How and Why To Perform Effective Exit Interviews For Employees

Jim worked at Widgets, LLC for five years. He was hired with great excitement, having come with excellent recommendations and useful experience. Jim was a team player and seemed to get along well with the rest of his team members. He was known for high output and having an endless supply of creative ideas.

That’s why it was a shock when Jim showed up one Monday morning and turned in his resignation on his manager’s desk.

Why would such a great employee want to leave the company? After all, his output and relationships seemed to be on track. He was a trusted employee. His manager was confused, and the company owner was dismayed. What made Jim leave?

That scenario, and others like it, are why employers ought to be conducting exit interviews, asking questions of employees who have chosen to leave their jobs. Unfortunately, too many businesses don’t bother. They let employees leave without much fanfare or follow-up at all. Quite simply, they are insecure, defensive, dismissive of former employees, or unwilling to hear that changes need to be made. It’s easier to let someone go than find out what you may have done that caused them to go.

Why Exit Interviews Are Important

Exit interviews are part of your larger plan to increase employee retention. Remember, it is financially wiser to hold onto employees than to be continually hiring and training in new ones. Exit interviews provide you with key information on things that matter to the heart of your business, such as:

How your managers are doing.

Ever heard the phrase that people “quit their boss, not their job”?

An overbearing, micro-managing, or ineffectual leader sends employees running out the door like nothing else. Or, it the effects of poor management may bleed over into other areas of workplace culture and create unrest elsewhere that sends people packing.

Exit interviews are a good time to discover if this is happening (particularly if you’re conducting a lot of interviews from one manager’s department). However, the employee may not come right out and say what their manager is doing wrong. You’ll have to learn to interpret from what they are telling you. Look for high levels of stress, frustration with lack of changes, or a sense that they had to do more than they should have and you’ll likely trace it back to a bad boss.

How your business is doing.

When an employee loses confidence in their employer, they leave.

That loss of confidence may come from changes or pivots you made that weren’t well-explained and didn’t make sense to employees. Or, it may come from bad decisions made by management that the workers bear the brunt of. All of this leads to a loss of trust and belief in their employer, and makes it easier to leave.

If there are problems in workplace culture.

Many employees leave because of issues within the workplace culture. These are trickier to diagnose and deal with, since many of these problems are of the HR nature. Yet a perceived toxic atmosphere is one that is highly stressful.

You’ll want to be careful prodding with your questions in this area, since you want to avoid placing blame on specific employees. Your questions will need to suss out true cultural problems, not problems with individuals (unless, perhaps, it is a manager spreading unrest to an entire team).

If there are growth opportunities.

Employees often leave because they don’t feel there is opportunity for promotion, raises, education, or growth. While you may not be able to change that all of the time, it will at least alert you to a “dead end” job in your business that might need some creative solutions to feel like there is still growth, or to be scrapped or revamped entirely.

A chance to repair some bridges.

Exit interviews offer you a chance to make “peace” with employees that you know are leaving unhappy.

While the ultimate goal of the interview certainly isn’t placation, just by letting employees get something off their chest before they leave and responding in a manner that doesn’t escalate the situation or feed the negativity can go a long way to avoid bad word-of-mouth or an employee who somehow seeks revenge.

Information to help change your organization.

The most useful reason to conduct exit interviews is to take the temperature of your own organization so you can make actual changes. These changes might be in:

  • How to improve employee recruitment.
  • Benefits, training, or education.
  • Workplace culture, ideals, or habits.
  • How to prepare or train the employee’s successor.

Still-hired employees are not completely honest if they don’t want to rock the boat or damage their career. You will usually only get limited information from reviews and other interviews during their employment. When they leave, however, you have a golden opportunity to find out what needs to change (if anything) and how to keep similar employees in similar situations from leaving in the future.

How To Perform An Exit Interview

Before we get started on how to handle exit interviews, be aware that many employees look at them with trepidation.

Ideally, an employee looks at the interview as a chance to be honest and helpful, and the employer sees it as a chance to learn. The reality is that exit interviews, depending upon the nature of that relationship and the experiences leading up to the employee leaving, may inspire less helpful feelings.

  • Employees may feel it’s not worthwhile making suggestions since you won’t change anything anyway.
  • Employees don’t want to burn bridges by saying anything negative in case they need you as a reference or for future employment.
  • Employees may want to avoid any kind of confrontation.
  • Employees may make unhelpful or hurtful comments that you need to be careful in how you respond to. (i.e. naming names — are you going to pursue those accusations after the interview?)

Just be aware that this is running in the background, and that it might affect both how the interview is conducted, and the information you get from the interviewee.

What a successful exit interview looks like.

