Mine the hidden resources of departing employees with a thoughtful exit interview.
When it’s time to hire that new employee, you pull out all the stops: a complete review of duties and responsibilities, a tightly crafted list of desired skills and careful interviews. You make the hire—and hope that you’ve made the right choice.
Now fast-forward a few months or years: That employee has tendered his resignation. It’s time to start the hiring process again. And in your hurry to fill the pending vacancy, you’re quick to move on.
A rush to begin the hiring process again may be a mistake—unless you have completed a thoughtful exit interview with your departing employee. Although exit interviews can yield valuable information about the job, employee attitudes and even hidden profit potential, these interviews are often ignored.
Next time an employee departs, take advantage of the benefits an exit interview offers you.
Exit interviews need not be complicated, but to be successful you must prepare. You won’t want to conduct exit meetings with individuals you choose to terminate (other than to complete paperwork and return of property). Employees who leave for other pursuits, however, are often eager to bring positive closure to their work and are ideal candidates for exit interviews.
Planning the interview ensures you cover everything you need. Like any formal meeting, an exit interview should not be part of a routine supervisory conference or casually initiated. Select a time and place conducive to reflective discussion and arrange it several days in advance.
Keep in mind that the employee’s supervisor does not necessarily have to be the one to conduct the interview. A skilled and objective interviewer may be able to elicit the most information from the encounter.
Before beginning the interview, learn the basics: When did the employee start? What positions did he hold? What was his compensation? What, if any, significant contributions did he make to the business?
Understand your objectives. An exit interview is more than a friendly conversation. It should have tangible outcomes. The interview might, for example, help you assess the employee’s job description, evaluate your compensation structure, identify workplace problems and provide an opportunity for positive suggestions. Understand what you want to achieve before going in.
You’ll have only a short period of time to elicit information when you’re sitting in front of your departing employee, so it’s important to use it well. Consider these strategies to glean the most from the interview.
Offer to help the employee. This is a great icebreaker for the exit interview and may help dispel any anxiety he feels about the interview or his departure. Can you offer a letter of reference? Assistance in professional networking? Help in clearing out his space?
Secure information for the employee’s successor. This piece of business may add to your departing employee’s sense of comfort. Ask for information about file locations, urgent responsibilities, keys and pending deadlines.
Encourage the employee to assess his experience. Plan to ask questions about things that can make or break a job: the employee’s morale (and the morale of co-workers), adequacy of training, company communication and quality of supervision.
Keep your questions open-ended. This questioning style fosters a wide range of prospective answers. Open-ended questions encourage your employee to be candid and open about his views.
Remain unbiased and non-directive. Don’t judge what your employee says. Affirm his answers through your body language, such as nods of the head, or gently indicate that you understand what he’s saying. A non-directive approach to communication fosters honest dialogue, which can be particularly important if your employee wants to discuss problems.
Focus on specifics. As your employee offers opinions, ask for specifics. For example: “What made you feel that way?” “Can you describe that problem in more detail?” “What happened as a result of that incident?” The result: You’ll better understand his views and the reasons for those views.
Identify messages. Throughout your conversation, either ask your departing employee what you should relate to others in the organization or simply make note of these important messages on your notepad. For example: “If there was one thing you’d like your supervisor to better understand, what would it be?”
Test your compensation system. Your employee may be leaving because he’s been offered a better salary or benefits elsewhere. Ask him to describe his new package—and what compensation level would have kept him with you. This information may help you set compensation in the future.
Affirm your employee. Ask him to relate his best accomplishments and the things that make him most proud. If he draws a blank, suggest a few positive contributions that you’ve noticed.
Offer an opportunity to stay. If you sense any ambivalence on the part of your employee about leaving—and if you want him to stay—it’s perfectly acceptable to invite him to do so during the exit interview.
Keep it legal. While your employee has already decided to leave, be conscious of your legal responsibilities. You can’t, for instance, discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender and a number of other factors. If a departing employee raises legal concerns, note them and make others aware of them, but resist the temptation to address them directly with the employee.
Your work isn’t complete when the exit interview is over. In fact, it’s just begun.
It is important to make a record of the interview. Details will become foggy as time goes on, so make a clear record of the interview, noting key points raised by your employee and key action steps you may need to take.
This is also a good time to evaluate your hiring process. Based on what you learned in the interview, how would you rate the hiring process that brought the departing employee to your organization? Did you provide the job-related information he needed? Was your compensation offer competitive? Was the fit right? Communicate what you learn. Others have an interest in the views of your departing employee—his supervisor or peers, for starters. You don’t need to provide them with a detailed summary of everything the employee said, but do provide the highlights: position strengths and weaknesses, criticisms and opportunities for improvement.
Richard Ensman is a business writer based in Rochester, N.Y.