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Why Are Exit Interviews Important?

November 1, 2009 by Jill Geddes, Partner, Trillium Teams Inc

Do you really know why your employees are leaving? Exit interviews are an extremely important and useful tool for managers. Proper exit interviews are an excellent opportunity to learn about both the strengths and weaknesses of the manager and the organization, to help understand how best to satisfy and retain employees. Managers know they should do exit interviews but so often when someone resigns they are focused on finding a replacement and figuring out a transition strategy with their team, while also managing their busy workloads. This makes connecting with HR to have an exit interview completed before they leave a last priority. Once that person walks out the door, managers believe that they’ve missed their opportunity; in fact, it is actually more beneficial to do an exit interview after some time has passed.

When Should Exit Interviews Be Conducted?

Most people think exit interviews need to be conducted the instant people say they are leaving. If the exit interview is not completed within the last week of work, the common belief is that there is no longer an option. In fact, the best time to do an exit interview is anywhere from one month up to a year after the person has left their position. This is because it gives the former employee time to gain a more objective and less emotional perspective. The former employee will most likely be in a new role at the time of the exit interview and they will be able to make valuable comparisons; as well they are more likely to be truly honest about the reasons for leaving. So often the concern with exit interviews is that people do not want to burn their bridges, so they are very cautious with their answers; or they do not want to criticize their manager because of concern about getting a good reference. This is much less likely to occur when more time has passed. When the exit interview is conducted after someone has already left the organization, it is seen as a chance to give the manager constructive criticism, since they no longer hold any power over the former employee.

If a manager is concerned that holding an exit interview after the employee leaves will decrease participation, they should not worry. In our experience, former employees are always willing to participate, and give very valuable feedback. At a basic level, people like to be asked and when the effort is made after they have left, they know that their opinion is valued. All former staff gain a new respect for their manager when asked to participate in an exit interview at a later date, rather than not at all.

One-Offs Versus Multiple Exit Interviews

Managers often think that exit interviews need to be done one at a time on an as needed basis. When we work with clients on exit interviews, we actually recommend doing multiple interviews with former staff who have left their team anywhere from two weeks to 18 months. The most obvious benefit of conducting multiple exit interviews is that the feedback can be documented in one telling report. This report combines all the feedback and allows the manager to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the reasons for the attrition, as patterns and trends will clearly emerge. Having the exit interviews conducted by a neutral third party, in a confidential manner, also encourages the former employee to be more open and honest. Multiple exit interviews are still done individually, and everyone is made aware that all interview results will be compiled in one general report. This makes the results much more powerful and useful for the manager, as it allows for the clear identification between patterns and one off comments. This means it becomes clear where to focus their attention for making future adjustments and improvements.

Who Should You Conduct Exit Interviews?

Using exit interviews as a way to get feedback seems ideal, but convincing employees to open up can be difficult. In order to get solid information, it is very important for the interviewer to be as objective as possible, which can be difficult for a manager or an HR professional from within the organization. If the interviewer becomes defensive or biased against them, the employee is more likely to distort their answers or not talk at all. For people to be honest, either someone from HR, or ultimately, a neutral third party vendor should conduct the interview. Participants prefer if the results of the interview are confidential and if the person interviewing is neutral.

What Questions Should Be Asked?

Determining the questions for an exit interview depends on the type of results the manager is looking for. Here is a list of standard questions for an exit interview that are bound to generate good discussion:

  1. Overall, how did you find your experience working on this team?
  2. What did you like about it?
  3. What could have been better?
  4. What was your primary reason for leaving?
  5. What would it have taken for you to stay?
  6. Did you receive enough training and support to do your job effectively?
  7. Did you receive sufficient feedback about your performance between reviews?
  8. Did any policies or procedures (or any other obstacles) make your job more difficult?
  9. Would you consider working for this organization again in the future?
  10. What does your new position offer that your previous one doesn't?
  11. Any other comments?

What Should the Manager Do With the Information?

When the manager receives the feedback from the exit interviews, they will need to go through the results and determine what is within their control of changing and what is not. Ultimately the manager should use the results that are within their control to improve the workplace. This will make things better for the new employees coming in and ensure that the same mistakes will not be made again. The results are an important retention tool; if the manager acts upon the results. After the manager has implemented the changes, it would be ideal if there was a means for measuring the impact of the changes on the team. As an example a team survey or more neutral interviews with current employees six to 12 months after the changes are implemented.

The exit interview results which are not within the control of the manager to make changes, it is extremely important that this information is relayed to the appropriate people within the organization.

Setting Proper Expectations

In order to get the best results and the most honest feedback, it is important to set proper expectations throughout the entire process. Here are a few suggestions to keep in mind:

  • Participants should receive some form of communication, an email or phone call from the manager requesting their participation, and it should always be optional. They should give an overview of the process and who will be conducting the interview.
  • It is important for the interviewer to build trust with the participant and discuss confidentiality. When the interviewer contacts the participant, they should inform them about the purpose of the exit interview, how the information will be used and who will have access to it.
  • Finally, all questions should be optional. If there are comments that the participant does not want to discuss or to be recorded, they need to be given the option.