Choose a location that is non-threatening to either parties involved, and be sure that it is private so that other team members can’t hear or see the interview being conducted. Remember, this is an employee that is leaving; you don’t want to appear or act domineering or punitive. Keep it friendly, sincere, and casual. You are here to learn from the employee, not berate them. This means that you:

  1. Are not defensive. As the employee answers your interview questions, control the urge to interrupt or be defensive no matter how they respond. You are simply gathering information, not defending yourself or your business. The only exception may be if an employee decides to attack other employees by name. Direct the conversation away from that kind of talk gently. You won’t get any useful information from those types of conversations.
  2. Are an observer. Take careful notes, and ask genuine follow-up questions that provide a clearer answer. If the employee says something that startles you, encourage them to elaborate and let them talk.
  3. Are an interpreter. Even if you disagree with the employee’s interpretation of events or feel accused, you must let them talk in order to determine what they are really saying.

Rather than start with the “big” questions, you may want to start your interview with a soft launch. Ask open-ended questions that let the employee get used to talking before you ask the tougher questions. Start with positive questions in order to set a positive tone for the interview.

Some of the questions you might ask include:

  • What has been your overall experience working here? Working with the team?
  • What did you enjoy the most?
  • Would you recommend a friend to work for us? Why or why not?
  • What could use improvement? How would you improve it? (you might even want to specify that they give you three or four specific things to improve)
  • Why are you leaving us?
  • Why do you prefer your new job over this one? (if they have another job lined up) What do they offer that we don’t?
  • Did you feel the management gave you enough feedback and support to do your job well? Did you feel comfortable talking to them?
  • Did you feel that your ideas and opinions were valued in your team and with management?
  • Were there any policies, systems, procedures, or other requirements that made your job more difficult to do?
  • Did you receive enough on-the-job training?
  • Do you have any questions or comments to direct to us?

Some people suggest avoiding asking the question “why are you leaving us” because you are unlikely to get a truthful answer. A better question might be “why did you look for a new job?”, since that replaces the negative question with one that suggests positive action. Plus, you may get to the heart of the matter by asking your employee what they wanted (new job) instead of what they didn’t want (current job).

Knowing what people wanted, rather than what they didn’t, allows you to act. You can build on wants, but you can only subtract based on what they didn’t want.

Exit interviews can occur later than you expect.

Most employers assume that an exit interview has to be done in a narrow window — say, a week or two before or after the employee has left — but that isn’t necessarily the case. Depending on several factors, including under what circumstances the employee left, you might be able to get better information from them up to a year after they have left.

What is the value of a later interview?

Months after leaving, that employee probably has a new job, and a new position. They are experiencing new management and workplace culture. They will be better able to compare and contrast their experiences with you and with their new job.

Additionally, exit interviews that happen just before leaving, or immediately after, are often stilted. Employees are still wary of creating problems for their future employment with you; they don’t want to burn bridges if things don’t work out.

So, they don’t tell you the truth, exactly. They hedge their bets.

With time and distance, the employee can come back and both frankly and truthfully answer questions knowing they have a job as well as feeling less like your employee and more like a consultant with historical experience you want to discuss.

It’s important to note that this isn’t a workable approach if your employee was an hourly employee, if your business tends to have “transient” or temporary workers, or if an employee left under negative circumstances. In these types of situations, they probably aren’t going to relish the thought of coming back months later to help you out with an interview. Otherwise, most people are willing (and sometimes enjoy) being asked to come back and share their honest opinions. We all like to think someone values our opinion, right?

What to do with exit interview information.

Not all exit interview information is created equal. Not all information can actually result in changes.

Consider past employee performance reviews and other information in their file. Some people are more prone to complaining, while others are not. This may add weight to some of the information you glean from an exit interview while it may lessen the severity of others. In other words, if the employee leaving has a history of complaining and negativity, his negative exit interview may not be as bad as you think.

They key is interpretation.

Who said it? What do they want to achieve? And what are they really saying? Was it the noisy open office plan that really caused them to leave, or was it the sense that they had no privacy and the boss was always looking at their computer screen?

After interpretation, you must have a system to act.

Do you simply file the interview away in the employee file and never look at it again? Or do you have meetings with managers and discuss the issues that were raised? Information is useless if there is no action from it.

You will want to continually review and revamp your exit interview questions so that you learn to ask the right ones. Your goal is figure out what is good and what isn’t working, and why a good employee left.

Some employers look at exit interviews as a chance to keep a person from leaving, giving them a counter offer. While this may work sometimes, particularly for employees who find it easier to stay with what they know than enter into the unknown, the problem remains: a happy employee isn’t looking for other jobs.

An exit interview means that employee was looking, and a counter offer is often only a bandaid unless the sole reason for leaving was something singular, such as salary.

If you take the counteroffer approach, remember: the problem is still there. Find out what it is so you don’t end up with the same employee in an exit interview a few months down the road.

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