The Exit Interview: A Way to Keep the Door Open

By Steven E. Sacks, CPA, CGMA, ABC

A more mobile (read temporarily stationed) workforce should make CPA firms think seriously about how effectively they handle staff departures. In fact, the whole process of recruitment and retention needs careful evaluation so the same mistakes are not repeatedly made. Otherwise, firms engage in the act of insanity, which according to Albert Einstein is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

When a staff member approaches a superior about leaving the firm, a careful, deliberate exit interview should be conducted to determine what drove this decision. There are basic areas to cover: What did the individual like and dislike about the firm? Was the work challenging? Was there a negative aura to the culture? Was there a lack of growth opportunities?  Was there a disconnect between the leadership and staff?

This discussion should not be a breeding ground for recriminations or for either party to be alienated, but for the firm to see what protocols and processes either need to be improved or created.

Much like a strategic plan, this feedback cannot simply be compiled and then filed away. This means that firm leadership and the human resources department should work in tandem to evaluate approaches that enhance the recruitment and retention experience.

To gather the salient information, the firm should use a structured approach that includes a questionnaire covering the key elements of the firm. A questionnaire does not have to be of the one-size-fits-all variety because a manager experiences and views issues differently than a second-year staffer. Make sure that the appropriate questionnaire is used so that patterns can be observed and compared with other individuals at similar levels. You may discover a commonality of circumstances that cause a majority of departures.

There are times when it may not be worthwhile for the departing member to open up with someone higher in the firm because of built-in biases or the sense that the information shared may be used to blacklist the individual with potential employers. Some firms use a trusted outside advisor who specializes in CPA firms or even an industrial psychologist whose expertise is in organizational dynamics. This person is viewed as less threatening than an “insider.”

Firm leaders I have spoken with believe that if the exit process is handled deftly, where the departing individual is treated with sincere care and respect, they will have no compunction about calling the departing individual six or nine months later to see how things are progressing — maybe with an agenda. An offer to meet for a lunch would most likely be accepted. It does not matter if nothing immediately comes from this. But it shows if the firm and former staffer are maintaining a dialogue, the exit process was handled professionally and effectively.

Remember, the avoidance of bridge burning works both ways.

About Steve

Steven Sacks is the CEO of Solutions to Results, LLC, a consultancy that specializes in helping individuals, firms and organizations meet the challenges of communicating with clarity and purpose. Visit his website at www.solutions2results.com.