It’s a bittersweet moment: Your trusted employee is wrapping up her last few days with your team. You’re proud of her for making a jump, but you’re disappointed to lose her. There’s one last step before goodbye: an exit interview. And it’s a prime opportunity to learn something about your company and reduce employee turnover — if you do it right.
That emphasis was intentional. From my point of view, most of us are getting exit interviews dead wrong (including not conducting “stay interviews,” but that’s another article). Let’s explore the state of exit interviews and solutions to make them work harder.
The Problem with Exit Interviews
I see companies making two common mistakes with exit interviews:
- They treat them as obligatory. This means that HR staffers, who may not have a direct relationship with the employee, usually conduct them.
- They walk into these interviews without established goals. This sets the interview up for failure, making the process disorganized, ununified, and ineffective.
My first piece of advice: take a step back to create a more thoughtful conversation. Before your company rolls out an exit interview policy, leadership will need to get clear about what they hope to get out of the interviews — and how they’re going to turn feedback into action that benefits the company and culture.
Goals for Interviews That Make Businesses Run Better
When exit interviews are merely about checking a box, leadership misses out on real ways to make their companies run better and smarter. To isolate needed changes, exit interviews should focus on what leadership can control, e.g.:
- Can we improve our culture?
- What about our training?
- Maybe we need better communication systems or to better foster employee growth.
- What are we doing well that we should keep doing?
These are all factors that commonly cause employee turnover and that leadership has every ability to change.
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General Rules for Exit Interviews
Give the employee the questions a day in advance of the interview.
You’re much more likely to get answers that will help guide policy changes if they have time to brainstorm and organize their thoughts.
Have someone the employee trusts lead the interview.
You can always have an HR manager in the room, but getting the answers you need won’t come from a conversation between two strangers.
Keep it non-threatening.
Use the interview as an opportunity for the company’s growth and not as a place to express your anger or sadness about the employee leaving.
Ask open-ended questions.
You’ll learn so much more if you allow the employee to speak freely and follow their own trains of thought.
Explain your reasons for asking the questions.
Your employee deserves some context — and if you can’t explain why a question is being asked, it likely won’t help you reach your business’s goals in the first place.
Get used to saying “say more.”
If the employee says “I didn’t receive much training,” make a note. When they finish, ask: “Can you say more about not receiving much training?”
Better Questions to Help Inform Your Company’s Future
What made you look for a new job?
This is a different question than “why are you leaving your role:” It helps pinpoint what we as a company could have done better to retain our staff. Employees might detail dissatisfaction with benefits, culture, leadership, or more — which are all things within a company’s control and can be adjusted strategically.
What did your new employer offer you that convinced you to accept their offer?
This question isn’t about a counter offer — it’s about keeping your company competitive. What policies do you need to put in place (or advocate to your leadership to put in place) that would make people less likely to jump ship?
What would have kept you in this role?
This question offers the employee a chance to distill their most-desirable benefits or changes, so you can help prioritize policy shifts at your company.
What could have been done differently in [something specific]?
You’ll have a few different versions of this question based on your company’s needs. I would start with: onboarding, training, communication, and fostering growth.
What would be the top three changes you would make to the company if you were in my role?
I love how open-ended this question is. It allows the employee to think in wide-ranging terms, looking at the bigger picture of the entire company. It’s also a great way to get inside the mind of employees who aren’t in leadership roles and who experience the day-to-day of the office in a completely different way.
What made you feel valued at work?
Compensation is critical, but pay attention to the intangibles that made the employee feel valued, like positive feedback, communication about expectations, and camaraderie.
As does much of company leadership, a successful exit interview comes down to listening. It should be part of a greater effort to make your employees feel heard every step of the way, from their first interview to their last day. Employee turnover is inevitable, but you can make sure you’re fostering a culture of listening from top to bottom and using an employee’s resignation as an opportunity to grow.