Don’t Just Wave Goodbye

An Exit Interview (EI) is a formalised process for interviewing staff that are leaving. The primary aim of the exit interview is to learn the reasons for a person’s departure, as a way of improving organisation performance. The interview is usually conducted face-to-face, because…

Exit interviews?
In which I interview departing staff and ask them why they are leaving?
What a great idea!
I'll get my personnel department right on it (heavy sarcasm).

What Is an Exit Interview?

An exit interview (EI) is a formalised process for interviewing staff who are leaving. The primary aim of the exit interview is to learn the reasons for a person's departure, as a way of improving organisation performance.

The interview is usually conducted face to face because that leads to better communication, clarity and understanding, but it can also be done by telephone or questionnaire.

EIs are usually done before an employee's last day, but they can take place (or be followed up) up to several months later.

Ideally, EIs should be offered to all leaving employees (but maybe not dismissed ones – at least not without and IR lawyer present!).

To be most effective, they should be optional for the employee.

Isn't It a Bit Late Once They Resign?

Yes and no.

Of course we should be having these conversations earlier and acting to improve or help the employee before they decide to leave. The best time for an employee to discuss concerns, dissatisfaction, and suggestions with their employer is while they are a committed employee, not on their way out the door!

We all know that.

And we all know that employees are our most valuable asset and that we should be spending our time developing and keeping them.

But it's just not that clean in practice, is it?

We get busy and we can't keep everyone happy all the time. Some jobs just have to be done. And employees leave for personal reasons or to change careers. Some may not be in a happy place when they leave and some we may be pleased to see leave. Employees leave. Put another advert in the paper and move on...

But what if we don't just wave goodbye? What if we take the trouble to learn why they leave?

We might gain a lot of valuable insight for the future. We might find that our organisation needs to change.

A little bit of effort now might save us a lot of advertising, inducting and training later on.

Exit Interviews - The Benefits

Exit interviews are a great tool for guiding organisation improvement, since rarely will we receive such frank feedback from current employees. It's simply an opportunity not to be missed.

Exit interviews can tell us:

  • what we are doing well,
  • where we can improve, and
  • where we are making mistakes.

They can help us to:

  • understand why an employee is leaving (and possibly change their minds if we want them to),
  • understand our employee's perception of the work itself - which helps us confirm the skill sets, experience, and attributes needed for the job,
  • understand when good people are leaving because they are denied the opportunity to grow and advance, and
  • capture useful knowledge, contacts, tips, etc. from the exiting employee.

Along the way we will:

  • gain insight into our organisation’s leadership style and effectiveness,
  • learn about the benchmarks (salary, benefits etc.) at competing organisations,
  • tell existing employees we have a positive culture that is caring and compassionate and that we are big enough to expose ourselves to criticism, and
  • show stake holders (and regulatory agencies) that we have the proper practices in place for effective people management.

And it doesn't end there. Exit interviews can also:

  • suggest ways to improve staff retention,
  • suggest ways to improve recruitment and induction of new employees,
  • provide an opportunity to 'make peace' with disgruntled employees - to say good-bye on good terms,
  • give us a better understanding of managing people (hearing and handling feedback is powerful learning!),
  • provide valuable insight into our professional development needs and processes, and
  • foster innovation by soliciting ideas for improving ourselves.

The very fact that we care enough to ask can even end up creating advocates for our centre. By treating departing employees with respect and gratitude, we may encourage them to recommend us to potential employees or families, and maybe create alliances between us and their new employers (as opposed to releasing public relations assassins into our community!).

A thoughtful exit interview—whether it be a face-to-face conversation, a questionnaire, a survey, or a combination—can catalyse leaders’ listening skills, reveal what does or doesn’t work inside the organisation, highlight hidden challenges and opportunities, and generate essential competitive intelligence. It can promote engagement and enhance retention by signalling to employees that their views matter. And it can turn departing employees into corporate ambassadors for years to come. (HBR)

What's not to like about them! 🙂

So let's do it!

Tactics and Techniques

What to do before…

Decide Who.

First, decide who will get exit interviews (which positions), and who will conduct them. Research suggests that it's better to not use the immediate supervisor of an employee if possible.

We found that interviews conducted by second- or third-line managers are most likely to lead to action. Second-line managers (the direct supervisors’ supervisor) typically receive more-honest feedback precisely because they’re one step removed from the employee. Also, these managers [can] follow up immediately and effectively. Their participation signals that the company cares about the opinions of departing employees. (HBR)

Most centres will not have this degree of hierarchy, but it does tell us that maybe not having the direct manager conduct the EI is a good strategy.

Decide When and for How Long.

There is no common agreement on when it is best to hold an exit interview. Some suggest that it's best half way between the resignation and leaving - after the initial rush of emotion has died down but before the employee has ‘checked out’ mentally.

Holding the interviews in the last week is probably going to be after the employee has disengaged.

Others suggest waiting until the employee has left – say a month later. This is likely to be more relaxed and lead to honest answers; however, there is also the possibility that they could be so disengaged that it’s a hard to get much involvement.

The commonly suggested length of an EI is 60 – 90 minutes.

It’s probably best if we let departing employees choose the setting and timing of their exit interviews - although a friendly chat in a coffee bar may be more successful than a formal meeting in the 'boss's office'.

And Decide How.

Most experts believe that a face-to-face interview is best. It creates rapport (though some feel the telephone is just as effective). It’s an individual choice and may change depending on the staff member’s circumstances and personality.

Most agree that a questionnaire is a less useful option.

What to Do During…

For the meeting, we need to have someone conducting the interview who will listen more than talk, and above all, avoid displays of authority. They need to be patient and friendly, speaking only enough to prompt the interviewee or steer the discussion toward an important topic. Their aim is to obtain feedback, not to lecture or rebuke.

They should not get drawn into discussing fixes for problems that surface. Instead, they should ask the staff member to recommend a solution themselves, without talking about possible organisation responses.

Above all, our interviewer should not get into the blame game.



Exit interviews are not about blame.


Interviewers should ask open what/how/why questions, not closed yes/no questions, unless they require specific confirmation about a point.

They should frame questions positively and avoid embarrassing interviewees or delving into their personal lives. They might ask how an employee liked the job (was it rewarding, challenging, too easy?) and how working conditions could be improved. It may be helpful to ask departing employees how their colleagues feel about their work, because someone who’s reluctant to offer a candid opinion might be comfortable ascribing his or her feelings to coworkers.

Most employees have other jobs lined up by the time they announce their departure. The interviewer might ask about the new job, but not about how the two positions compare; it’s important not to make the employee feel they must defend his or her choice. The point is to gather benchmarking information.

It's worth having the interviewer ask for suggestions for improving the job, the work group or the entire centre, and to close by giving interviewees an opportunity to talk about any other pressing matters or thoughts.

(A sample list of interview questions can be downloaded from the Resources section below.)

Instruct interviewers to end exit interviews on a positive note, by committing to using the information provided to improve the workplace.

Wish the soon-to-be-ex-employee success in his or her new endeavour.

Then, end the exit interview graciously.

What to Do After…

Use the information!

Share, learn and make changes.

The centre will be all the better for it.

Food for Thought...

  • Interviewing staff before they leave is a valuable source of information.
  • Interviews are best done face to face and before the employee has 'checked-out' emotionally.
  • EIs are probably more effective if not done by the immediate supervisor.
  • EIs need good listeners who ask open-ended questions.
  • EIs are a waste of time if the information is not put to use (a surprisingly common outcome).

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