Exit Interviews

The topic of exit interviews is not one which typically engenders much debate in the human resources arena. Perhaps the seeming lack of interest in this topic is that exit interviews are perceived by many as essentially unnecessary. In other words, the employee is headed out the door, so why mess with them any longer?

This book takes another approach to exit interviews. Simply put, we recommend you do them. In dealing with the topic, the following common questions arise:
  • Why do you need them?
  • Who should do them?
  • When do you do them?
  • What do you ask?
  • What do you do with the results of the interviews?

Let's take a moment to discuss each of these questions.

Why do exit interviews? Answer: To find out critical information about the success (or lack thereof) of your employment relationships. While many employers feel that they run successful organizations from a human resources standpoint, you really don't know unless you ask. If you are so convinced that your employment relationships are harmonious and productive, verify your belief by conducting exit interviews. Frankly, you may be surprised at what you learn. Exit interviews can provide direct and candid information about your employment setting. That information, if used wisely, can permit an employer to move forward with some confidence in the ongoing effort to upgrade the quality of its employment relations.

Who does exit interviews? Typically, a designated person in the human resources department or the person responsible for the company's personnel functions conducts the exit interview. While exit interviews might be most logically deposited in the lap of the HR department, it is not necessary that HR handle the interviews if proper exit interview forms have been drafted. In fact, one might argue that the information received will be more honest and revealing if a "non-threatening" person outside of HR conducts the interview. Regardless of the title held by the person who asks the questions, the exit interviewer should be personable, empathetic and yet still exhibit the subtle skill of asking probing follow up questions to ensure that candid information is received. Remember, the whole purpose of the exit interview is to uncover the departing employee's real feelings about the workplace. As a consequence, the person conducting the interview will hopefully demonstrate skill in encouraging the departing employee to offer honest comments and suggestions.

When is the interview conducted? The exit interview can occur at any time from the point in time that the employee announces his/her departure to the actual date of departure. For involuntary terminations, the window period for conducting the interview is, of course, much shorter and a period of advance notice of termination may not be possible. In some instances such as involuntary terminations which involve some acrimony or emotion, no time is a good time. Nonetheless, the interview should be conducted if at all possible. Even employees who have been involuntarily terminated for cause may have some valuable insights on the workplace and how they've been treated as employees.

If at all possible, you'd like to conduct the exit interview at the time the employee may be most receptive. If the employee will give the exit interview questions some thoughtful consideration, management will reap the benefits of helpful insights.

What do you ask in an exit interview? There is no mandatory list of questions for an exit interview. In turn, even the manner in which the interview is conducted is very flexible. However, there may be some general guidelines to assist an interviewer in receiving honest and helpful information from the departing employee.

Initially, the exit interview should be conducted in a very non-threatening manner. Even if the employee has been terminated for cause, the interviewer should make every effort to put the employee at ease and to help the employee feel like he or she is providing a valuable service to the company by responding to the interview questions. The interviewer should not contest the departing employee's insights, but should rather probe those insights to ensure that the interviewer understands the employee's viewpoint.

Among the important questions which should be asked in an exit interview are the following:

1. What were the primary terms and conditions of working for ________ (insert employer name) which you most enjoyed?

2. What were the terms and conditions of employment which you least enjoyed?

3. Did you feel you were treated fairly by your supervisor and other members of management? If not, please describe your problems?

4. Did you have any problems in working with your co-employees? If so, please describe?

5. Were the physical facilities present at __________ (insert company name) adequate to enable you to do your job? Did you have adequate, available supplies to handle your responsibilities?

6. Did ___________ (insert company name) provide you with an opportunity for advancement?

7. (If the individual interviewed is a member of a protected class) Did you feel you were treated fairly and in a non-discriminatory fashion during your employment with the company? If not, please elaborate?

8. Did you feel that the company encouraged and was interested in your ideas? If not, please elaborate.

9. What suggestions would you give the company to improve its relationships with employees such as yourself?

10. What suggestions would you give the company to improve its performance?

11. During your employment with the company, were you ever aware of any legal or regulatory violations which need to be addressed? If so, please describe?

12. Did the company follow its own internal rules and policies? If not, identify the problems?

13. Were there any rules or policies or practices with which you had a serious disagreement? If so, please identify and explain your reasoning?

14. Would you recommend ___________ (insert company name) as a good place to work? If not, why not?

Conducting the interview. The list of potential questions and follow up questions is limited only by the interviewer's imagination. However, the following list could serve as some helpful guidelines for exit interview questioning.

  • Remember, this is not an inquisition: If the departing employee is obviously uncomfortable or wishes to terminate the interview, stop it.
  • Use some discretion concerning the length of the interview: Even an employee leaving under amiable circumstances will not be receptive to a drawn out interview.
  • Remember, the primary issues which are to be addressed in the interview are problem areas and areas where the company can improve in its employment relationships. Keep focused.
  • Avoid any personal or discriminatory questions (i.e., questions about an employee's personal life which may have affected their work, questions related to a person's disability, etc. are improper).
  • Take discrete notes so you have a follow up record with which to work. Preserve all notes as strictly confidential. Consult with your attorney to protect the confidentiality of the forms.
  • Use an introductory oral statement which assures the interviewee that the information will be preserved as confidential and used only as necessary to further the best interests of the business. Also assure the departing employee that the interview can be terminated at any time the individual wishes to do so.

What do you do with the information? Exit interviews are of little value if there is no follow up on the information learned. If the exit interview form simply gets filed in the folder, it's not worth the time invested in the exercise. Follow up is critical. Periodically, the individual in charge of the interview process should review responses to see if patterns or particular problems can be identified. Obviously, any problems which require immediate attention should be addressed as soon as possible (i.e., legal or regulatory violations).

It is recommended that a system be created to classify certain types of employment-related issues (i.e., facility problems, empowerment problems, unfair discriminatory treatment problems, etc.) such that departing employee comments can be segregated in various areas and evaluated periodically by topic. Again, patterns may begin to emerge which should prompt follow up action. As an example, if a particular department is consistently identified as one having fairness problems with how it treats its employees, some follow up is mandatory with management of the department. What specific action is taken will depend, of course, upon additional investigation including interviews with employees and supervisors in the area.

Suffice it to say that exit interviews only fill a useful role if the information gathered in the interviews is subject to study, scrutiny and follow up. Our suggestion? Use them, don't abuse them, and fuse them into action steps for improving your employment relationships.

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