How to Conduct an Exit Interview

Len (not his real name) started out his new sales job with high hopes. Even though he experienced self-doubt about his ability to deliver on all its functions, he really wanted this job. It seemed to require many of the competencies and personality he possessed. A few weeks into the job, things looked promising. Initially, his manager, Shelly, spent time training and coaching him, and Len’s coworkers were friendly.

But as months went by, something still wasn’t clicking. Expected to work on his own, Len felt paralyzed and directionless, sensing that his manager was beginning to doubt him. Finally, out of frustration, Len asked to meet with her. Not only did he give his immediate notice, but he expressed that Shelly had failed him by not providing enough training or support.

Having read the writing on the wall, Shelly was not totally surprised by his resignation, but neither was she prepared to shoulder the entire blame. Although she had no formal plan for how to conduct an exit interview, Shelly wisely listened, learned, and empathized while Len vented. Len left the meeting knowing he had been heard, in spite of his feeling of defeat. Although Shelly felt somewhat defensive, she determined to provide more intentional training for future employees.

Every time you make a hire, you hope that you’ve screened, interviewed, reference checked, onboarded, and done everything you can to ensure that your new employee will thrive. Then, hopefully, you provide training, mentoring, and development to get him or her up to productivity as quickly as possible. But the sad reality is, as this true story illustrates, not every employee will succeed in performing all the functions of the job. Are you prepared when an unhappy employee comes in to your office to resign?

As a business owner or manager, knowing how to conduct an exit interview is a useful tool to have in your tool belt. You might not want to spend a lot of time on an employee who’s been difficult from the start. But if the employee was valued, you’ll definitely want to delve into what went wrong, to learn how you can do better. This is especially true in the current candidate’s market, where finding quality professionals is a challenging task.

The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) gives some practical advice for how to conduct an exit interview. First of all, they suggest, have someone other than the direct supervisor conduct the interview one-on-one to lessen the chance of intimidating or influencing the employee. If you really want to get honest input, assure the employee that your purpose is to prevent future problems or loss of employees. Let him or her know that you’ll keep everything confidential, you’ll use the input anonymously, and you won’t keep a permanent record of anything that’s said. Be aware that, if the employee already has another job, he or she is more likely to be honest than one who is worried about receiving a poor reference for a future job application.

To keep your exit interview short and simple, advises NFIB, ask the employee to give you an overview of his experience working for your organization. You may learn all you need to know from that answer. In the true story above, Shelly would’ve done well to have her HR manager ask Len, “How can our company improve training and development?” as well as, “Were you satisfied with the way you were managed?”

If you need to learn more, recommends asking these questions:

  1. Why did you begin looking for a new job?
  2. What ultimately led you to accept the new position?
  3. Did you feel that you were equipped to do your job well?
  4. How would you describe the culture of our company?
  5. Can you provide more information, such as specific examples?
  6. What could have been done for you to remain employed here?
  7. Did you share your concerns with anyone at the company prior to leaving?
  8. If you could change anything about your job or the company, what would you change?
  9. Would you consider coming back to work here in the future? If so, in what role, and what would need to change?

When you’re thinking about how to conduct an exit interview, remember that the whole point is to help you retain your best employees. Of course, you want your departing employee to feel heard, but your main goal is to learn what went wrong so your organization can do better the next time around.

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