When an employee leaves, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, conducting an effective exit interview is a chance for amicable closure for both parties. More importantly, when conducted successfully, exit interviews allow human resources (HR) teams to gather data on how the company can improve organizational culture, strategies, and practices.
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What is an employee exit interview?
An exit interview is a conversation with a departing employee about their experience working for the company. As a key stage of the offboarding process, the purpose of the exit interview is to understand why the employee is leaving, so the HR team can improve its recruiting and retention strategies.
For example, if an employee is leaving in their first year of employment, the exit interview can help recruiters assess skills and values fit for future employees in that role. Moreover, if the departing employee remarks on toxic workplace dynamics, HR can use this information to address the company culture in order to boost employee retention.
Exit interviews typically happen in the last few days of employment and can take many forms: face-to-face or video conference, questionnaire or online survey. It’s best to have a live discussion in order to read body language and pose clarification or follow-up questions in the moment. However, HR may want to leave it up to the employee to choose an interview method they’re most comfortable with.
How to conduct a successful employee exit interview
To conduct a successful exit interview, the right people need to be present, usually an HR representative. This person should prepare questions and documentation, summarize the key takeaways from the conversation, and present the findings to relevant stakeholders, such as managers, recruiters, or executives.
Invite the right participants
It’s better to have someone from HR conduct the exit interview as a neutral third party, rather than the employee’s manager or direct supervisor. This ensures the exiting employee can speak openly and honestly about their experience at the company. It also reduces the chance that emotions will get in the way of fact and insight gathering.
Prepare documentation and questions
HR needs to prepare by gathering basic information about the employee from the human resources information systems (HRIS), such as:
- The employee’s role and tenure at the company.
- Their salary.
- Their team/department.
- Their supervisor.
- Any data related to their performance, such as reviews and manager feedback.
Provide the employee with general topics that will be covered in the exit interview, so they have time to think about their experience and aren’t caught off guard. HR should also assure the employee beforehand that the conversation will be confidential between the employee and HR.
Assuming an oral exit interview, HR participants can standardize questions, so the same data is collected in each exit interview and patterns are more easily detectable.
Questions for voluntary exits
Questions for employees leaving voluntarily should explore various aspects of the employee’s experience in the company, not just the reason behind the exit. For example, questions may focus on professional development, compensation, culture, and people:
- Do you feel there is a discrepancy between the job you applied for and how it actually played out once you were hired? How supported were you on your career path?
- Do you feel you were compensated and rewarded fairly?
- Have you ever expressed concern or criticism? If so, how was it handled?
- Were you equipped with the tools, processes, and environment you needed in order to do your job well?
- How did working relationships positively or negatively impact the ability to do your job?
- What could the company have done to keep you with us?
Questions for involuntary exits
For involuntary departures, questions might include:
- How were you informed of the decision, and how did you feel or react?
- From your point of view, how could the decision have been approached or handled differently?
- Would you consider returning to this company if a position were available in the future?
- What kind of feedback did you receive from your supervisor and how frequently?
Fired or laid-off employees are more likely to be outspoken and harsh in their feedback. Data from these exit interviews should therefore be labeled as such in order to keep the broader context in mind during data analysis.
However, even if the laid-off or terminated employee delivers the feedback out of anger or sadness, HR can still glean important insights from their feedback, especially regarding how the company handles layoffs and terminations.
Maintain an appropriate tone
The conversation doesn’t have to be contentious, nor should it be. Regardless of the reason for the employee’s departure and how they approach the exit interview, the HR professional conducting the interview needs to set a compassionate, yet professional tone.
HR can emphasize to the employee that the questions are touchstones for an informal conversation. As the employee answers questions, the HR representative conducting the interview should approach the conversation with curiosity and practice active listening. This means refraining from interruption, asking follow-up questions, and respecting an employee’s right to refuse an answer.
Take notes during the discussion, but the employee should be informed of this beforehand, so they don’t think the interviewer is distracted. These notes should summarize the employee’s answers to the questions as well as any additional details they share. It’s best to take notes electronically in an HR software platform like BambooHR or Sage HR, so they’re stored securely with strict access controls.
Analyze the data and present the findings
After the interview, look for broader themes within the qualitative data presented in the notes and employee feedback. To assist with qualitative data analysis, HR can import unstructured data from the exit interview into software that makes it storable and searchable.
HR should routinely report exit interview findings with executives to keep them abreast of reasons why employees are leaving. These findings should set the foundation for necessary changes, such as more manager training, more employee engagement or development, better recruiting, or developing a compensation strategy.
What is the importance of an employee exit interview?
An employee’s voluntary departure from the company doesn’t have to be awkward or contentious. When conducted effectively, exit interviews help make the best of the situation, even when a company terminates an employee.
That being said, not all departures are grounds for an exit interview. For example, when an employee leaves on bad terms, an exit interview could open the door to hostility or violence. HR can decide on a case-by-case basis whether to hold an exit interview, but generally, it’s good practice to do so.
HR should handle exit interviews with care and intention, as they’re a crucial last step of the employee life cycle and impact employer branding. Companies that conduct effective exit interviews uncover opportunities to improve organizational culture as well as HR strategies and practices.
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