Before you leave…conducting exit interviews

Employee relations, staff offboarding | ,

before you leave conducting exit interviews
Man walking down road

Man walking down road

How common are exit interviews in Christian ministry?

I recently attended a conference where a number of Christian charity leaders were asked if they conducted exit interviews.  What stood out to me was that less than a quarter indicated they would conduct an exit interview if one of their team members were to leave their ministry. From my conversations with other CCCC members I know that while some of them do conduct exit interviews, many Christian charities tend to underutilize this important tool.

Just what are exit interviews exactly?

Exit interviews are an opportunity to connect with the outgoing employee and better understand their reasons for leaving, and what, if anything, the employer can do to make the work environment a better place.  The value in exit interviews isn’t in individual responses, but rather the overall trends and themes in what departing employees are saying as they leave.  For example:

  • Is there another employer that the charity is consistently losing good people to?  What are they doing (or not doing) that is attracting good people?
  • Is there a demographic (e.g. employees with less than 2 years service) that is experiencing particularly high turnover?
  • Are employees not feeling supported in their desire to learn and grow professionally and spiritually?

Charities that can identify the top 2 or 3 reasons why people choose to leave their ministry will be in a much better position to action this information in meaningful ways.

Practical application of exit interviews

Exit interviews usually include a number of demographic (e.g. department, tenure, role) and open ended questions (e.g. primary reason for leaving) that departing employees are asked prior to, or soon after leaving an organization.  Charities that conduct employee engagement surveys may want to include some of those questions, if there is a particular area the charity is focused on improving.  For example, if a charity is working on improving organizational communication, the exit interview can become another metric for evaluating the effectiveness of initiatives in that area.

It is usually a good idea to begin the exit interview by letting the employee know that their responses will be kept confidential, unless the interviewer has a reporting obligation, such as in the case of workplace violence/harassment or a breach of ethics.  It may also be appropriate to share something back with the employee’s manager if it is constructive or affirming, but only if the employee is comfortable with it and has provided their consent.

As much as possible the questions and format of these interviews should be structured in a way that asks departing employees the same questions, in the same order and in the same way.  A structured approach to exit interviews means increased confidence in the validity of any inferences that are drawn from exit interview data.

Given the sensitive nature of this information, exit interviews should be stored in a secure (e.g. password protected) manner that is consistent with the charity’s IT and record retention policies.

Common reasons for not conducting exit interviews

Here are some of the more common reasons that leaders give for not conducting exit interviews:

  1. Departing employees don’t tend to share their real reasons for leaving the organization
  2. If God is leading the employee to something different, what more is there to know?
  3. Departing employees who choose to share may be overly critical in their responses
  4. Knowledge gap – I don’t know how to conduct an exit interview or what to do with the information that is collected

Lets take a look at each of the above points and see if it makes sense for Christian charities to conduct exit interviews.

  1. Departing employees don’t tend to share their real reasons for leaving the organization. Employees usually won’t be as open in sharing if they don’t understand how the information will be used, or if they feel being candid will limit their chances for a reference or re-employment down the road. The interviewer should be able to overcome these challenges by assuring the employee that every organization has areas where it can improve, and that it is in this spirit these questions are being asked.  Confidentiality should be addressed at the beginning of the conversation, and if the charity does not have a HR professional on staff, it may make sense to have a leader other than the one the employee reports to, conduct the exit interview.
  2. If God is leading the employee to something different, what more is there to know?  In Christian ministry, when an employee gives their notice of resignation, the reason sometimes includes that God is leading them in a different direction.  This may cause some ministry leaders to think that an exit interview isn’t necessary, however the departing employee will still likely have some constructive feedback or insights to provide. Interviewers may want to probe a little further here to ensure the reason given isn’t masking an underlying problem (e.g. not feeling challenged in role, organizational stability etc.).
  3. Departing employees who choose to share may be overly critical in their responses. My experience has been that very few employees actually fall into this category and wouldn’t be enough to skew the charity’s overall exit interview results.  Departing employees usually want to leave well and will offer their perspective if trust exists and they feel it may result in positive change.  While exit interview data shouldn’t be weighted as heavily as employee engagement results, exit interviews should not be overlooked as an important source of information.
  4. Knowledge gap – I don’t know how to conduct an exit interview or what to do with the information that is collected.  Conducting exit interviews is definitely something that charity leaders can and should learn to do well.  Leaders that incorporate the best practices from this blog post will be well on their way to effectively conducting exit interviews.  Charities should look for ways to identify the overall trends and themes in the exit survey data to complement their employee engagement surveys and any other metrics they may have around employee engagement.  This higher level data can be put into a dashboard or report and provided to the charity’s senior leadership or board of directors.

Closing thoughts

In a world of social media, we rate everything from the food at our favourite restaurants, to the coffee maker we bought our spouse for Christmas (glad I read the review!) and even our experience at the family doctor.  Employers are not immune from this, and departing employees, particularly ones that feel disenchanted about their employment experience, tend to be the most vocal when taking to social media sites like Glassdoor and Rate My Employer.  For this reason, my next blog posts will focus on the topic of employee engagement and what charities can do to engage the hearts and minds of their employees.

While conducting exit interviews won’t change what departing employees say about your charity on social media, they can definitely provide some valuable and actionable insight into why people are choosing to leave your ministry and how to make your work environment a better place for everyone.


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