Why? That’s usually the first question that comes to mind for managers and employees alike when news gets around the office that an employee has resigned. (Unless, of course, the resignation catches everyone by complete surprise and they first ask, “What?!”) While you may never understand all the reasons an employee decides to move on, you can learn a great deal if you make proper use of an exit interview.
Ultimately, every organization’s goal is to retain its valued employees, but you will have no control over an unexpected rise in turnover if you aren’t taking the time to gather and analyze the information you need to retain your top performers. The exit interview is the perfect opportunity to gather that information. Not every employer conducts exit interviews, but most organizations that adopt the process recognize they are the better for it.
Granted, implementing an exit interview process won’t single-handedly reduce employee turnover. However, if it’s done right, an exit interview can provide valuable information about one of your greatest assets—your employees—and why they stay, why they leave, and what changes may be needed to remain competitive in the job market.
The exit interview may be one of the easiest ways to gather the necessary feedback to address those important topics. Still, there are many factors that can influence the effectiveness of an exit interview policy, and for that reason, we’ve provided a list of some basic do’s and don’ts for exit interviews.
Develop a formal policy. Including an exit interview policy in your personnel policies is conducive to gaining more information from departing employees. When employees are aware that the company places a priority on conducting exit interviews, they won’t be surprised when an exit interview is scheduled. Instead, a departing employee will more likely be prepared to share her observations with the company and may even have some relevant questions about her experiences before departing.
Ask open-ended questions. Asking the right questions will encourage the departing employee to open up and honestly share her views with the interviewer. Consider asking questions such as:
- What did you like best about your employment?
- What did you like least?
- What can we do better to keep valued employees?
Encourage leader participation. Putting the right people with the right skills in charge of exit interviews will help you uncover hidden challenges and opportunities. Exit interviews are most effective when second-line supervisors (i.e., direct supervisors’ managers) are involved because the buffer tends to produce more honest feedback. Second-line supervisors are also the leaders in the company who are more likely in a position to follow up effectively. Their participation signals that the company is dedicated to the process and cares about employees’ opinions.
Stress confidentiality, when appropriate. While you cannot legally mandate that employees participate in exit interviews, you should do all you can to encourage their cooperation. One of the ways you can do that is by stressing that a departing employee’s remarks won’t be shared with others in the office, unless you’re required to share the information by law.
Of course, that may be difficult for smaller employers, but every employer should do its best to remove any identifying factors from information that’s eventually shared with the appropriate personnel. Many employees are worried that if they have to report a manager’s bad behavior, their comments will get out right away and will be easily traced back to them. You must make an effort not to compromise the person who shares such information.
Remind employees of their obligations. Speaking of confidentiality, an exit interview may be the last and most opportune time to remind a departing employee that he has an obligation to protect the confidentiality of company information or comply with an ongoing restrictive covenant for the immediate future.
This conversation may provide cues to the interviewer that an employee is contemplating just what can and cannot be carried on to his next employer. If such cues arise, there may still be time to put some additional protections in place, especially if the relevant information is readily available on the company server.
Follow up. The most important part of an exit interview is analyzing the information that’s collected and acting on it immediately when necessary. That’s especially important when the information you receive suggests that there might be some HR issues to address, like your supervisors’ ability to treat employees respectfully.
Ideally, the interviewer will be trained to collect all the relevant facts when it becomes evident that an investigation may be necessary. Following up is also important when you collect positive information because the insight you gain might allow you to become even more successful and competitive in the marketplace.
Require every departing employee to participate in an exit interview. You must exercise some discretion when you enforce your exit interview policy. On the one hand, you don’t want to refuse to interview involuntarily terminated employees just because the most useful information generally comes from employees who leave voluntarily. You want to be able to use any method that allows all employees to leave on a positive note.
Some employees who have been terminated may still view the company in a positive light and may be less likely to disparage it if they’re given an opportunity to vent and speak frankly about the circumstances leading to their termination. An exit interview may even reveal information about an employee’s intent to pursue future litigation.
In the end, though, you don’t always have an opportunity to speak with a departing employee, and there are circumstances in which having that additional conversation simply won’t be productive. And it’s impractical and unrealistic for a supervisor to worry about obtaining a required exit interview instead of focusing on the removal of a serious problem.
Wait until the last days before the employee leaves. If you don’t make an effort to schedule the exit interview for a time that’s mutually beneficial for you and the employee, you run the risk of forcing an extra burden on the employee after she has already checked out mentally. Work with the employee to find a time when she is most relaxed and comfortable about sharing meaningful information.
Include third parties. Including unnecessary third parties in the process will often limit the amount of helpful information you’re able to collect. The goal is employee candor. An extra pair of prying eyes (and ears) in the room may limit what an employee is willing to reveal.
Fail to give the interviewer guidance. If you don’t develop a list of specific goals or standard questions to ask, you won’t gather consistent information to analyze properly. Granted, you may have to narrow or differentiate your focus for specific situations, but if you’re able to collect information on specific topics, you can spot relevant trends.
In addition, failing to encourage or train the interviewer to listen more than he talks and be patient and friendly won’t serve you well. The last thing you want is an interviewer whose goal is to fix things with the employee or make a final display of authority. The goal should be gathering relevant information.
Rely on online exit surveys or questionnaires. Surveys or questionnaires can be secondary materials to prepare an employee for a meaningful exit interview, but you shouldn’t rely solely on written responses. Face-to-face or telephone interviews produce the most effective information. Employees generally won’t spend quality time contemplating questions in an online survey.
Condition separation benefits on an interview. Requiring employees to forfeit accrued paid time off if they don’t participate in an exit interview is ripe with potential problems. For one thing, you may be inviting a wage claim if the employee is unable to sit for the interview until after she leaves.
If a former employee is forced to participate in an exit interview, you may have an obligation to pay her for that time. Such a policy will also limit your ability to terminate employment quickly when necessary.
Treat all jobs equally. Putting the same amount of effort into interviewing every departing employee will not produce the same quality of information. The exit interviews that lead to the most useful information are conducted with employees who are leaving jobs that are harder to fill. When a hard-to-replace employee leaves, upper management will be more likely to take notice and more motivated to take action in response to information gathered from the exit interview.
Thus, it becomes more important to uncover the reasons a hard-to-replace employee is leaving as opposed to why an entry-level employee has decided to move on. Employees in supervisory, sales, or technical roles are often targeted for recruitment. These employees will be more knowledgeable about the company’s operations and competitors and will be able to share relevant information on what may have precipitated the change.
Ignore the future influence of an exit interview. Exit interviews have the potential to create a positive impression on the departing employee. If the employee’s tenure with the company has been pleasant, a constructive exit interview may reinforce his positive feelings about the company.
Those feelings and memories have the potential to wield influence into the future for your company. Consider the exit interview an opportunity to recruit a company ambassador in the community, a source of future referrals, or maybe even a future customer.
Hopefully, this article inspires your company to create an efficient exit interview policy that helps you remain relevant in the marketplace. Once an exit interview program is implemented, its effectiveness is best measured by how much positive change it creates for your company.
Sadly, in a 2012-13 survey reported in the Harvard Business Review, two-thirds of the executives questioned about exit interview programs in their organizations couldn’t cite any specific action taken as a result of the program.
Thus, it isn’t surprising that there’s still an opinion that exit interviews have a negative return on the investment. However, that view appears to be the direct consequence of simply not implementing a solid, workable program or failing to follow up on the information mined from exit interviews.