Saying Goodbye: Exit Interviews as a Tool for Small Business

Saying Goodbye: Exit Interviews as a Tool for Small Business

A company’s employees are arguably its most important assets. That’s why recruiting and retaining good workers is a priority of every business. Hiring practicesemployee satisfaction, and company culture are all key components of a strategy to build a competent, loyal team. But, even when those bases are covered, inevitably some employees will move on. However painful those departures may be, they present an opportunity. Conducting effective exit interviews with employees who are on their way out can provide valuable information to improve an organization, including its human resources.

A Harvard Business Review survey revealed that most companies (3 out of 4) engage in some kind of exit interview process for employees. However, the tactics vary as do the results.  It seems that few are maximizing their return on the time and energy invested in this activity.  Clearly there is an expectation of value for these businesses.  The challenge is to define and achieve it.

Why Bother with an Exit Interview?

There are a number of good reasons to conduct exit interviews.  A business can glean information about how to:

  • retain good talent
  • improve company culture to foster productivity and employee satisfaction
  • update hiring practices and on-boarding to better prepare new employees
  • revamp business systems or protocols to lower frustration
  • assess managers’ effectiveness
  • determine what knowledge needs to be captured and transferred to the employee’s replacement
  • part on good terms so that the company’s reputation is protected

Companies should determine the objective of their exit interviews, decide what kind of information would be useful and design their interviews accordingly.

How to Make Exit Interviews Worthwhile

If an exit interview is going to be productive, much depends on the departing employee. Will they be gracious, cooperative and candid?  Those traits may seem difficult to elicit depending on the circumstances of the separation and the fact that the employee may not have much to gain from the exercise.  But, smart employees will want to leave on a positive note. Interviews should be structured to accommodate the employee and make them comfortable.  Giving the employee advance notice about the meeting and explaining its laudable purpose may help. It’s not a time for the employer to direct blame, be defensive, or solve problems, but rather to listen and learn. Ultimately, employers should show appreciation for the employee’s contributions and convey support for his or her next endeavor.

Some question to consider when designing an exit interview strategy:

Should the interview be in writing or in person?  Most experts suggest that a face-to-face interview is likely to produce more insight into an employee’s experience and views. Providing a questionnaire in advance might help prepare for the meeting, but a written survey alone doesn’t allow further probing to understand a response.

Who should conduct the interview?  A third party may be able to elicit more from an interviewee, especially in terms of constructive criticism.  If an in-house person conducts the meeting, it should not be the direct supervisor of manager.  Someone that is at least one level removed from the employee is likely to get more honest responses (and be less defensive) about concerns or suggestions.

What should the timing be?  The exit interview should take place after emotions surrounding the decision to separate have dissipated.  A couple of days before the employee’s last will allow some cushion if there is follow up.  For example, if the interview reveals the need for additional knowledge to be transferred or questions about pay or benefits to be addressed it will be easier to do so if the employee is still in the office.

Where should the interview occur?  Again, making the employee comfortable is the goal. A more casual setting away from the office might be more conducive to soliciting honest feedback than sitting across the desk in an office with coworkers milling outside.

What questions are appropriate?  Questions should be general and open-ended in nature.  Depending on a company’s objectives, the questions may cover:

  • What did you enjoy about working here?
  • What were your least favorite things about working here?
  • Are there things that could have been done to prevent your departure?
  • Are you satisfied with the way your decision to leave or termination was handled?
  • Do you have suggestions for the company?
  • What would you like your successor to know?
  • Do you have questions before you leave?

What do you do with the information?  This is where the value comes in.  If an employer uses similar questions for every exit interview it will be easier to compare data that can reveal trends in turnover.  The information should not be filed away, but rather shared with those who can analyze it and use it to make changes in company policies and personnel.

Ideally, employers are regularly communicating with their employees while they are on the job to understand where problems lie and improvements are needed.  Still, the exit interview is another opportunity to gain insight into employees’ experiences in an environment where there is less at stake for the interviewee, especially if they know their honesty will be truly valued and appreciated.