I know I’m not telling you anything you haven’t already figured out.  An agency’s employees are so much more than the life blood.  They are the walking, talking embodiment of your company.  And when they leave — you can learn a great deal, if you conduct exit interviews.

I’ve been really fortunate.  In the almost 20 years of owning my agency, I’ve had (and have) some incredible employees.  They’ve gone on to do amazing things like start their own agency, work for Dow Jones, opt to stay home and raise three wonderful boys, work for Meredith Publishing, BBDO and many other fine companies.

Of course, there’s the other side of the coin too.  Some self-destructed, others…I mis managed or put into the wrong position and set them up to fail.  Some of them are still friends.  Others curse my name, I’m sure.  Honestly, that’s one of the most painful elements of owning an agency for me.  I know I preach that we should have have thick skins, but I can’t say I have that mastered.

But no matter how/why someone leaves your agency, don’t miss the opportunity to to conduct an exit interview.  You probably won’t like everything you hear, but you will learn from it.  Every time.

Exit interviews can deliver important inside information. The way departing employees view your organization might be the way things really are.  You can do this in a few different ways.

If the employee is leaving on good terms, as the agency owner, you might be able to sit down and have a frank conversation.  But if there’s still a final paycheck pending or they don’t want to burn any bridges, you might find them less than truthful.

You can give them a written or online survey, that they could fill out after they get that last check.  The challenge with this method is that often times…they’re onto their new opportunity (or looking for a job if you fired them) and they may not be motivated to log on and give you the scoop.

You can hire a third party to conduct the exit interview for you (we do this all the time for agencies) and then provide you with a report.  The downside of this is that it’s going to cost you some money.  The upside is, you’re going to get it all — good, bad and ugly.

No matter how you seek the information, keep these tips in mind.

Dig to the heart of the matter. It isn’t enough to just ask employees why they’re leaving. You often have to probe, and ask for stories/examples to get the the truth.

Scrutinize the comments collectively. Individual exit interviews can be interesting, but when viewed together, they take shape as a powerful management tool. For example, you might discover that one department has turnover problems and decide to send that manager for additional training. Or you might find that long commutes are driving people away and decide to add telecommuting options or flexible schedules so employees can escape rush hour or the high cost of commuting.

Share the results with your existing staff and talk about any changes coming.  If you learn some things and plan on taking action on them… let your current employees know where the insight came from and what you’re going to do about it.  It will communicate to them that you actually do listen to feedback and that you’re open to improving the agency.

Departing employees can be important agents for change. Use the opportunity to help your company improve. But remember, it’s  an opportunity that walks out the door when the employee leaves for the last time.

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