At a glance
Exit interviews are one of the most underutilised tools in the organisational toolbox.
“They’re often seen as a tick-the-box exercise, if they’re done at all,” says Ilona Charles, organisational expert and author of HR for Impact.
Leadership coach Mark LeBusque agrees. Organisations 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 organisation – can offer valuable insights into culture, the employee experience and the competitor landscape.
“Often, when people are leaving, it’s when they feel most comfortable sharing their experiences,” says Charles. “The first thing you find out is why they’ve left the organisation.
It can uncover insights into management or leadership styles and their effectiveness. You can get an understanding of employee perceptions of the work they were doing, the culture, the working conditions.”
LeBusque also points to exit interviews as “a cost effective way to collect data about your organisation, rather than bringing in an external company to do it for you through an engagement survey”.
A conversation that covers sensitive territory, such as interpersonal conflict or criticism of a colleague, can be awkward and uncomfortable.
A manager may worry that the discussion will entail unwelcome criticism of their leadership, as well as other feedback they may not be ready to hear. “They worry about what it does to their reputation – how they are viewed in the organisation, and if it puts their future promotions at risk,” LeBusque says.
When organisations “let people leave quietly”, however, they are missing the opportunity to learn and grow from feedback, even if it’s negative, LeBusque says.
Plus, the news may not be all bad after all. “There’s an assumption that, when people leave, that it has to end badly,” LeBusque says. However, an employee may simply be going onto a better opportunity. “They might have some great things to tell you about your organisation.”
The importance of timing
Proper timing is important to the success of an exit interview, says Charles.
“If they’ve just resigned, for example, then the employee may not be willing to share just yet. But if you leave it too late, they start to disengage from the organisation, and you may not get the inputs that 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 onto specific questions covering their manager, peers and team, suggests Charles. “That will give a good indication of what the culture is like in that team and the leadership approach.”
The interview should also include questions about the organisation’s broader culture, how supported the employee felt in their role, what things worked well and what didn’t work as well.
LeBusque’s advice is to let the conversation flow. “If it’s all scripted, the person who’s being interviewed will... say what they think people want to hear,” he says. “Allow there to be some flexibility.”
A standardised questionnaire or survey can provide quantitative data that can be used in conjunction with the qualitative insights garnered from a face-to-face meeting.
“Make sure that managers understand that this is not a compliance-based activity,” says LeBusque. “They are there to get some insights into what’s working well in the organisation and what isn’t, so pay them the time and respect that they’re due.”
Data and insights gathered during the exit interview process should be used to drive organisation-wide positive change.
“If there’s a pattern emerging around why people are leaving, make sure that information is disseminated from HR into the business,” says LeBusque.
“Here are the trends we’re picking up – we’re losing people because of salary, we’re losing people because of disengagement.”
Organisations should then incorporate these insights into leadership development, HR processes and workplace policies.
“If someone says, ‘My leader was a bad communicator’, ‘My leader never gave me time’, ‘My leader continued to cancel my one-on-ones’ – organisations should start to focus on those things. Not just acknowledge them, but take action on them as well,” LeBusque says.
Charles says, in an ideal world, an exit interview won’t offer up any surprises.
“If you have a culture that values openness, transparency and sharing of ideas, then there shouldn’t be a lot of new things coming out of exit interviews.
“This is why an exit interview could be invaluable – it either supports the culture you think you have, or it highlights the areas that you need to improve.”