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How to conduct an exit interview that isn’t terrible

Talking with an employee who is leaving can provide valuable information—assuming you approach the interview in the right way.

How to conduct an exit interview that isn’t terrible
[Photo: Nik MacMillan/Unsplash]

Turnover happens at all companies. While much of recruiting focuses on the hiring process, it’s important to interview an employee that is leaving as well. Exit interviews provide a great opportunity for both the employer and employee to grow, says Peg Buchenroth, senior vice president of HR at Addison Group.

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“The purpose is to get a pulse on the overall employee experience,” she says. “You can get insightful clues about areas that should be improved upon and areas that employees find valuable. The type of questions you ask can carry you on the path for creating a retention strategy.”

Low unemployment and high demand for talent are feeding a recruiting environment where employees are in control, adds Michelle Armer, chief people officer at CareerBuilder. “With job hopping on the rise, it’s never been more important to understand what keeps workers engaged,” she says. “While an employer always hopes to gain honest feedback from employees throughout the employment relationship, sometimes perspective shifts slightly as employees are departing and there is a unique vantage point to learn from.”

The exit interview

“While onboarding experiences set the foundation for your employees’ relationships with your organization, exit interviews can be the difference between a burnt bridge and an open door,” says Kathleen Pai, vice president of people at Ultimate Software, an HR technology provider. “Use the opportunity to help an employee reflect on their contributions to the organization.”

Buchenroth suggests scheduling the exit interview as soon as the employee turns in their notice. “You want to schedule it before their last day,” she says. “Sometimes, people depart early, and it’s more difficult to connect with an employee after they leave the organization. Get a dedicated time scheduled to speak, and don’t do it during the last hour they’re at the company; you don’t want to rush the process.”

What to ask

Having a uniform set of questions allows you to capture information that can be analyzed and compared later, says Armer. “I prefer to aggregate feedback and report themes to executive leadership in an anonymized way,” she says. “This will help you and leadership identify ongoing issues that are affecting employee retention at your company.”

Buchenroth likes to ask, what prompted you to consider the new opportunity? Was it something specific that triggered your decision to leave?

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Armer suggests asking: How do you feel about opportunities for career advancement at this company? A recent survey from CareerBuilder found that only 32% of employees are satisfied with their current opportunities for career advancement, and only 37% are satisfied with the training and learning opportunities at their current company. The employee’s answer can help you determine if you’re on track in this area.

The most effective exit interviews are positive, honest, and driven by the employees themselves, adds Pai. “The right questions can guide the conversation to make sure it’s constructive and specific,” she says.

She suggests general, open-ended questions like: What was the most frustrating or stressful aspect of your job?

“Ask them how they felt about their workload and the company culture,” says Pai. “From there, get more specific, and place responsibility directly on the company: ‘What could the company have done differently to create a more positive experience for you?'”

Don’t forget to ask about what worked well, too. “Exit interviews don’t have to be negative,” says Pai. “Employee experience is not black and white. It’s complex, and your questions should recognize that complexity. What made this employee excited to come to work? What was their favorite project to work on? It’s so important to get the full scope of feedback, so that leaders can not only address problems but also bolster what’s already contributing to employee happiness.”

What not to ask

There are legal limitations to exit interviews, particularly in the area of employee privacy rights, says Nannina Angioni, labor and employment attorney and partner of the law firm Kaedian LLP.

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“Don’t ever ask a departing employee to share private information about other employees,” she says. “For example, don’t ask a departing employee to tell you if any of your existing employees have medical issues, are planning on becoming pregnant, or have mental health problems.”

While this seems obvious, some people can treat the exit interview like a gossip session over coffee. “While it’s acceptable to have a less formal atmosphere, and that may help encourage a candid discussion, it’s important to keep in mind that you are still in a professional relationship, and there are inherit limits,” says Angioni.

Make sure you’re not searching for someone or something to blame, says Pai. “If you go into an exit interview with the mindset that there must be big problems to solve—a bad manager, perhaps—then you can become a hammer searching for a nail,” she says. “Avoid questions that may subtly ask employees to name names or call out specific colleagues, unless the employee volunteers that information themselves.”

What to do with the feedback

Once you’ve conducted multiple exit interviews, Buchenroth suggests looking for patterns. “They can be great clues for companies on positive areas and places where they need to improve upon,” she says. “This can help prioritize actions.”

If a departing employee provides information suggesting harassment, discrimination, retaliation or other illegal practices, it’s imperative to do something about it, says Angioni.

“The company should conduct an investigation, determine if the allegations have merit, and if so, take corrective action,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if the source of the original intel is someone who is no longer an employee. A proactive approach is always better than being on defense when it comes to an unlawful work environment.”

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The information you gather during an exit interview can make your company culture stronger, says Armer. “Turn pain points into action items, and make improvements to limit premature departures of other employees,” she says. “Otherwise, this employee’s departure from the company is a lost opportunity rather than a chance to identify what makes other valued employees want to stay or leave.”

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