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Effective exit interviews: Making the exit work

Exit interviews are a tough thing for many businesses. We conduct them because they’re considered standard, but do we do them right? Is it possible to make an exit interview work to actively improve our company? Certainly it is possible to do so, and in fact it should be an active goal. Learn about how to conduct effective exit interviews and how to make an employee’s departure work for your company.

Effective Exit Interviews

Effective exit interviews can be tricky. At their most pleasant, an exit interview sings the company’s praises, and while it’s a nice confidence boost, it’s not overall helpful except to shine a light on what you’ve done correctly. On the other end of the spectrum, a negative exit interview can tear apart your whole company culture on paper, and it can be a nasty ego bruise. However, these negative interviews can be very helpful… if you treat them right.

What Is an Exit Interview?

It’s important to clearly understand, before we even start, just what an exit interview is. A number of important factors and points to keep in mind go into this understanding:

  • An exit interview is voluntary. You cannot mandate them. An employee leaving a company has the right to leave without participating in one.
  • An exit interview is verbal, between a departing employee and an HR staff member, manager or supervisor.
  • An exit interview occurs a day or two before the termination of employment.

Purposes of an Exit Interview

An exit interview has three general purposes, according to HR Magazine: to shine a light on areas for improvement, to note what you’re doing right and to spell out what you can do to keep and attract good workers. If you conduct the interview properly, you’ll achieve all three of these goals.

Follow these guidelines for an effective interview process:

  1. Have a formal policy in place.
  2. Use them only for voluntary departures, not layoffs or firings.
  3. Extend the opportunity to every employee leaving from the highest-level manager to the part-time secretary, custodian or mailroom clerk.

Know What to Ask

Every exit interview should have certain concrete questions. Choose from the following to build and customize your exit interview strategy:

  • Why are you leaving us?
  • Can you tell us what you enjoyed about working here?
  • What areas of improvement could the company make?
  • How would you suggest we improve?
  • What are your general overall feelings about your time working with us?
  • Can you tell us three things you enjoyed most about working here?
  • What about three things you disliked the most about working here?
  • What three things would you change about the company or the way we operate?
  • If you could implement any one new policy or procedure here, what would it be?
  • How do you feel about opportunities for training, education and advancement here?
  • What advice would you give the next person who comes into the position you are leaving?
  • Know What Not to Ask

Never, ever ask about specific people or for names, unless it’s in a positive light (“who were the people who most positively impacted you?” is okay, while “who else is unhappy here?” is not). Be very careful about slander or libelous statements.

Focus on your employee’s experience, not attitudes or behavior. Never agree or disagree with statements made about other people. Never ask personal questions. Keep it professional. Finally, never try to talk the employee into staying.

What You’re Doing Right

A positive exit interview is a pleasant experience, but it also shows you what you’re doing right and what you need to keep doing. If workers were happy at your company, encourage them to be concrete as to why. It’s important to understand those things you should continue to do, to keep your staff happy and engaged.

What You Need to Improve

You’re conducting an exit interview because an employee is leaving. Why are they leaving? What can you do to improve your company practices, policies, procedures and culture? This is the primary goal of the interview itself. Encourage your departing workers to elaborate on exactly why they’re leaving. (Was it low pay? Were there personal problems with the staff? Was the company “holding you back” from the kind of work you wanted to do?)

Keeping and Attracting Workers

Tied into “what you need to improve,” you should act upon the criticisms given to attract better workers in the future. In some cases, you may even be able to convince a good employee to stick around by offering to make some of the changes they suggest right away. If a simple raise can keep a stellar employee, why not offer that raise, for example?

Gathering Info Is the First Step

Gathering information is only the first step in conducting your exit interview. After you gather the information, you need to actually make good use of it. Far too many management professionals simply put the interview in a file and move on to the next day’s work. This makes your interview process not only ineffective, but an enormous waste of time.

You need to understand clearly why you are doing this. Take the time to properly review and analyze the information you’ve gathered. This process should be positive, informational and educational for all involved. It’s not always going to be comfortable. The information you gather could be very negative. Your job is to put that negative information into a positive context—that is, not to sugar coat it, but to use it to educate on how you and your management can do better with future incoming employees.

This Is an Opportunity

Your staff member is leaving the company. That might seem obvious, but it’s an important thing to keep in mind. One who is leaving is more likely to be brutally honest and very forthright about why they are leaving and the shortcomings they see in the company. You’re not going to get this kind of feedback from your annual employee reviews. A staff member who has to come to work tomorrow is going to be understandably tentative about issuing complaints about company policies and procedures. Even anonymous surveys carry the concern of “being figured out.”

When employees are on the way out, they have nothing to lose and nothing to worry about. They’re going to tell you why they’re leaving and what you could’ve done better to keep them around. You have to use this information to the best benefit of your company. Gather your management and clearly state the information you’ve gotten, in a way that encourages efficiency and changes, rather than accusing people of poor practices.

When It’s Positive

In the best situations you’ll also have positive information to share. This is gold—especially when you’re putting forth areas for improvement. Always take the time to congratulate your managers and staff on what you’re doing right, and look for ways that you can expand and improve upon those correct practices. People communicate negative information far too often in this world; positive compliments are always appreciated.

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