When Colleagues Leave

3 questions that everyone should be asked at their exit interview.

January 3, 2019

People leave.

That our best colleagues will move on to other jobs at other places should mostly make us happy.

After all, they are mostly moving on to better things. Bigger jobs. More responsibility. New challenges. The chance to have a more substantial impact.

Good colleagues help each other leave. They pass along positions that they know are coming open. They encourage colleagues to apply when big jobs come open. They recommend each other to recruiters. They write job recommendations.

Still, it is hard when good people decide to move on. A university is nothing but its people. Higher education is talent dependent in ways that other industries are not.

Companies retain valuable intellectual property and brand equity when employees turnover. Universities have some non-people assets - such as their brands and endowments and campuses - but those things don’t make the place what it is.

The quality of a university is dependent on the quality of its people. When even a few of the best folks move on the loss can feel disproportionately large.

That colleges and universities are so people dependent is one reason why the higher ed ecosystem is so economically challenged. People account for around three-quarters of the costs for most universities.

Universities run on relationships, tacit knowledge, and networks. Getting anything done in a university requires a deep understanding of the local culture, the hidden constraints, and the available workarounds.

Knowledge of how the university works can take years to build up.

Trust across the institution must be earned.

For all these reasons, it is vital that universities find some way to build institutional knowledge each time someone decides to move to a new job at another school or organization.

We can learn a great deal about how to improve our institutions by trying to understand why people move on to the next one.

Unfortunately, university exit interviews are seldom done systematically and thoroughly. That an exit interview even occurs often depends on the actions of leadership in a department, school, unit or center.

University HR departments seem to prioritize onboarding more than offboarding.

We should think about staff and faculty who leave our schools more like graduates than ex-employees. A former university employee should be considered something akin to alumni.

Efforts to keep in contact with former employees should be as robust as outreach to former students.

An excellent place to start would be a standard exit interview — one given to every staff and faculty member who leaves the institution.

A good exit interview should contain the following 3 questions:

Q1. Why are you leaving?

Q2. Is there anything that we could have done to have made you stay?

Q3. How can we make your job better for the next person?

These 3 questions may seem simple, but again they are rarely asked. Nor are the data from exit interviews routinely collected, aggregated, anonymized, analyzed, or shared.  Colleges and universities don’t have a  good idea about why people leave, and therefore have trouble crafting workable recruitment and retention strategies.

What has your experience with exit interviews?


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