Smart Employers Use Private Exit Interviews to Gain Workplace Insights

We’ve all seen it—problems in any relationship are left to languish until something blows up. The same is true in the workplace. But often, there is no overt explosion. Instead, employers experience a steady stream of resignations from talented employees they wish they could keep, each a bit of a mystery.

These resignations of productive contributors may come from a single group, or be scattered across the company. Either way, exit interviews with what the company has assumed are satisfied employees are a good opportunity to identify and root out dysfunction.

Please note that this form of exit interview is not suitable for those who are laid off, terminated for cause, or where the employer fears litigation of any kind. Exit interviews are not a chance for the employer to put its “spin” on an employee’s tenure, or ward off post-termination litigation. Done right, they are designed to elicit information that an employee might not otherwise have had an opportunity to share, information that can improve productivity and the workplace environment and reduce turnover.

Ideally, these interviews are private, and are conducted by HR or an outside consultant, not the employee’s immediate supervisor. The best-run companies conduct exit interviews with all employees, and then act on the information gleaned in those conversations to make improvements. Some companies use surveys, some use questionnaires, and others use one-on-one conversations.

The most productive exit interviews are one-on-one conversations in which a skilled interviewer with strong, active listening skills asks broad, open-ended non-confrontational questions that encourage a departing employee to divulge the real reasons she or he is leaving, what they felt worked in their position, and where they were hindered in reaching productivity goals or doing their jobs in the way they understood they should be done. Employers who assume a long commute or outside caregiving responsibilities have become too much for an employee are often surprised to learn the real reasons for a resignation.

Exit interviews may show recurring themes, such as comments that employees felt inadequately trained, under-appreciated, or found themselves facing unrealistic expectations. Sometimes, an employee who feels secure in the confidentiality of the process will share information about incidents of possible discrimination or harassment. These need to be taken extremely seriously, of course.

If you have concerns about what types of questions can be asked, consult your employment attorney, who can guide you on wording and how to steer conversations. Those conducting exit interviews must take care to forward information in an appropriate manner, and one in which an employee hoping for a strong recommendation from a supervisor isn’t hurt by sharing honest feedback that was specifically requested.