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The Exit Interview: I’ll Leave You with These Final Words

Scenario number 1: It is your last day at your current employer—and now your soon-to-be former-employer has asked you to participate in an exit interview. You would rather have a root canal or be poked in the eye with a sharp stick.

Scenario number 2: A company executive has announced his resignation. Company policy now dictates an exit interview. What questions should be asked? Does an exit interview really even matter?

On whichever side of the fence a professional may be standing, exit interviews can be beneficial for both parties. Recent studies suggest 91% of Fortune 500 companies and 87% of mid-size companies use exit interviews. The use of exit interviews in smaller companies is not as prevalent; interviews can be uncomfortable, given the intimacy between management and employees. Though more common in large, complex organizations, companies of all sizes can utilize the exit interview to identify issues, maintain relationships, or track information or employee satisfaction. Here are a few things to consider:

For the Employer:

  • Exit interviews help companies collect data and track trends. The most effective use of an exit interview is to track answers and watch for patterns. How often are employees resigning? Is the turnover rate high or low? What’s the average tenure of employees? Are employees routinely leaving the company for competitors? Are there common themes for employees’ resignations? The answers to these questions can provide invaluable tools to improve employee retention. When Google’s human resources department noticed many women were leaving the company, they used concrete data compiled from exit interviews to determine that the majority of women leaving were new mothers. Google then expanded its maternity policy from 12 weeks of paid time off to five months of paid time off, with the option to split up that time however the employee wished.
  • Exit interviews come in all shapes and sizes. An exit interview can take place in a face-to-face meeting, by phone, by mail, or online. Some companies outsource the task to a third-party organization; some use their human resources department or a member of the management team. In some cases, the employee’s manager will conduct the exit interview; however, it is more common for a more senior (and more objective) manager to conduct the interview. Face-to-face exit interviews typically take place shortly before an employee leaves. Phone, written, or computer interviews can occur after the employee has left. Participation rates will vary depending on the format of the interview. According to the Nobscot Corporation, the average response rate for written exit interviews is approximately 30-35%, while online interviews have a higher participation rate.
  • Listen—Exit interviews provide companies with honest feedback. If an employee takes the time to give feedback on his or her time at a company, management should listen and be committed to act on consistent patterns of feedback. Exiting employees may have the confidence that remaining employees lack to raise issues of which management is unaware but which are common reasons for unhappiness among employees. If there is a problem, the exit interview allows management to acknowledge it before losing additional employees.
  • Choose effective questions. One of the most common questions asked in an exit interview is, “Why are you leaving?” Employees may give a generic answer such as higher compensation or increased responsibilities. According to Sharlyn Lauby, president of ITM Group, Inc., it is better to ask why they began considering new opportunities or returned a recruiter’s call in the first place. The answer to that question may be more telling and will likely be more candid. One London firm hired a professional to reword their exit interview questions in a manner that made neutral responses almost impossible. The result was the discovery of an office bully, who was then terminated.

For the Employee:

  • Exit interviews may be requested. An exit interview is an opportunity to be helpful, both to the company and to former coworkers. If exit interviews are not part of company policy, a manager or departing employee can request one. For example, if a safety concern exists or office bullying is occurring, this would be a timely opportunity to expose it. This can also be an opportunity for employees to show their manager that they took the position seriously, they are grateful for the opportunity, and they are open to an ongoing professional relationship.
  • Never, ever, ever burn a bridge. This is the most important rule of all. No matter if there are sour feelings or the employee believes he has been unfairly treated, the exit interview is not the time to retaliate or get overly emotional. Make your comments constructive and be sure to include the positive parts of your time at the company. You just never know when you may need a reference from this former employer. And though it may seem unlikely at the time, the trend of boomerang hires suggests that it is not outside the realm of possibility that an employee may be open to returning to the company they are leaving.

While exit interviews can be a little awkward, they are undeniably valuable when utilized properly. If you are a departing employee, look at the exit interview as a way to make things better for those you are leaving behind. If you are an employer, look at the exit interview as a way to improve employee retention and nurture a culture that values employee input.

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