Expert Interviews Instead of Exit Interviews

A Colorado utilities department is conducting written and video exit interviews with current staffers now so their future replacements know who to work with and how to do the job.
by | September 14, 2011

Last year, officials at the Fort Collins, Colo., utilities department looked at their workforce and realized they had a problem. Following a nationwide trend, a number of their employees were eligible for retirement within the next five years, putting the department at risk of brain drain. Succession planning and knowledge transfer quickly became top priorities.

After sending out an RFP last fall, the department pursued a unique program. Rather than relying on exit interviews to capture years worth of knowledge or simply asking soon-to-retire employees to write down their day-to-day duties before they leave, a consultant recently conducted "expert interviews" with key employees to document the contacts, relationships and resources they use to get their jobs done. The first batch of written and video interviews were conducted this past winter. Now, the department is building on these to develop an employee-driven task force that will plan for what skills and knowledge the next generation of employees will need.

I spoke with Janet McTague, the electric utility project manager with Fort Collins, to learn more about how interview-driven succession planning has been beneficial to her department in this edited and condensed transcript.

Previously, was there any evidence of employees leaving their positions with a significant amount of knowledge?

Not necessarily. I think [the effort is] more preemptive. We've had employees that we wish we had more information from. It's more about looking at the organizational chart and realizing that we are true to the trends. A big part of our employee population is eligible for retirement. These employees have a tremendous amount of knowledge about our facilities and our job duties. We thought we have a tremendous risk here. We need to be proactive and do something about it before these people walk out the door.

How were the first expert interviews conducted? Who was chosen to take part in them?

We identified 10 people [including the executive director] as potential candidates for retirement within the next five years. [Our consultant] did interviews with them so we could learn about the flavor of the job. We wanted to learn how you do your job -- not just step-by-step, but how you use your contacts. We did a unique interview with the executive director. We videotaped the expert interview we did on him. You get [his] character in there as well.

How was it determined which questions to ask during the expert interviews?

All of the questions fall back to the core competencies [in the utilities department]. What is the core service that job is providing? Most of the questions are based on how you most effectively provide the service of your job as it relates to the overall city mission and vision.

How long is each interview and how are they structured?

Interviews are roughly 30 minutes; the executive director took a little longer at 45 minutes. His job is more complicated and makes for a longer interview. The written format can be anywhere from two to five pages each, and they are split into similar sections. They deal mostly with the background of the job, the main responsibilities, and the relationships inside the city and external contacts.

What is the benefit of conducting these interviews long before an employee retires?

When [employees] decide to retire, they can be part of the hiring, mentoring and training. We're trying to analyze the impacts of this budget-wise. If we have some overlap with the outgoing and incoming employees, that will have an impact. But, if we operate on a best-practice level, we need to commit the time and resources. Having retiring employees as part of the interview process will be done on a case-by-case basis if we need them to help identify traits that would make a person good at their position.

It also provides an opportunity for people who want to retire to go through a better transition. A retiring employee knows the person taking the position is being well trained and can transfer all the knowledge the incoming employee needs to be successful.

What is the benefit of conducting an interview versus simply asking an employee to write down what he or she does on a daily basis?

The problem [with writing everything down] is that you don't capture the flavor of the job. It's the same reason we don't like to use the job description [to fully define a position]. When someone talks about their job, [he or she] relates stories of actual situations. When questions are asked, the answers are about relationships. The stories transfer more of the knowledge than saying, "coordinate with downtown engineering."

Moving forward, how will you choose who to interview and in what format?

Interviews will be done job-by-job based on need, but everyone utility-wide will be expected to have their processes documented. We will internally conduct the interviews with employees. We [want] to hang on to this being an employee-to-employee transfer. People are more comfortable talking with someone they work with everyday.

The next round of interviews will mostly be done on paper. We looked into the expense of filming, but as we went through the job descriptions, we were getting a lot of information in the written form. At the executive level, we still feel that those positions would be filmed again. For the vast majority, written is good enough.

What are the future plans for succession planning at the utilities department? Will this type of planning extend to the city as a whole?

We're using [what we've done so far] to build our knowledge-transfer program. Essentially, it will be broken into two phases. First, we're going to identify our current state, pinpoint our core competencies and assess our areas of risk within the workforce. If there is only one person who knows how to do a certain job, that is a risk. We're also going to identify tools and opportunities to mitigate the risks. In phase two, we're going to be looking at a five-year plan so that we can identify the gaps between where we are currently at and the skills we need.

Phase one is scheduled to be completed by year-end. Because we see this as a cultural shift, there really is no end date to phase two. We see it as a continuous part of our culture. It's one of the things we haven't been good about and we know we can do better. Once the knowledge-transfer documents are out there, we want to make sure someone is accountable [for keeping them updated].

The city manager's office is waiting to see what happens with our program for possible implementation citywide. My guess is that they would take parts and modify for their own individual needs, but they are watching to see what we come up with.

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