How good are you at looking in two directions at the same time?

women quitting

That’s what it takes to keep your company at the top of its game.

You must look outward to assess threats and opportunities in the environment. But you must also look inward to assess the strengths and weaknesses within your organization – your policies and procedures, the performance of your employees and managers, equipment, physical surroundings, morale and so forth.

If you are not conducting exit interviews with employees who leave your company, you are ignoring one of the most valuable sources of information about those internal strengths and weaknesses.

Current employees are often reluctant to voice their gripes, or to report incompetence and mismanagement, because they have to continue working with the people involved.

Not so the departing employee. These individuals are usually more than happy to tell what they know – and therein lies the value of exit interviews.

The objectives of an exit interview include the following:

  • To learn the real reasons an employee is leaving, which may help you take steps to reduce turnover
  • To uncover weaknesses or problems within your company that need to be addressed
  • To provide closure for departing employees so that they leave feeling good about your organization
  • To make a counteroffer, in some cases, in hopes of keeping the employee
  • To possibly learn something useful about how you compare with your competitors, because departing employees have been interviewing with other companies

How should exit interviews be done?

First, put in writing a policy that exit interviews will be conducted for all employees who leave voluntarily, from entry-level staff to senior managers. (Layoffs and terminations are handled differently.)

If an employee refuses an interview, however, you cannot require it and should not retaliate in any way.

Specify in the policy who will conduct the interviews. This will usually be someone in human resources. It should not be the employee’s manager.

Create an interview protocol. Ask everyone the same questions so you can combine and possibly quantify the responses to look at patterns over time. This does not mean the interview has to be formal or stilted, or that you cannot depart from the protocol to pursue a point.

Ask such questions as:

  • What are your reasons for leaving? If there is more than one reason, ask the employee to put them in order of importance.
  • What could we have done differently to have kept you here?
  • What does your new job offer that this one does not?
  • What did you like best – and least – about working here?
  • If you were in charge of this company, what changes would you make?
  • What is your opinion of the quality of supervision you received?
  • Was your supervisor fair and reasonable? Please explain.

You will get more candid responses to the extent you are able to assure confidentiality. You should promise to remove identifying information before sharing the results with management. Of course, in a small organization, this does little to hide identities. At a minimum, you can promise that their manager and co-workers will not have access to the results.

There are also some exceptions to confidentiality that you should share with the employee at the outset. That is, if they report any criminal behavior, fraud, sexual or other harassment, discrimination or other serious offenses, you will have to take appropriate action.

How credible are exit interviews? Might not departing employees be disgruntled, poor performers who are leaving because they were being disciplined for their performance?

This might be true in some cases, but you will probably know who they are. Just take their responses with a grain of salt and give more credence to your top performers who choose to leave.

Finally, any information about your company’s performance is only as good as it is used. Exit interview data is so potentially valuable that it deserves a central place in your strategic planning, policy development, manager appraisal and training, and any other forums in which your company evaluates its performance and plots its future direction.