Performance/Behavior Over Time

It’s important to create and carefully follow a disciplinary policy for your practice. It may consist of rules such as providing an employee who has demonstrated a substandard performance with a verbal warning the first time, a written warning the second, and probation or termination on the third. In order to have an effective disciplinary policy, though, you’ll also need to have clear and consistent policies about employee behavior and performance so that your employees clearly know the practice’s expectations. The policies must be consistently enforced, as well.

When a policy is broken, you should follow your progressive disciplinary procedures in a timely way, and in a way in which the severity of consequences increases if an employee doesn’t correct the behavior. In your disciplinary meetings with that employee, you can then share what policies were broken, why this is problematic, and the consequences.

Document every time that you speak to a particular employee about the issue (such as lateness or gossiping), doing so directly after the meeting and listing the following:

  • date of the meeting
  • specific behaviors discussed
  • policy broken
  • consequence for this behavior
  • consequences if this happens again
  • employee’s responses
  • date of follow-up meeting with the employee

It is recommended that you have another manager at disciplinary meetings. This allows one person from the practice to conduct the conversation with the employee, and the other to take notes and serve as a witness. Be sure to have the employee sign relevant disciplinary documents. Following this procedure gives your employee a chance to improve, while also protecting you, as an employer, from wrongful termination claims or lawsuits.

Keep in mind that each time a disciplinary procedure occurs with an employee, the documents that you create may ultimately end up in court. Be sure to professionally list all pertinent details. Avoid judging or interpreting an employee’s behavior; for example, do not comment that while George says he’s late because of traffic, the real issue is that he’s lazy. Stick to the facts.

If your employee isn’t breaking policies, but also isn’t meeting expectations, you can create a performance improvement plan (PIP). This allows you to share goals and checkpoints, while also offering concrete next steps and support. Be sure to have the employee sign the PIP. Keep this documentation, whether disciplinary or PIP, confidential and safely stored.

One-Time Incident

Although documenting behavior or performance issues over time is best, sometimes it isn’t possible. For example, if an employee steals money, becomes violent at work, or brings illegal drugs to the workplace, then the rule that is broken is so severe that the employee needs to be fired immediately. In that case, what’s important is that you respond to any future situations of this severity at a comparable level of discipline.

Conversation about Termination

If the decision to fire a particular employee has been made, then the next issue to consider is how to have the conversation with him or her. If you’ve provided that employee with verbal and written warnings according to your company’s disciplinary policy, then you have increased your protection. Another option is to consult with your practice attorney to make sure that the termination is solid. This will prepare you in case the employee decides to pursue action against the practice.

Once you’re ready to hold the meeting, be timely about making it happen. However, take into account if that employee has something significant happening that day that could make your timing inappropriate.

It can help to have a termination agenda to keep the meeting on track and provide topics to be covered. The agenda should also include items to be returned to the employee and a reminder to get a confirmation of the person’s current address so a final paycheck can be mailed. Having an agenda can also help to guide all parties involved through what’s likely to be an emotionally-charged and stressful meeting, and help to ensure that you cover all necessary items.

Be sure that the location of the meeting is somewhere private. Then, be direct and clear without being harsh. Explain to the employee that after meeting with that employee to discuss behaviors, including the issuance of verbal and written warnings, the decision was made to separate employment that day. Be transparent and make sure you state that the decision is not negotiable. If the employee tries to debate the decision, don’t engage or try to justify yourself, and avoid saying anything that could be construed as a threat.

Keep the meeting short, lasting no longer than 10 to 15 minutes. The greater the length of the meeting, the more potential that something could be said that could expose the practice to a lawsuit. Close the meeting by thanking the employee for contributions made and extend to him or her your best wishes for the future.

An important topic to discuss is the specifics about the physical separation from the workplace. Should the employee, for example, take his or her belongings now? Or do you plan to meet him or her after hours to take out belongings when other employees aren’t at work? In some cases, the employee may have missed too much work, which led to the termination; in that case, you may want to focus on avoiding a humiliating situation for the person. If the reason for termination is something such as embezzlement, then your main focus would be to have the employee leave the workplace as soon as possible. If the ex-employee has property of someone else’s at work, or vice versa, arrangements must be made to transfer belongings.

Be prepared to answer questions that might arise. You can’t predict what they will be, but a common question is whether you will provide references for that person. Regardless of your response, make sure to protect your company while also treating the terminated employee with respect.

Prepare to provide any relevant information about the employee such as benefits, unused vacation time, or any severance agreement. Summarize all relevant information in a termination letter. This dated letter should state that the employee has been terminated, along with a brief description of why and any other pertinent details.

Afterwards, let other employees know about the termination without discussing any confidential information or making negative comments about the former employee. Be straightforward, sharing information the other employees need to know, reassuring them that the company isn’t eliminating roles. Acknowledge that, in the short term, other employees may need to help to manage that person’s workload.

High-Risk Terminations

These are terminations where employees are likely to sue the employer in connection with the termination. Some situations in which this is more likely to happen include the following:

  • employee is a member of a legally protected class
  • employee is a difficult one
  • employee has a relative who is an attorney
  • employee is surprised by the termination

As far as the first example, federal law prohibits discrimination on the basis of age (over 40), race, color, religion, sex, national origin or disability. In addition, individual states may have laws that are more stringent. When terminating the employment of someone in a protected class, the employer may be vulnerable to anti-discrimination claims for any statements made prior to, during or even after the employee’s tenure. Examples of these statements are as follows:

  • I know it must be hard to balance your job responsibilities with the new baby.
  • Most 50-year-olds would have trouble meeting the physical demands of this job.

Comments such as those are commonly part of a casual conversation with no discriminatory intent, but could add credence to a wrongful termination claim.

Other employees are difficult: argumentative and/or obstinate. They may refuse to take responsibility for their behavior or performance, becoming defensive and blaming others. Employers may be reluctant to fire this type of employee, fearing confrontation or retaliation. The practice can effectively be held hostage to this type of employee and, when fired, the employee may respond with a lawsuit.

When employees have relatives who are attorneys, it may make it easier for them to sue. The relative may even make the suggestion, and if legal services are offered to the disgruntled employee at a reduced fee, or even for free, there are fewer barriers to suing. Finally, surprised employees may be so devastated that they legally challenge the termination. These situations highlight the importance of carefully creating and following policies as described.

Conclusion

The termination process is almost always uncomfortable, carrying with it a varying degree of legal risk for your practice. Your goal is to make the process as amicable as possible while continuing to minimize risk along the way. The recommendations in this article won’t cover every situation but should provide broad guidelines that you can tailor to your unique circumstances. It is recommended to consult with an employment attorney experienced in the laws for your state.

Read more on the WMPB website here!