About Conducting Employee Exit Interviews

Exit interviews (interviews conducted with employees who are leaving the company) have long been considered a “gold standard” tool for determining how happy, satisfied, or engaged employees are. Why? Because in contrast with many vague comments often heard in isolation — think “My boss John doesn't really communicate very well,” or “Pam plays favorites” — exit interviews often reveal broader themes.

Plus, departing employees may show a greater willingness to share hard examples, such as “John's meetings are always just John talking and never include a chance for us to ask questions or give feedback,” or “Did you know Pam is dating one of the employees she's managing? It's resulting in claims of favoritism. Don't be surprised if others quit, too!”

As useful as they may be, exit interviews are trailing indicators, not leading ones. In other words, by the time you uncover an issue in an exit interview, it's too late. The departing employee has already moved on. This metric, while important, assesses disengagement retroactively.

That said, in conjunction with opportunities to solicit feedback from employees who are sticking around, healthy cultures have a process in place to conduct exit interviews with departing employees.

Who to interview and who should do the asking

Only conduct exit interviews with employees who have quit voluntarily. Don't conduct exit interviews with employees who have been laid off or terminated due to poor performance. Employees who have been downsized or fired aren't happy campers. Their feedback will be negatively, and perhaps inaccurately, skewed. It's just human nature.

Also, have HR or someone higher up than the employee's direct manager conduct the interview — don't have the employee's manager do it.

Research shows that the number-one reason someone leaves a company is the relationship with his manager. Asking said manager to take the lead in conducting the exit interview removes objectivity. Besides, it's often even more painful for the one being left behind — in this case, the manager.

Managers often take an employee's resignation personally. Perhaps the manager was developing the departing employee as her successor and is now bitter about having “wasted her time” mentoring someone who went on to quit.

On the other side of the coin, the departing employee understands that the “boss is mad” and doesn't want to risk saying anything to further anger the boss, such as providing feedback about his crummy leadership. Giving some time for emotions to settle down is a good idea in any breakup!

When to conduct an exit interview

Don't conduct an exit interview when emotions are high — that is, shortly after learning of the resignation. Separation is painful, whether between a married couple or a manager and an employee.

Consider conducting the interview 30 days after the employee leaves the firm, when the emotions surrounding the departure have dissipated for all parties. After a month, the employee will have settled into her new job and is more apt to be objective about her experience at your organization. Void of emotion, the feedback is often objective and intellectual.

You may also want to ask the former employee to fill out a written exit questionnaire 60 days after departure. A follow-up questionnaire sent to the departing employee's home address is often a safe way to solicit honest feedback.

If the employee was a valuable one, consider using a delayed exit interview as an opportunity to test whether the grass was, indeed, greener and to plant the seed for a return (and become a boomerang employee!).

Former employees are often too proud to admit they've made a mistake in leaving and wouldn't think of picking up the phone and inquiring about coming back. Plus, employees who quit often think their former company is mad at them for leaving; because they're afraid of rejection, they don't reach out to see if a return is possible.

Smart companies understand these natural reactions and take it upon themselves to contact former top employees within 90 days of their departure to inquire about a return. Embedding this inquiry into an exit questionnaire is a safe way for the employer to explore a former employee's interest in returning.

As for the former employee, being asked to return not only reveals that the former employer is not angry, but also enables him to save face (“They called me!”). The former employee won't have to worry about being perceived as begging to return, with his tail between his legs.

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