Mastering the Art of the Exit Interview
Employee exit interviews have a reputation for being some of the trickiest conversations to navigate in the workplace. While you can optimistically expect some candid feedback that might help you improve your team or business; you can also never know how frank an exiting employee is willing to be about their experience.
Learning how to make these conversations open and honest is a hallmark of strong leadership. We tapped some experts in the OpenView network for their tips on how to nail exit interviews so that they’re a productive experience for everyone involved.
“We treat exit interviews much like incoming interviews, except with a flipped perspective from what makes someone interested in being part of the team to what made someone want to leave our team and be part of a different team.” —Ryan Frederick, Principal, AWH
“I always have two people do an exit interview (we also do this for anyone who rejects a job offer, where possible). These interviews tend to look a bit more like jobs-to-be-done interviews, as I believe there was a job that we weren’t able to fulfill for that person. This angle lets the conversation go into a very candid place and then we can use that person’s whole hiring journey to understand if we could, or should, have done anything differently.”— Chris Raethke, CEO @ Notiv
“Exit interviews can be contentious and it’s tough to get candid feedback. I’ve found success with engaged, open-ended questions, framed to focus on helping others do better; then allowing lots of space to answer, clarify and explain their thoughts. For example, I often ask the question, ‘What advice would you give to someone who is stepping into the role you’re leaving here?’ or, ‘In your opinion, what would need to change for someone else with your skills and talents to be happier in this work and team?’ And then I let them speak without any judgment or qualification. Engaging in the conversation is key. It’s important to convey that you understand and are digesting this honest feedback from a person who has very little to lose to a person (you) trying to retain a team and build a positive company alumni group.” — Anne Hollander, Senior Director, Product Marketing & Growth, Trimble
“The exit for an employee started well before they gave their notice. Think of it like a funnel. Their notice was the close, but there were several stages in the funnel that happened before then that led up to their decision to leave. With some people, their departure is likely a good thing for them. A much better opportunity or a needed change that will help them grow. For others, the change is driven by something internal to the company that should not have happened. The exit should allow the person—regardless of the reasons for leaving—a means to speak their mind and act as a point of positive closure. You don’t want people leaving an exit interview (still) disgruntled. It needs to be a real person-to-person conversation and not merely a formality or ceremony performed simply for the sake of protocol.” — Saeed Khan, Founder, Transformation Labs
“Most people aren’t going to be candid in an exit interview. They have everything to lose (relationships, recommendations, etc.) and very little to gain. My suggestion is to think about what you’re looking for from your exit interviews, and to not wait until those crucial moments to gather that information. Doing regular anonymous employee surveys will likely bring more accurate information, and bring problems to your attention sooner. Have an exit interview, but be aware enough as an organization of the clear limits in what you’re gathering and seek to find the most important information through other means, and earlier. Keep your finger on the pulse and most exit interviews won’t be a surprise, but they can confirm or make you rethink what you already know to be true.” — Dr. Julie Gurner, Managing Partner & Executive Performance Coach, Gurner LLC
Suffice to say: skipping the exit interview may mean that you’re also potentially skipping out on a lot of critical business information. With a little bit of preparation, and an empathetic approach, you can soon turn the dreaded “exit interview” into a source of valuable insight.