Knowledge Centre for recruitment

Exit interviews

Whilst is all about recruitment and recruitment excellence, there is still a role for an understanding of the benefit of a quality exit process, including exit interviews, namely meetings arranged with individuals who have resigned which take place - either internally or externally - prior to the individual leaving.

The primary purpose to the employer of an exit interview is to understand the reasons for the individual having resigned and also to learn from them.  The premise runs that once a person has made a confirmed decision to leave the organisation they are more likely to be openly candid about both the good and the bad in that organisation - after all, they have nothing to lose.  This premise is generally sound but it does require some careful positioning and some skill. The skill requirements are two fold - first to get quality information from the individual which can - and should - be used to improve the organisation; and second to build sufficient rapport with the individual to enhance their leaving experience to the point where they become positive ambassadors for the company, and indeed potential future recruits.  Managing an individual's exit well is a critical activity in terms of building a pipeline of future recruits.

Good exit interviews provides lots of useful information about the employing organisation, which in turn allows for ongoing and continuous improvement.  Clearly some of the feedback will be overally personal and not appropriate to use but there will be a considerable learning opportunity in terms of understanding, evaluating and improving all aspects or work - employee engagement, working culture, climate and environment, processes, infrastructure, bureaucracy, work efficiencies as well as customer service orientation and external relations (suppliers, third parties etc).  It is rare that an exit interview would be used as part of the attempt to retain a departing employee.  Indeed, if the organisation seeks to reverse the decision to leave this needs to be done swiftly with the manager (supported by HR) seeking both to understand the reason for leaving plus the motivators that would cause an individual to resign.

The ‘whys and whats' of exit interviews and exit processes

  • Ability to learn from someone who might be less constrained and for whom your employment offer has been insufficiently compelling to retain them
  • The ability to defuse emotions, give less than happy leavers the chance to let go and move on
  • Exit interviews are seen by the remaining team and indeed all staff as a sign of a positive workplace.
  • The results and analysis of exit interviews provide relevant and useful data directly into training needs analysis and training planning processes.
  • Exit interviews provide valuable information as to how to improve recruitment and induction of new employees.
  • Exit interviews provide a valuable insight into organisational dynamics, engagement, culture and climate.
  • Exit interviews provide direct indications as to how to improve staff retention.
  • Most individuals will feel as a minimum loyalty to colleagues and thus be motivated to support them through a quality hand over process - if correctly facilitated by the organisation.

A quality exit experience and process

Whilst an exit interview more traditionally focuses on organisation learning from the departing individual, the overall exit process should be used by the company to formally transfer of knowledge and experience from the leaving individual to a successor or replacement, or even to brief a team on current projects, issues and contacts.

Exit interviews also offer benefits to the exiting employee.  It is an opportunity to give constructive feedback, and to leave on a positive note, with good relations and mutual respect. Thinking about the long term pipeline of job opportunities is just as important to employees as it is to employers.  Whilst it might be tempting to think that the exit interview is a chance to ‘really have a go' generally this is not a sound strategy.  Have a bit of a moan about something that is important if you think this will help raise the profile sufficiently to drive a remedy but generally keep it professional and objective.  There is an saying about treating people well on your way up because you might meet them on the way down; our twist is to say treat them well on the way out since you might later want it to be on the way in. 

Taking the mature long term view works both ways and to the benefit of both employee and employer.  Employers (or the managers they employ) who treat leavers badly tend to generate more leavers.  Voluntary leavers can create a slight unrest in an organisation - a feeling that perhaps you are missing out if you do not follow them - and this will be enhanced by the upbeat and positive (and sometimes a bit glossy) story of the glories to which they are departing.  Upbeat, positive, calm treatment of the departure will stabilise the rest of the team and enhance the ability to both get good work out of them during their notice period, and also effect a quality handover of both work and knowledge (the former being easier than the latter).  You should approach knowledge and work transfer of a departing individual as systematically and thoroughly as the induction of a new hire.  Most employees are more than willing to share their knowledge, to help their colleagues or a successor, provide they are both asked and supported in this endeavour.

How to conduct the interview

Exit interviews are best conducted face to face because this enables better communication, understanding, interpretation etc., and it provides far better opportunity to probe and get to the root of sensitive or reluctant feelings.  As will all interviews, a structured interview approach improves both the interview experience itself and the quality of information collected, and ability to make use of it.  Note taking is, of course, mandatory.

With particularly large organisations where statistical analysis is feasible the interview/discussion can be supplemented by a short factual questionnaire which can be reported on and tracked.  Where such management information is being collected there should be a question or two that is completed by the interviewer as well.

There is much debate as to who should hold exit interviews.  The options are generally

  • Current line manager
  • Alternative line manager
  • HR
  • External

Generally using the current line manager is not a good idea.  The whole purpose behind an exit interview is to create a neutral, objective environment which can reflect on the past and learn for the future.  The involvement of the individuals current line manager (no matter how skilled) does not provide for this.

Using an alternative line manager is fine provided they are sufficiently skilled and give it the time and attention it needs.  Indeed there are some arguments to say that this provides a good source of management development.

HR would more traditionally be the ones that hold exit interviews and this works well - and provides a simply conduit into some of the key areas of learning from the interview.  They are relatively independent but still part of the organisation and generally should be skills interviewers.

There is a school of thought that says for the interviewee to be truly open and honest you need to conduct the interviews via a third party.  This is however a sad reflection on the organisation and potentially requires some alternative remedies to be put in place.  The other problem with deliberately distancing the organisation from the interview is that one of the clear drivers is to build relationships with the leaver - this cannot be met by an external organisation, positioned as such.  Thus if for work reasons they are carried out externally they need to be augmented by some internal activities that do the relationship building side of things.

In terms of the meeting itself, the normal rules of good interviewing apply - book a time, appropriate venue etc.  Explain the process (structured questions, note taking, free chat etc) and what happens with the information - ‘contract' around confidentiality etc.  Relax the individual and allow for a bit of chat to settle things down.  Listen, check for understanding.  Do not argue or refute.  On the basis that this is about building relationships and creating a good leaving environment, provide explanation and mitigation if helpful and appropriate but only if welcome.  Something like ‘I have a different perspective on that, would it be helpful if I shared it?'.  Generally there should not be follow up with the individual but if there is confirm and agree it and then do it.

Take action as necessary, depending on your processes for analysing and reporting exit interview feedback. If there's an urgent issue, or the person wants to stay and you want to keep them, then act immediately or the opportunity will be lost.  Some actions will fall into the ‘things to fix' category and they should be fed into the appropriate areas using appropriate approaches.  Generally if you have well established exit interviews you should also have well established information dissemination processes.  Other things have a more strategic impact and these need to feed into the development of new policies, organisation strategy, HR practices. 

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