How to Conduct an Effective Exit Interview

You Can Improve Your Organization When You Know What Employees Wanted

Two People Talking in an Office

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What Is an Employee Exit Interview?

An exit interview is a meeting with a terminating employee that is generally conducted by a human resources staff member. The exit interview provides your organization with the opportunity to obtain frank and honest feedback from the employee who is leaving your employment.

Managers and supervisors are also encouraged to conduct exit interviews with employees who are leaving the organization. These interviews with an exiting employee can provide information that the manager can use to avoid losing additional employees. And, when trust exists between the manager and the employee who is exiting the organization, the employee exit interview feedback is useful for organizational improvement and development.

The exit interview is an integral component of your employment ending process because the information you obtain can make major improvements in your organization. In some organizations, the exit interview is conducted as a part of the employment termination meeting in addition to the rest of the steps on the employment termination checklist.

Who Conducts Employee Exit Interviews?

In a study involving 88 executives and 32 senior leaders from 210 organizations in 33 industries that were headquartered in more than 35 countries, Harvard Business Review researchers found that nearly three-quarters of the organizations conducted employee exit interviews.

According to the study, "Of those, 70.9% had their HR departments handle the process; 19% had the departing employees’ direct supervisors do it; 8.9% delegated the job to the direct supervisor’s manager, and 1% turned to external consultants."

Further, they decided that the result of an exit interview should be actionable data. But, of the study participants reporting. only a third could identify a specific example of an action taken as a result of the exit interview data collection.

5 Steps to Conduct an Effective Employee Exit Interview

To avoid this sad result from the exit interviews you conduct, the following five recommendations will help you make your employee exit interview data collection matter.

1. Ask Questions, and Pay Close Attention in an Exit Interview

You will want to listen carefully to what you are told in an exit interview and make sure that you ask a lot of questions. This will help ensure that you are hearing what the employee is saying and what he or she is not saying, which are both important. It is easy to make a leap of faith and assume that you understand what the employee is describing, but the employee's words may not accurately convey the employee's true feelings.

During an exit interview, being attuned to the employee's subtle differences in meaning is crucial to the usefulness of the information you receive. It's also best to write down what the employee says because you don't want to trust your memory. When you write down the responses that your exiting employee provides, the person receives the message that you care about the information that he or she is providing. This, in turn, may allow you to collect more information and feedback than you otherwise may have received.

2. Understanding the Positive Aspects of Employment 

By understanding the positive aspects of employment with your organization, it will also make it easier for you to retain critical employees and improve your workplace productivity. You will have the information you need to make the changes necessary to provide a desirable workplace.

Because you are allowed to ask almost any question in an exit interview, it's a good time to inquire about compensation and benefits at competing companies. You may discover you top the list. You could also ask the person that is leaving for any positive information they want to share about managers, the organizational mission, the vision of the company, and if your organization excels at communication.

3. Create a Comfortable Environment for the Exit Interview

The key to conducting an effective exit interview is to create an environment in which the exiting employee is comfortable providing honest feedback. The organizational culture that fosters useful exit interview feedback is one in which employees are comfortable sharing ideas openly, are encouraged to criticize processes and methods, and are never punished for sharing their thoughts.

4. Distill Employee Anxiety During the Exit Interview

You need to assure the employee who is leaving that the feedback he or she provides will be combined with other employee feedback and presented to management in an aggregated format. This helps distill any anxiety on the part of the employee that there will be reprisals for less than positive feedback.

Employees are concerned about their reputations, and they worry about how the exit interview data will be used. They want to be assured that if they run into their manager or coworkers in the future, their information has been kept private.

How you quit your job can affect your future. So employees worry about burning bridges and leaving the employer with a less than favorable impression if they speak too honestly at an exit interview. Your goal is to create an environment in which the employee trusts that their feedback is used in an aggregated format with the goal of improving the organization.

5. Ask the Most Important Question

Finally, make sure that every exit interview contains the most critical question that you need to ask the employee. You want to know what caused the employee to start looking for a new job in the first place. This is the single most important question to ask your exiting employee.

The Bottom Line

Yes, marvelous opportunities do fall into a person's lap, and job offers to move up the managerial ladder occur on occasion, as well. However, for your average employee who is leaving, you want to know why the employee was open to a new job and why he or she was looking in the first place. And, you need to create an environment in which your employee is comfortable telling you for an effective exit interview.