Finding Relevance in Exit Interviews

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The only constant about an organization's workforce is that it changes regularly. And although losing employees is inevitable, their last few days also present a critical opportunity for business owners, managers, and the HR team to learn how employees really feel about their employer.

Conducting exit interviews can be a valuable experience for any organization. Provided of course that the exit interview is done with proper planning and for the right reasons. If your main objective is to find out whether the departing employee is planning to sue you and your company....well, that might be good to know, but it's not really the best use of an exit interview.

Typically, most businesses conduct exit interviews to get information about an employee's work experience with the company. This information can be valuable all on its own or used with other exit interview data. To gather relevant information, there are a few things to keep in mind when conducting your exit interview.

Treat exit interviews like any other interview. Structure and plan for exit interviews just like you would any hiring interview during the recruitment process. Set up a meeting time and place, try not to interrupt, take notes, etc. The only deviation I would suggest here is to have someone other than the employee's supervisor administer the exit interview. If an employee had an issue with his/her supervisor, then chances are it will not come to the surface during the interview – not a good idea.

If you really want employees to open up and provide honest and unfiltered feedback, consider engaging a neutral, third party to conduct the interview. This neutral, third party is able to not only listen with an open mind – but because he/she has not previously worked with the employee - does not have a conscious or subconscious bias or ulterior motive guiding the conversation.

Come prepared with a list of questions to help guide the discussion but allow the interview to evolve organically as a conversation. This will better help you garner valuable feedback and make the employee feel more comfortable speaking with you. Sample questions include:

  • What made you decide to leave the company? Were you frustrated with some issues, or was there an external reason to leave, such as a spouse relocating?
  • What did you find most satisfying about working for this company? This question can highlight areas that are important to employees and in which management can do more.
  • What did you find least satisfying about working for this company? This question might open a can of worms, but it can provide the most valuable input. Note – it's important that the interviewer does not become defensive, but maintains an objective listening attitude; hence the neutral, third party suggestion.
  • How would you rate the level of support you received to perform your job duties? This question can uncover a host of issues, from relationships with supervisors to the effectiveness of the IT department.
  • What kind of performance feedback did you receive and how regularly? This question can elicit ambiguous answers: people who don't think they need feedback may say it was fine, while those who crave it may believe they didn't get enough.
  • What advice would you pass on to the next person selected to perform your job duties? This question often yields answers that uncover shortcomings in training, management support, and other aspects of the company that need improvement.
  • Would you recommend this organization as a good place to work to your best friend? If no, why not? If yes, is there anything specific you would caution your friend on?

Set the tone. Exit interviews don't necessarily have to be formal affairs. Depending on the manner of departure, it may be more appropriate to have a more informal approach. Making an exit interview feel too formal can make an employee feel intimidated and you definitely won't get the kind of honest feedback you're looking for.

Another option is to send an online exit interview survey – this allows departing employees time to really think about their answers and offer constructive criticism (read: less emotion).

Let them vent. Listening to an employee vent about his/her frustrations can sometimes make you feel uncomfortable, especially if the employee isn't leaving voluntarily. And while some of the feedback received may not seem particularly useful, it allows employees leaving on bad terms to feel heard and possibly make peace with your organization. The key in these situations is to allow the person to fully finish his/her list of grievances and then try to identify the root of the issues, as they may be indicative of a more wide-spread problem.

If you're not sure why someone is leaving, ask. It's an unfortunate reality that sometimes organizations lose great, high-performing employees – and occasionally some star employees seem to leave for no apparent reason. When a hard-working previously loyal employee decides to leave, use the exit interview as an opportunity to (respectfully) probe into his/her reasoning. There may be an underlying problem within your organization that needs to be dealt with.

Follow up on feedback. You've discovered the real reasons people are leaving your organization and now you need to decide what to do with the information. Come up with a process to evaluate and act on answers you receive to the questions you ask, and make sure you discuss opportunities for change with managers and executives. Listen, if you aren't prepared to hear the real reasons or deal with whatever they may be, for Pete's sake...save yourself a lot of time and energy and just don't do exit interviews.

If conducted effectively, exit interviews can prove to be a key resource in understanding how employees perceive your organization. By incorporating exit interviews into your termination process, you can then capitalize on the feedback received by addressing any frequently mentioned problems or areas of concern. With solid information, you can incorporate positive change, and hopefully, reduce the need for exit interviews altogether.

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Guest November 23 2017
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