Exit Interviews – The Dos and Don’ts By Jason R. Mau

18-Apr-2018

Exit Interviews – The Dos and Don’ts

by Jason R. Mau

WHY?  This is the first question that usually comes to mind for managers and employees alike when news gets around an office that an employee has resigned (unless, of course it catches everyone by complete surprise and they first ask WHAT!?).  While an employer may not come to understand all the reasons an employee may have decided to move on, if it makes proper use of an exit interview, it may learn a great deal. 

Ultimately, an organization’s goal is to retain its valued employees, but it will have no control over an unexpected rise in turnover if it is not taking the time to gather and analyze the information it needs to retain top performers.  The exit interview is the perfect opportunity to gather that information.  While exit interviews are not implemented by all employers, most that do adopt the process recognize that they are the better for implementing these programs. 

Granted, implementing an exit interview process will not single-handedly reduce turnover.  However, if done right, the exit interview process can provide information about one of its greatest assets – employees – and why they stay, why they leave, and what changes may be needed to remain competitive.  The exit interview may be one of the easiest ways to gather the necessary feedback to address these important topics.  Still, there are many factors that can influence the effectiveness of an exit interview policy, and for that reason, a list of some basic dos and don’ts are included below. 

Do:

  • Develop a Formal Policy – Including exit interviews as part of the company’s employee policies is conducive to more productive acquisition of information from departing employees.  When employees are aware that the company places a priority on conducting exit interviews they will not be surprised when they are scheduled.  Instead of being surprised, they are more likely to be prepared to share comments with the company and may even have some relevant questions in mind about their experiences before departing.
  • Ask Open-ended Questions – Asking the right questions will encourage the departing employee to open up and honestly share with the interviewer.  The responses may provide the best information.  Consider asking questions like:  What did you like best about your employment?  What did you like least?  What can we do better to keep valued employees?
  • Encourage Leader Participation – Putting the right people in charge of interviews, with the right skills, will help reveal hidden challenges and opportunities.  Exit interviews are most effective when second-line supervisors (direct supervisors’ managers) are involved as the additional separation from the employee’s position tends to produce more honest feedback.  These are also the leaders in the company that will be more likely in a position to effectively follow up.  The participation also signals to employees that the company is dedicated to the process and cares about employee’s opinions. 
  • Stress Confidentiality (where appropriate) – While you cannot legally mandate employees to participate in exit interviews, you should do all you can to encourage employee participation in exit interviews.  One of the ways is to stress that, unless required by law, the remarks will not be shared with others in the office.  Of course this may be difficult for smaller employers, but every employer should do its best to remove any identifying factors to information that is eventually shared with appropriate personnel.  Many individuals are worried that if they have to report a manager’s bad behavior, the comments will get out right away and will be easily traced back to them.  Still, the employer must make an effort not to compromise the one sharing the information. 
  • Remind Employees of Obligations – Speaking of confidentiality, an exit interview may be the last and most opportune time to remind a departing employee that they may have an obligation to protect confidentiality of company information or are subject to ongoing restrictive covenants for the immediate future.  This conversation may provide cues to the interviewer that an employee might be contemplating just what can and cannot be carried on to the next employer.  If such cues arise, there may still be time to put some additional protections in place, especially if the relevant information is readily available on the company server. 
  • Follow up – The most important part of exit interviews is analyzing the information that is collected and acting on it immediately, when necessary.  This is especially important when the information suggests that there might be some HR issues to address, like the ability of your supervisors to treat employees respectfully.  Ideally, the interviewer will have been trained to collect all the relevant facts when it becomes evident that an investigation may be necessary.  Follow up is also important when the information collected is positive, as it may provide insight to become even more successful and competitive in the marketplace. 

