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Exit Interviews: Let Departing Employees Get the Last Word

by Brad Johnson on October 4, 2017
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Employees facing exit interviews need only look to Google for article after article offering guidance on what to say and what not to say. Leaving a job can be an emotional roller coaster, so employees are often advised to be constructive and diplomatic, honest but guarded and most of all, to avoid burning bridges. There’s an art to giving constructive criticism without breaking confidence with coworkers or making one’s manager look bad. Not everyone can pull it off and some don’t even want to try. The result for employers? Vague answers to exit interview questions and a lack of actionable insights. But, there’s plenty you can do to help departing employees give useful feedback while still taking the high road.

Why bother with an exit interview?

If an employee is leaving, interviewing him or her about the job they no longer hold might seem like time wasted. But approached strategically, “exit interviews are a way to understand your brand as an employer and how you come across to employees,” says consultant Robert Greene on Monster.com. A carefully conducted exit interview shines light on toxic management practices, hostile work environments, departmental conflict and employee concerns that haven’t been shared with management or HR.

You may have heard about research linking high turnover to low company performance. This is where the exit interview comes in: It can help you retain current employees by closing gaps in training or reassessing team dynamics. Learning what went poorly for a former employee clues you in to problems with job structure, advancement opportunities or workplace culture. Address these and you can attract talent that’s a better fit with your organization and its positions.

The exit interview is an opportunity to gain some competitive data too. Information on competitors' salary, benefit and/or paid leave offerings (and their corporate culture) helps you see how you measure up.

Finally, think of an exit interview as your opportunity to create an advocate for your brand, product or organization. Show your respect for your employee’s decision and gratitude for their feedback.

Who should participate?

Start by interviewing employees who separate voluntarily, especially those who were top performers. Terminated employees aren't always interviewed, but in either case the exit interview is an opportunity to document the employee’s perception of his or her job and work environment.

Fear of losing a reference keeps some employees from disclosing detailed, useful information. Explain that the interview is for informational purposes and the betterment of the organization. Assure them that concerns or information shared in good faith will not be communicated to future employers and will not negatively affect a reference.

Many companies choose to have second line managers (e.g., the employee’s supervisor’s manager) conduct interviews. This degree of separation can result in more honest feedback. A trained member of the HR team is another good choice for the same reason.

What should we ask?

Your biggest goal for the interview is gathering actionable information to improve your company’s productivity and employee retention. Frame your questions to help employees give details about their job, management and organizational culture: Ask open-ended questions and ask for specific examples - and be sure to listen more than you talk.

Question lists are easy to find online, such as these starting points from The Muse, Care.com and Business Insider:

The new position

  • Why did you begin looking for a new job?
  • What ultimately led you to accept the new position?
  • What does your new company/position offer that made you decide to leave?

The old position

  • Did you feel that you were equipped to do your job well?
  • What could have been done for you to remain employed here?
  • What skills and qualifications do you think we need to look for in your replacement?
  • What situations, practices or behaviors hindered collaboration? How could those have changed?
  • Was communication good or bad? What made it that way?
  • How did the job match your expectations?

 Management and your organization as a whole

  • What was your relationship with your manager like?
  • Were you comfortable talking to your manager about work problems?
  • What three things could your manager/the company do to improve?
  • Would you recommend this as a great place for a friend to work?
  • Did you feel you were kept up to date on new developments and company policies?
  • If you could change anything about your job or the company, what would you change?
  • How would you describe the culture of our company?

At the end of the questioning, ask the employee if there’s anything they’d like to add. This is also a good time to review documents relating to confidentiality, COBRA health coverage or non-compete agreements.

What’s next?

It’s often said that knowing is half the battle: Exit interviews will be useful only if you’re willing to make changes based on what you learn. Writing in Harvard Business Review, Spain and Groysberg say that exit interviews “are wholly an HR function at most companies. Indeed, HR often conducts the interviews and consolidates the data, sharing it with management only when directly asked. But this approach marginalizes the process and suggests that it is an operational duty rather than a strategic opportunity.”

While it’s true that you might get answers you don’t want to hear, they’re invaluable if you’re serious about improving employee retention. Be sure all exit interview responses are shared with company leaders and decision makers. Just remember to respect the sensitivity of the information.

Spain and Groysberg also suggest collecting follow-up information with a questionnaire (online or paper) a few weeks or months after separation. Once some time has passed the former employee may have new information to share. You can also accomplish this with a phone call, but a written form allows employees to give more consideration to each question and answer each one at their own pace.

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Topics: Human Resources