In all that chaos, you may overlook the importance of conducting an exit interview to capture a departing employee's thoughts and suggestions. While you may have viewed exit interviews as a luxury you don't have time for, it's imperative you make the time to listen to the views and attitudes of employees who have chosen to leave your organization.

What is an exit interview?

Simply stated, an exit interview asks questions of an employee who has resigned from his or her position and is leaving your organization.

Reasons to conduct exit interviews

Exit interviews provide information you can't afford to pass up. Departing employees offer a unique perspective on your organization, its culture, and its employees. While current employees often don't feel comfortable bringing problems with management, policies, or procedures to leadership's attention, exiting employees can clue you in to what current and prospective employees may be feeling or struggling with. If you take the time to properly listen and evaluate the information you receive in exit interviews, you're sure to hear good tips for improving efficiency, structuring workloads, retaining other valuable employees, and recruiting new candidates.

Related reading: Why Your Company Culture Could Send Ideal Hires for the Hills

Exit interviews are one of the best and most cost-effective ways to find out these types of information:

  • Areas where employees think your organization excels
  • Areas where employees see need for improvement
  • Policies and procedures that help or hinder workers' productivity
  • Tips for onboarding new employees
  • Tips for ensuring departing employees leave on good terms
  • Suggestions for ideal skills, temperament, and experience needed in a replacement employee
  • Best practices and contacts used in the position being vacated
  • Circumstances that prompted the employee to look for another job
  • Attributes of the new job that attracted the employee to apply
  • Attributes of the new company that appealed to the employee

Create your exit interview strategy

When deciding on your organization's strategy for exit interviews, you have a number of options. You should choose the options that you think will provide the best information or the best way to ask specific questions of most interest to your organization.

1. How to collect information

  • In-person interviews show the employee that you value his or her feedback enough to devote another employee's time to collecting the information. The great disadvantage of in-person interviews is that employees may worry the discussion is not confidential; therefore, they may be unwilling to open up about some of the sensitive issues you most need to hear.

  • Phone interviews can be conducted by your own staff (for example, a human resources representative) or outsourced to a neutral third party. With a phone interview, you're able to ask open-ended questions and record whatever responses employees wish to give. Especially when conducted by a third party, employees usually will feel comfortable being honest. The down side of phone interviews is that it can be difficult to catch employees by phone, even at a predetermined call time. 

  • Web questionnaires offer employees the chance to provide feedback whenever it's convenient for them. However, you must structure the questions to be very specific, since employees cannot ask for clarification. Also, there is no opportunity to discuss any answers or information the employee provides.


2. The Right Time Frame for the Interview

Depending on the specifics of your organization and employees, you could conduct exit interviews at the time of resignation, during the employee's notice period, or after the employee's last day. As with any decision, each option comes with trade-offs. For example, the sooner you gather information from employees who have resigned, the fresher their memories will be. This means they are more likely to list specifics you may be of interest to you. On the other hand, waiting until just before or after an employee's last day gives the employee time to reflect and cool down any negative feelings that may have been strongly present when he or she submitted the resignation. The extra time may lead to a more balanced and objective review of your organization and the employee's job and department.

As I stated, the information you wish to focus on will help dictate your organization's exit interview method and timeframe. Regardless of your choices, make sure you use exit interviews to their full advantage:

  • Conduct an exit interview with every departing employee. Ask general questions about your organization and specific questions about the employee's position, department, working environment, coworkers, and supervisor.
  • Make time to review the results of your exit interviews and formulate plans to act on tips or trends. There are a number of vendors and web-based tools that can help you gauge trends, compare to benchmarks, and analyze metrics.
  • Revisit and revise your exit interview strategy as time goes on, as your organization matures, and as repeated results indicate.

Good employees are hard to find, and once we find and train them, it can be difficult and frustrating to watch them leave. Don't give up the chance to learn from one of your best information sources. As you conduct exit interviews and formulate plans based on the results, you'll create a more efficient organization with more satisfied employees, helping you retain other valuable employees in the long run.

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