Exit interviews are too often treated as a ticking exercise rather than a tool that can provide insights into culture and engagement.
Exit interviews are one of the most underused tools in the organizational toolbox.
“They’re often seen as a tick-off exercise, if done,” says Ilona Charles, organizing expert and author of HR for Impact.
Leadership coach Mark LeBusque agrees. Organizations often approach the exit interview as “a compliance-based activity — something we have to do,” he says.
However, the exit interview – a discussion or survey conducted when an employee leaves an organization – can offer valuable insights into the employee’s culture, experience, and competitive landscape.
“A lot of times when people leave, it’s when they feel most comfortable sharing their experiences,” says Charles. “The first thing you find out is why they left the organization.
It can reveal information about management or leadership styles and their effectiveness. You can understand employees’ perceptions of the work they were doing, the culture, the working conditions.
LeBusque also points out that exit interviews are “a cost-effective way to collect data about your organization, rather than hiring an outside firm to do it for you via an engagement survey.”
A conversation that covers sensitive territory, such as an interpersonal conflict or criticism from a colleague, can be awkward and uncomfortable.
A manager may fear that the discussion will lead to unwelcome criticism of his leadership, as well as other comments that he may not be ready to hear. “They’re worried about what it’s doing to their reputation — how they’re viewed in the organization and whether it’s jeopardizing their future promotions,” LeBusque says.
When organizations “let people go quietly,” however, they miss the opportunity to learn and grow from feedback, even if it’s negative, LeBusque says.
Plus, the news might not be all bad after all. “There’s an assumption that when people leave, it has to end badly,” LeBusque says. However, an employee may simply seize a better opportunity. “They might have good things to tell you about your organization.”
The importance of the moment
Timing is important to a successful exit interview, says Charles.
“If they just resigned, for example, the employee may not want to share just yet. But if you wait too late, they start to disengage from the organization and you may not get the contributions you need.
The “sweet spot” is somewhere in the middle, she says – about two weeks into a four-week notice period.
Start with the obvious question, “Why are you leaving?”, before moving on to specific questions about their manager, peers and team, suggests Charles. “It will give a good indication of this team’s culture and approach to leadership.”
“If you have a culture that values openness, transparency, and sharing ideas, then there shouldn’t be a lot of new stuff coming out of exit interviews. This is why an exit interview can be invaluable – it either supports the culture you think you have or highlights areas you need to improve. Ilona Charles, organization expert
The interview should also include questions about the general culture of the organization, how the employee felt supported in their role, what worked well and what didn’t work as well. .
LeBusque’s advice is to let the conversation flow. “If it’s all scripted, the interviewee will say what they think people want to hear,” he says. “Allow there to be some flexibility.”
A standardized questionnaire or survey can provide quantitative data that can be used in conjunction with the qualitative information gathered in a face-to-face meeting.
“Make sure managers understand that this is not a compliance-based activity,” LeBusque says. “They’re there to gain insight into what’s working well in the organization and what’s not, so give them the time and respect they deserve.”
The data and information gathered during the exit interview process should be used to drive positive change across the organization.
“If there’s a trend emerging around why people are leaving, make sure the information is getting out from HR into the company,” says LeBusque.
“Here are the trends we’re picking up on – we’re losing people to salary, we’re losing people to disengagement.”
Organizations then need to integrate this information into leadership development, HR processes and workplace policies.
“If someone says one-to-one never gave me time”, someone says “My boss was a bad communicator”, “My boss kept canceling my one-on-one interviews”, organizations should start focusing on those things. Don’t just recognize them, but also act on them,” says LeBusque.
Charles says that in an ideal world, an exit interview won’t offer any surprises.
“If you have a culture that values openness, transparency, and sharing ideas, then there shouldn’t be a lot of new stuff coming out of exit interviews.
“That’s why an exit interview can be invaluable – it either supports the culture you think you have, or it highlights areas you need to improve.”