Don’t

  • Require Upon Every Separation – The company must exercise some discretion when enforcing exit interview policies.  On the one hand, you do not want to refuse to do an interview with involuntarily-terminated employees just because the most useful information generally is received from employees leaving voluntarily.  However, you want to be able to utilize any method to allow all employees to leave on a positive note.  Some employees that have been terminated may still view the company in a positive light overall, and are less likely to disparage the company if given an opportunity to vent and speak frankly about the circumstances leading to termination.  It may even reveal information about an employee’s future intent to pursue litigation.  In the end, though, not every situation provides an opportunity to speak with a departing employee, and there are circumstances where the additional conversation simply will not be productive. 
  • Wait Until the Last Days Before Separation – If the company does not make an effort to schedule the exit interview for a time that is mutually beneficial for both the employee and the employer, you run the risk of forcing an extra burden upon the employee after the employee has already checked out mentally.  Work with the employee to find the right time when they are most relaxed and comfortable to share meaningful information.
  • Include Third Parties – Including unnecessary third parties in the process will often limit the availability of helpful information.  The goal is employee candor.  An extra pair of prying eyes in the room may limit the information an employee is willing to reveal. 
  • Give no Guidance to the Interviewer – If the company does not develop a list of standard questions to ask or specific goals, it will not gather consistent information to properly analyze.  Granted, it may be that a different focus is necessary for specific situations, but if consistent information is being collected, the company will be able to spot relevant trends.  In addition, failing to encourage or train the interviewer to listen more than talk and be patient and friendly will not serve the company well.  The last thing you want is an interviewer whose goal is to fix things with the employee or make a final display of authority.  The goal should be gathering relevant information. 
  • Rely on Online Exit Surveys or Questionnaires – Surveys or questionnaires can be secondary materials to prepare an employee for a meaningful exit interview, but a company should not rely solely on written responses. Face-to-face or telephone interviews produce the most effective information.  Employees generally will not spend quality time contemplating questions in an online survey.
  • Condition Separation Benefits On an Interview – Policies that require employees to forfeit accrued PTO if they do not participate in an exit interview are ripe with potential problems.  For one thing, it may invite a wage claim if an employee is unable to sit for the interview until after separation.  If the former employee is forced to participate, there may still be an obligation to pay wages for that time.  Such a policy will also limit the company’s ability to terminate employment quickly when necessary.  It is impractical and unrealistic for a supervisor to worry about obtaining a required exit interview instead of focusing on the removal of a serious problem. 
  • Use Policy as an Excuse to Avoid Conversations – The exit interview should not hold the company back from pursuing meaningful retention conversations with current employees.  A company should have active relationships with its employees if it wants to stay competitive.  This approach is much easier than implementing plans later to regain a competitive edge. 
  • Treat all Levels of Positions Equally – Putting the same amount of effort into interviewing every position will not produce the same quality of information.  The exit interview programs that produce the most direct actions are those that gather information from employees leaving positions that are harder to replace.  When a hard-to-replace employee leaves, upper management will be more likely to take notice, and more motivated to take action in response to information gathered from the exit interview. Thus, it becomes more important to find out the reasons why a hard-to-replace employee is leaving than an entry-level employee.  The employee may have been filling supervisory, sales, or technical roles that are often recruitment targets.  They will also be more knowledgeable about the company’s operations and competitors, and will be able to share more relevant information on what may have precipitated the change.  This information can be very valuable to the company.
  • Ignore the Future Influence – Exit interviews have the potential to produce a positive future effect in the departing employee.  If an employee’s tenure with the company has been positive, a constructive exit interview may reinforce the employee’s positive feelings about the company.  Those feelings and memories have the potential to wield influence into the future for your company.  Consider this an opportunity to recruit a company ambassador for the community, a source of future referrals, or maybe even a future customer. 

Conclusion

Hopefully, this list encourages your company to create an efficient policy that helps you remain relevant in the marketplace. Once implemented, the effectiveness of an exit interview program is best measured by the amount of positive change created for your company.  Sadly, in a 2012/2013 survey reported in the Harvard Business Review, two-thirds of the executives questioned about exit interview programs in their organizations could not cite specific action taken as a result of the program.  Thus, it is not surprising that there still exists the opinion that exit interviews have a negative return on investment.  However, this view appears to be the direct consequence for simply not implementing a solid, working program or failing to follow-up on the information mined from these interviews.