Exit interviews are sometimes treated in a cursory fashion, but they can yield helpful feedback on why good employees leave and how an organization can improve. While it’s tempting to overlook this final step in a worker’s employment, there are several reasons why every business should make time to perform an employee exit interview.

The No. 1 purpose of the employee exit interview

The primary reason for conducting an employee exit interview is to uncover problems in your business—specific ones related to the departing employee and issues that are systemic. If anything comes out of an exit interview that alludes to discrimination, harassment or unfair compensation, opening an HR investigation and elevating those to counsel as quickly as possible could head off a lawsuit from the departing employee.

Beyond issues like that, an employee exit interview can shine a spotlight on what’s working or not working in your organization. A departing employee is likely to be more forthright than a present employee about the business’s challenges, says Kim Troup, vice president of benefits for XMI. “Lots of employers today understand how difficult it is to recruit employees,” she says. “That makes retaining the good ones imperative. Exit interviews can enlighten employers on issues that may impact retention.”

The employee might say they didn’t receive sufficient training, didn’t think their manager had sufficient training, or think their work was underappreciated. “That is all useful feedback that can help you be more strategic in addressing employee retention in the future,” Troup says.

There are other benefits…

The person being interviewed may be out the door, but employees who are teetering could be convinced to stay if they know their voices are heard. Management that shows willingness to fix problems and alter counterproductive processes can help keep turnover low—and improve their position in the industry.

An employee exit interview also can provide competitive intelligence. No, we don’t recommend flat-out asking about the benefits package offered by the new employer. But an employee exit interview should be able to tell you how your pay, time off and other HR benefits stack up. They can also indicate if your advancement opportunities aren’t keeping pace with the industry.

A final benefit of the employee exit interview is its ability to provide closure. “Sometimes an exit interview’s real value is just letting employees vent,” Troup says. “In some cases, if they don’t have the opportunity to do that, they may leave and stew on something, which could invite legal action later.” An employee exit interview could even turn a departing employee into an advocate for your business. If treated with gratitude and respect, these employees could be great ambassadors for you, and many may recommend your companies’ products and services going forward.

Strategies for nailing your next employee exit interview

The merits of a strong exit interview program may be clear, but what’s the best way to conduct such an interview? Here are a few strategies for gleaning the right kind of feedback.

Decide on the type of interview. Some companies believe a face-to-face conversation shows more respect to the departing employee and fosters better communication, while others get the information they need from a phone interview, questionnaire or a survey. Troup prefers face-to-face, even if it’s a video call. “By seeing their face, you can also see their emotions change when they talk about different aspects of their employment,” she says. “That can help you decide what’s truly important information that needs to be shared or acted upon.”

Ensure the interviewer is someone other than employee’s immediate supervisor. An HR representative is often best for eliciting honest responses since the supervisor’s relationship with the employee might be a reason they are leaving. If there is no HR representative, Troup recommends having another manager conduct the interview. XMI also offers employee exit interview services through our human resources outsourcing and professional employer organization.

Concentrate on getting candid responses. It’s always a good idea to make sure the employee knows that the exit interview is coming. Surprises are never a good thing, and the head’s up gives the employee a chance to think about how they might respond. But you’ll want to make sure your questions are open-ended enough to elicit candid answers.

 The National Federation for Independent Business recommends asking these questions during an employee exit interview:

  • How do you feel you were treated by your supervisor and coworkers?
  • Do you believe your work was recognized and appreciated?
  • Do you feel you were given adequate training and assistance in learning your job?
  • Did you see opportunities for transfer or promotion within this business?
  • How would you describe the morale of your fellow employees?
  • How fairly was the workload distributed among you and your coworkers?
  • What could be done to make this company a better place to work? 

Harvard Business Review recommends asking every departing employee something like: “Please complete the sentence ‘I don’t know why the company doesn’t just ____.’”

During the course of the interview, a surefire way to put an end to the candid responses is by passing judgment. That’s why Troup recommends refraining from commentary about the departing employee’s responses.

Follow up with a plan for productive action. Don’t just collect the information and shove it in a file somewhere. Have a system for sharing the information and paying attention to the strategic value it can provide. Troup underscores the fact that you might not share all the information that comes out in an employee exit interview. Focus on the larger themes and feedback that can be helpful to managers and the company. “After the interview, it’s important to sift through all the information and in a very mature and neutral way decide what is of value and can help the company moving forward.”

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