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The Definitive Guide to Exit Interviews

The Definitive Guide to Exit Interviews

People aren’t usually great at goodbyes, and work is no exception. Sometimes, you’re sad to see employees go because they are talented and you care about them personally. Other times, you might be relieved that they’re moving on to pastures you don’t have to shepherd. Either way, it’s crucial to treat these transitions with care, and an exit interview can be a great way to leave the relationship in the best place possible.

What is an exit interview?

While specifics vary widely between organizations, industries, and job types, a basic exit interview definition includes any activity that allows an organization to exchange information with someone before their departure.

Some common ways to conduct an employee exit interview include:

  • One-on-One Discussion: Because of the high importance of exit interviews, this method is the most ideal and common. A one-on-one discussion gives the interviewer the opportunity to ask useful follow-up questions, gain an understanding of how employees feel about the organization, and ideally leave the relationship as positive as possible.
  • Survey: If your organization has a lot of temporary or seasonal employees who leave in a mass exodus, an online survey might be the best way to conduct employee exit interviews. While certainly less personal, this method is better than not conducting exit interviews at all. 

HR professional talking with an employee

What is the purpose of an exit interview?

An exit interview provides an opportunity for the organization to seek feedback about an employee’s experience. Gathering feedback can help organizations identify areas for improvement and reduce future turnover.

What are the benefits of conducting exit interviews?

Especially considering the relatively small investment (30 minutes to an hour is all it takes), there are plenty of benefits to conducting exit interviews:

  • Genuine Feedback: As mentioned above, the most obvious purpose of exit interviews is to gather feedback. Hopefully, employees feel safe providing feedback throughout their employment without it negatively impacting their jobs. But the great thing about a departing employee is they don’t have much to lose by speaking their mind. So, ask the tough questions.
  • Amicable Parting: Whether your employee is leaving because of their choice or yours, they’re still people who deserve respect. An exit interview might not be able to correct every less-than-satisfactory experience, but it can certainly help.
  • Employment Wrap Up: An exit interview is a perfect place to ensure employees understand any lingering obligations like equipment returns, non-competes, intellectual property agreements, etc.
  • Q&A: You might not be the only one with questions, either; your employee might have a few things they’d like answered, too. Whether they’re looking for answers on setting up COBRA insurance or why they were passed up for a promotion last year,, an employee exit interview can provide a lot of clarity.
  • Private Venting: People need to be heard. If you don’t give your employee the opportunity to share feedback privately before they leave, they may find ways to do it more publicly after they’re gone. Whether that means spreading their experience by word of mouth or leaving a scathing Glassdoor review, you’ll be much better off if you can help employees get things off their chest before they walk out the door.

Learn the Best Exit Interview Questions to Ask

Exit Interview Tips:

It can be tough to know exactly how to conduct an exit interview. While we can’t tell you what to say in an exit interview since each organization and each employee is different, we can provide some exit interview best practices:

  • Schedule the meeting and communicate the purpose. An employee’s last day is typically the best time to conduct an exit interview. In fact, it might even be a good idea to have it be the very last thing they do before heading on to their next adventure. It should be scheduled well ahead of the last day so your employee can be prepared. You should also provide an explanation or agenda of exactly what you’ll be discussing so that departing employees know you understand the importance of exit interviews. You’ll also enable them to provide more thoughtful answers to your questions by giving them time to think through what you’ll be talking about.
  • Have someone other than the employee’s direct manager conduct the interview. Even the best managers have areas for improvement. Your departing employee might not feel entirely comfortable giving open, honest feedback about all their experiences to someone who was likely very involved with those experiences.
  • Encourage openness by reinforcing confidentiality. Even though they’re leaving, your employee will likely find comfort in confidentiality. Of course, they’ll want you to address their feedback (more on that below), but you must find a way to do so without outing them. After all, employees occasionally return, often work with past colleagues in future opportunities, and may even ask for a recommendation from a supervisor at your organization. They should feel confident providing feedback without jeopardizing anything in the future.
  • Outline appropriate (and useful) questions. Instead of rushing into the meeting and letting your intuition guide the conversation, take time in advance to outline the specific questions you’d like to ask. Knowing a bit about the employee’s specific circumstances might change what you want to ask. You can find a list of the best exit interview questions here.
  • Express excitement and support for their new opportunity. It’s a bummer when top performers leave, but if you genuinely care about employees (and you should!), you should be excited that they’re taking on new challenges. Where appropriate, express how much you and the company appreciate their contributions and how excited you are for their new journey.
  • Implement the feedback. This is perhaps the most important tip of all. The information you gather in exit interviews won’t do you any good if you don’t do anything with it. Take advantage of the full value of exit interviews by carefully recording and implementing the feedback. Of course, not all feedback will require action (sometimes situations are isolated or departing employees simply vent frustrations), but when you notice patterns or large issues, create a plan to start taking action immediately.

Get Four More Tips for Improving Offboarding

one on one discussion

Exit Interview Precautions:

As with many HR tasks, exit interviews should be approached carefully. Even employees you perceive as leaving with goodwill may be looking for any opportunity to gather a little dirt, and since it’s likely the last interaction your employees have, it’s a good idea to ensure you end on a positive note.

  • Keep it positive. It can be easy to take a defensive stance when someone is providing a lot of feedback (let alone criticism). Your organization wants the feedback, and the exit interview isn’t the place to refute any criticisms—whether the criticism is fair or not. Tell your inner debate champion to take a lunch break, listen, and try to steer the conversation to a constructive place by pushing for details that will help you make impactful changes.
  • Don’t overshare. Especially if you’re friends with the leaving employee, it can be tempting to respond to exit interview feedback with a bit of insider information. (e.g. “Between you and me, you’re not the only one to report that behavior from her.”) It’s especially important to ensure you walk the line and don’t let anything slip in the exit interview that could create any legal risk for the company.
  • Don’t force it. You may have employees who don’t want to do an exit interview at all. Bummer for you, but don’t force them. It’ll leave a sour taste in their mouth and likely won’t result in anything productive. If you have paperwork they need to sign or procedures they need to complete, swing by their desk or office and give them a task list with due dates. Then check in as their final day approaches to ensure all your offboarding ducks are in a row.

Conclusion

Before your employees walk out the door for the last time, ensure you’ve done everything you can to learn from them and leave the relationship in an amicable place. When done carefully, exit interviews provide a lot of benefits for your company and your departing employee. If nothing else, it provides an opportunity to wrap up any final to-dos and say goodbyes.

 

Now that you know how to effectively say goodbye to employees, spend a little time improving the way you say hello:

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