Are exit interviews a needless formality, or can they serve a greater purpose? If you already know why someone is choosing to leave (or has been terminated), is there even a point to conducting one?

The short answer: yes. An exit interview can yield valuable insights for organizational improvement, whether the employee left voluntarily or not. There are two caveats:

  • Conduct the exit interview with realistic goals
  • Understand how to conduct a business-oriented, non-emotional exit interview

An exit interview offers an opportunity to gain valuable information that may be more difficult to obtain in other ways, and it can be a valuable tool for management and HR.

Set Realistic Goals

If the employee is leaving, don’t make the mistake of treating the exit interview as a final attempt to get them to stay. That ship has sailed.

A more reasonable goal is to find out why the employee is leaving and, if they were valued, what types of changes would have made them more likely to stay.

You can also learn how to boost retention for future employees.

If the employee is being terminated, chances are that a portion of the exit interview will cover some of the mechanics of separation, such as severance pay, insurance, and paperwork.

However, if the employee is being terminated for performance reasons, or because the individual’s skills didn’t match your organization’s needs, you can gain insights that may help you better identify and train new hires in the future. If the employee is being terminated because of issues with their supervisor, you can also learn about their supervisor’s skills and approach.

If an employee is being terminated or furloughed because of your organization’s financial circumstances, you may also be able to keep the door open if your hope is to rehire that employee in the future.

Regardless of why the employee is leaving your organization, a well-constructed exit interview can provide valuable information about the following:

  • The organization’s compensation philosophy
  • The skills of specific managers and executives
  • The recruiting process (and whether you’re doing a good job advertising and interviewing for positions)

Set the Timing and the Interviewer

The best time to conduct an exit interview is on an employee’s last day. Whether the person is leaving voluntarily or not, he or she will be freer to share candid thoughts if it’s the last “official” task performed at work.

To encourage the most open and honest response, it makes sense to have an outside person conduct the interview. An employee will not be as willing to be honest with their manager or the internal HR department as they would with an external person who’s neutral—asking questions in an objective way and listening and writing them up without bias. It’s always a good idea to have an external HR resource.

Questions to Ask

Unless a portion of the interview is spent discussing a complicated severance package, a typical exit interview should last about 30 minutes.

The areas to explore when employees are leaving voluntarily should include:

  • Why do you want to leave your job?
  • Tell me about our management skills. Is there anything we can do to improve our supervisory skills?
  • Is there any particular thing or event that triggered your decision to leave?
  • Is there anything we could have done to retain you?

You’ll also want to learn how the employee perceives your organization compared to competitors if they’re leaving to join an organization in the same industry.

Ask the same questions of everyone. Be neutral in listening to responses. Ask follow-up questions.

If an employee is being terminated, obviously there’s no reason to ask why they’re leaving. However, many of the other questions should remain the same. If there wasn’t a good fit between an employee and a manager, you want to know why. If an employee had unrealistic expectations about the organization or the position, you want to learn what, if anything, the organization should change.

You can also uncover potential improvements to other employee-facing processes, such as reviews, training, and other processes.

When interviewing terminated employees, be as sensitive as possible, and treat the individual with dignity. Remember, too, that even if the employee is being terminated and chooses (or is forced) to leave immediately, your organization must fulfill its legal obligations to inform the employee of their rights. If that isn’t possible, mail all pertinent information including the final paycheck to their last known address. Document everything that happened during the discharge process.

Above all, don’t skip or shortchange the exit interview process. If your organization truly wants to improve, the exit interview can be a catalyst for change.

The Lindenberger Group has helped organizations gain valuable insights from exit interviews. For more information or to discuss your HR needs, please contact us at 609-730-1049 or send us an email.