For organizations to hire and retain valuable employees who are cheerleaders for the organization even after they’ve moved on, it’s critical for organizations to understand what makes people join the organization and why they leave. A thoughtful exit interview process can help organizations learn their successes and shortcomings and can go a long way in creating stronger professional relationships.
An exit interview is a meeting between a departing employee and the human resources team or an external consultant that can be used to glean valuable insights into how the company is operating and the competitive landscape. And though these meetings should be standard, research by Harvard Business Review revealed that “...many companies don’t even conduct these interviews. Some collect exit interview data but don’t analyze it. Some analyze it but don’t share it with the senior line leaders who can act on it. Only a few collect, analyze, and share the data and follow up with action.”
While reflecting on the employment experience can cause some anxiety for both parties, these candid conversations should be thought of as a tool for creating positive organizational growth. Facilitating a positive departure experience is best for everyone involved.
In fact, Gallup reported that employees who have a positive exit experience are 2.9 times more likely to recommend their organization to others than are those who have a neutral or negative experience.
When creating an exit interview strategy, organizations should focus on creating a positive employee experience. Gallup analysis noted that there are three key elements to a positive exit experience:
While creating a positive experience is important, that doesn’t mean you should steer clear from tough questions, which are most likely to provide insight into potential organizational breakdowns. Finding out key elements about a person’s motivation for leaving, feedback about their role, including benefits, leadership and development opportunities, how the employee views the overall culture, and areas for improvement will help the organization create meaningful changes if they’re needed.
An exit interview may feel like a balancing act for an employee between sharing the truth and maintaining professional courtesy. So, how can both parties come to the exit interview table and leave with a positive experience?
An exit interview should not be viewed as an opportunity to play a “gotcha” game. This does not mean that real issues can’t be brought up and addressed if necessary. Still, the organization's interviewer should not look for ways to penalize the employee for perceived wrongdoings during their tenure with the company.
Discussing your employment experience after choosing to leave can bring mixed emotions, especially if your decision to separate from a company came after disappointment or frustration with your position. However, it’s likely the person conducting your interview is not the cause of your discontent, and they may not be aware of your situation. Regardless, for an employee, an exit interview is an opportunity to share constructive feedback that will help the organization improve the work experience for colleagues and new hires.
It’s common to enter an exit interview with a set of topics you’ll be discussing, but be careful not to hold those questions too rigidly, and be sure each question serves a purpose beyond detail digging. Approaching the interview more conversationally may put the employee at ease, and allow you to gather some genuine responses that fall beyond the scope of your carefully-structured questions.
Additionally, don’t seek to gather information that will not be of service to the institution. For example, asking, “Why have you chosen to work for another organization over us?” may bring to light a variety of answers both useful and not as useful. Instead, center the question on how to improve your organization by asking, “What is something we do not provide that your new employer does?,” or “Did you have expectations in this position that were not met?”
According to Qualtrics, questions should cover:
Information collected can track trends over time, empowering organizations to set goals, create improvement strategies, and track progress.
It’s important to find a balance in the information you bring to the table in an exit interview. While there will undoubtedly be experiences and opinions you have over your tenure with the organization, not all of this information will be widely applicable or constructive.
Before your conversation, reflect on your time with the organization and focus on two to three areas you feel need to be addressed to support the mission, the clients, or former colleagues. Try to include in your answers how a proposed change could impact future work, rather than tying it to your satisfaction as an employee.
The same approach should be taken when you offer praise on what you enjoyed during your time with an organization, as explaining the impact will give managers a better picture of your actual experience. Your feedback will be of higher quality if you prepare for your exit interview with intentionality.
The loss of an employee, especially if it was not anticipated, can create a flurry of action around hiring, transitions, and covering work in the interim. Try to find an appropriate time to complete an exit interview if you can schedule one in advance. Many organizations require an exit interview to be completed before the employee’s last day. Still, there may be some merit in conducting an exit interview after an employee has left the position and had time to process their departure fully.
Discussing important topics too soon after an employee gives notice can make for an awkward week as they wrap up projects, hand over important documents, and continue interacting in the office. After the cake has been shared, meeting with someone in their last hour with the company can shift the tone of a special day and lead to distracted responses.
Additionally, be sensitive to how an employee is leaving the company. There is certainly value to be gained from interviewing employees who have been laid off or terminated from a position, but find a way to approach this gently and after the individual has had time to process the news. This will help you avoid data that is compromised due to a strong emotional reaction.
It’s not always possible to wait for the right timing to announce your departure—maybe your new organization needs you to start as soon as possible, or you’re moving to another state due to family reasons. Be conscious of how your departure may impact the office environment around you, and be prepared to adjust your final weeks accordingly.
You may be eager to share feedback in your exit interview, or you may be dreading the formality of the conversation. Either way, try not to let the stress or nerves of the transitional period jade your discussion. Another suggestion to avoid discomfort in your final days is to avoid turning your two-week notice into a two-week venting session. The exit interview is a great opportunity to express yourself in a way that may not have been previously open to you as an employee, but spreading opinions and criticisms freely around the breakroom once you’ve announced that you’re leaving may sour your final moments with colleagues.
When done well, an exit interview is a growth opportunity both for an employee and employer alike. Employees receive the opportunity to reflect and wrap up a professional experience that will certainly serve as answers in future job interviews and leadership opportunities. For the company or organization, an exit interview provides feedback that can’t always be captured by current employees or outside assessment. By approaching this conversation not as an administrative task to check off the list, but as a genuine chance to connect over a shared work experience, you can get a huge benefit from these interviews and build a foundation for positive interactions in your field post-employment, as well as use insights to spot trends and help retain current organizational stars.
Impact Opportunity would like to thank Andrea Zieger and Karen Butterfield of KE Butterfield, LLC., a communications firm for writing this article.