How to conduct effective exit interviews (and why they matter)

Conducting exit interviews to find out why people quit is key to addressing the issues that cause good employees to leave


Editor's note: Correctional facilities cannot find enough corrections officers to staff our nation’s prisons and jails. As older officers retire and experienced COs quit, hundreds of CO positions are waiting to be filled. This special coverage series, "Corrections Recruitment Toolkit: Strategies for hiring COs," provides recruitment strategies correctional facilities can deploy to tackle the staffing crisis head-on.

By James Careless, C1 Contributor

In this April 15, 2015 file photo guard towers are seen at High Desert State Prison in Indian Springs, Nev. (AP Photo/John Locher,File)
In this April 15, 2015 file photo guard towers are seen at High Desert State Prison in Indian Springs, Nev. (AP Photo/John Locher,File)

About 500,000 people work in all levels of the U.S. corrections profession. Corrections officers are highly trained individuals. At local and state levels, a high school diploma is required plus extensive on-the-job training. Federal corrections officers require a college degree plus 200 hours of training during their first year.

With this kind of investment at stake, it makes sense for correctional institutions and their respective government overseers to do their best to retain qualified staff. When some of these staff do quit, it also makes sense to ask them why during an exit interview.      

“Exit interviews are a powerful tool when conducted correctly,” said Roni Reiter-Palmon, PHD, professor and director of the industrial organizational graduation program at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO). “They help organizations identify the main reasons employees are leaving, as well as the reasons that do not cause them to leave. That information can be used to help recruit and hire the right people, make organizational changes that would improve the organization and help retain employees, while allowing the organization to focus on what are the real issues, not what management believes are the issues.”

Exit interviews explained

The job website Monster.com defines an exit interview as, “Your employer’s last chance to ask for formal feedback from you. They’d love to know why you’ve opted to leave, and what you really think about them. That way they can strive to reduce future turnover and fix internal problems.”

In the corrections industry, the questions associated with an exit interview understandably focus on the challenges and conditions associated with working in a correctional facility and dealing with inmates. But the fundamental drivers remain the same as any other profession as far as management is concerned. They need to know if good employees are leaving due to problems that can be fixed by providing staff with better-trained supervisors, safer working conditions and improved personnel policies, and even quality uniforms at the employer’s expense.

Conversely, if employees are quitting because they can’t deal with inmates and the inherent difficulties of corrections work, then management needs to know this – and to determine if people prone to such objections can be screened out during the hiring process.

Nebraska’s approach to exit interviews

Comprehensive, scientifically formulated exit interviews are not a top priority for the U.S. corrections industry. But some valuable research as to why they should be has been done by the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services (DCS) in association with the Center for Applied Psychological Services (CAPS) at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO). Their collective efforts were documented in Making Exit Interviews Useful to a Correctional Agency, a UNO publication of which Dr. Reiter-Palmon was a co-author.

The project started by evaluating the DCS exit interview process in use at the time. It had two main sections for employees to answer:

  1. A list of reasons for leaving, in which individuals selected three reasons that most closely matched their decisions for quitting.
  2. A section asking departing staff to rate 17 statements about their jobs in terms of how closely these statements aligned with their own perceptions (pro and con).

The researchers noted in the UNO report that, “CAPS identified several problems in the exit interview system that may have limited the department’s ability to identify reasons underlying employees’ decisions to leave. First, a frequently marked option was ‘other’ (i.e., reasons not listed on the exit interview), indicating the current exit interview was not sufficiently evaluating major reasons for departure. Second, the portion of the exit interview that assessed perceptions of work did not provide detailed statements for determining reasons for leaving. Third, the exit interview was administered by the department immediately following employment termination” rather than by a neutral third party sometime after the employee has left their job.

In response to these shortcomings, the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services improved its exit interview process so that it provided management with useful, actionable information.

For instance, “CAPS created a new exit interview comprising ratings of 54 statements assessing perceptions of various aspects of work and written responses to three open-ended questions,” as noted in the UNO research paper. “Statements were grouped by subscale: the job itself, limited opportunity for growth/advancement, supervisor/management, problems with people, wages and benefits, working conditions, company policies and practices, and personal. Each subscale included more specific reasons for leaving, so results indicate particular areas for improvement to reduce turnover.”

A case in point: Rather than asking a departing employee if they left because of overall supervisor problems, “the specific supervisor problems were probed, such as poor communication, lack of guidance/feedback and failure to recognize good performance. Individuals rated each statement using a five-point scale, indicating the importance of the issue in their decision to leave (1 = not an issue; 5 = major issue),” noted the UNO research paper. Open-ended questions were also used to assess the factors influencing an employee’s decision to leave, the factors that contributed to an employee choosing to remain with the department and what would have been necessary to convince them to stay.

Correctional facilities can use this kind of enhanced exit interview data to make tangible changes to improve staff morale and employee retention, thus proving the importance of exit interviews in corrections.


About the author
James Careless is a freelance writer with extensive experience covering computer technologies.

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