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Using Exit Interviews to Prevent Disaster
 

By Roy Maurer  4/5/2013
 
 

Current and former employees have the information that could prevent accidents and disasters and it’s up to HR to gather it and help solve the problems that could lead to catastrophe, according to Beth Carvin, an expert on employee retention and the use of exit interviews.

“The sooner you can get feedback the better, because you can solve problems before it’s too late,” said Carvin, the president and CEO at Nobscot Corp., an HR technology company that specializes in employee retention and development.

“HR should be conducting exit interviews, particularly in high-risk occupations like health care, to identify any areas that may put the company, its customers and consumers at risk,” Carvin told SHRM Online.

The fungal meningitis outbreak among patients who received contaminated steroid injections in late 2012 is a case in point. The main focus of the national investigation of this disaster was the New England Compounding Center (NECC), a pharmacy in Massachusetts, but ex-employees of Ameridose, a drug manufacturer that shared many of the same owners as the NECC, subsequently came forward with claims that a corporate culture encouraged shortcuts even when it compromised safety.

According to The New York Times, one ex-quality control technician at Ameridose stated that he was overruled by management when he tried to stop the production line when he spotted missing labels.  An ex-pharmacist said she resigned because she was “worried that unqualified people were helping to prepare dangerous narcotics for use by hospitals.” A salesman said he was allowed into the sterile lab to help out with packaging and labeling during rush orders, without any prior training.

From what these accounts related, employees had strong concerns about business practices at both the NECC and Ameridose, Carvin said. “As someone who works with exit interviews, it was a big reminder to me of how important getting that kind of feedback is. That’s exactly the type of information we see every day with organizations doing a good job of exit interviewing and being able to make changes before a disaster occurs.”

A Listening Culture

So how can HR leverage employee feedback to prevent such a costly tragedy?

One of the first steps is to create and maintain a company culture and work environment in which open communication is encouraged.

“Employees should feel comfortable to share their concerns on policies and practices, particularly those relating to safety and compliance,” said Carvin. “It’s important to create a culture where you listen to your employees and they believe that you listen. You must be committed to this concept.”

Once you provide opportunities for employees to give feedback, then you must act upon it, she advised. “That’s the challenge that HR faces. You get busy, and you might not have time to deal with the feedback; but in order to become a listening culture, you want to try to act on the information you receive from employees.”

And communicate that to them, she added. “If you implement something based on employee feedback, let them know that you’re doing this because you heard them. The more you do that, the more feedback you’ll get.”

Make the Business Case

Managers need to be trained on the importance of balancing business needs with safety and to take frontline employees’ concerns seriously, said Carvin.

“This is where HR needs to be involved and show the systemic problem and make the business case,” she explained. “In the contaminated-steroid tragedy, if HR had identified that safety was being set aside in favor of speed and other corners were being cut, they could have made a case to senior management for why this was bad not just from a consumer-safety standpoint but also from a business perspective.”

Especially in high-risk industries, HR should implement a variety of techniques for gathering employee feedback, such as phone hotlines, online and onsite suggestion boxes, employee surveys, focus groups, new-hire surveys and exit interviews.

At this point in the process, HR should analyze the information for trends and share important findings and recommendations with senior management. HR can facilitate discussions and set up task forces for next steps.

How to Gather Employee Feedback

The key to gathering employee feedback is a systematic approach, Carvin said.

These responses should be gathered in such a way that they transform from anecdotal stories—often attributed to a few disgruntled employees—into information that shines the light on specific, objective trends.

“You need to be able to move your data from the anecdotal, which senior management can just write off, to being aggregated and tracked,” she said. “You’ll notice that an issue is not just coming from one person but three or four, and then seven people, as your data build up over time.”

In exit interviews you really want to go beyond “Why did you leave?” she said. “You want to have employees rate the company on a number of factors, like the work environment, direct supervisors and senior management, and try to get feedback on all aspects of their workplace experience. This is when issues will come out.”

And HR staff should use both quantitative and qualitative ratings, she noted. “The quantitative points to where the issues are, and the qualitative lets you understand that data better—it lets you know what the concern is.”

To get the most out of an exit interview, break the data down  into departments, Carvin suggested. Each department may have its own concerns, even among job types. Then you could break the data down even further into gender and race and really pinpoint issues before they get bigger, she said.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him on Twitter @SHRMRoy.

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