The Business Value of Exit Interviews

The exit interview has long been a complicated element of human resources. When an employee chooses to leave the company, many employers want to know why they left, but often don’t know how to ask those questions in a way that results in honest, usable feedback. Soon-to-be-former employees can feel uncomfortable telling their employers why they are leaving, especially if those reasons involve management or other coworkers.

When it’s appropriate

Exit interviews are often a controversial topic among employees and managers alike, and it can be difficult to know when it’s appropriate to conduct them. Exit interviews should only be conducted for employees who voluntarily leave the company. Feelings and conflicts raised by layoffs and terminations can color a terminating employee’s view of the company and can make it difficult for the company to gather usable information. Cases other than voluntary departure will require a more specialized approach. Exit interviews should also be offered to all voluntarily terminating employees regardless of tenure or performance.

Exit interviews aren’t necessarily only for times when people leave a company. They are also appropriate when employees transition roles within the company. While employees often transition roles because of the opportunity, it’s important to conduct exit interviews in order to understand some potential strengths and weaknesses of the department they are leaving and can help managers refine the position to be more appropriate for the next employee.

Choose how to meet

Whenever possible, schedule your interview as a face-to-face meeting. If the interview is conducted via email or phone call, there is a significantly larger margin for misunderstanding and miscommunication. By choosing to meet one another in person, both the interviewer and terminating employee can pick up on each other’s body language and glean deeper understanding of the questions being asked and answers being given. If an employee is smiling when they say something was fine, it sends a different message than if they were to say it with a scowl and their arms folded across their chest.

That being said, surveys and forms are always an option and should be used to collect information if it will get a more honest response than meeting face-to-face. This can be helpful when discussing the negatives or room for improvement. HR departments should be intentional about the forms that they create and the questions they ask, making sure to ask the employee to evaluate their position, department and management, but also the company on a more holistic level. Was their choice to leave a matter of personal preference? Or did it have to do with underlying cultural or management problems? Surveys are also more easily tracked and filed than other forms of exit interview.

Focus on the employee experience

The exit or post-exit interview is not the time to play into office drama, get incriminating information about another employee or to get defensive about management’s role in this particular employee’s end of employment. This is the time to really zero in on your interviewee’s experience at your company. By keeping the focus on their experience, you can create an environment where the employee feels comfortable sharing.

Ask questions like, “What would you improve about the situation that’s causing you to leave,” or, “Can you describe your feelings about working here?” Some of these questions can help clarify potential issues that are causing turnover without making the employee feel like you are trying to assign blame. Also, make it clear that the employee doesn’t have to answer any questions if they don’t feel comfortable.

Process and use information

If you’re going to take your time and the time of your employee to conduct an exit interview, it’s in everyone’s best interest to use the information you’ve gathered to improve the company. Don’t rely solely on your memory to relay the information necessary to make changes. Write everything down and be prepared to pass on the information to those responsible for making adjustments. This can be done either with a pen and paper or through an integrated system. By truly using the information gathered, you interview with integrity and can help the employee’s exit process become more dignified and less stressful, all while helping prepare for the future individuals who fill the role left empty.

Exit interviews offer a lot of potential to help a business evolve and grow to be more in tune with the needs of the modern workforce. By being intentional while conducting interviews, you have the opportunity to have a positive last interaction with a terminating employee and, with an open mind, can set the tone for the employee coming in to take their place.

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