Advice on crafting the perfect exit interview

Written by ProfitGuide Staff


“We recently had to lay off five employees. In each case we did exit interviews, hoping to ease the transition for the employees while perhaps improving the way we run the company. But honestly, no one seemed willing to share any negative insights. I suspect they were worried that if they offended they would lose the chance to come back when business picks up. I see the point of these interviews, but I’ve always wondered if they really work. What’s the secret to fruitful exit interviews?”

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Reader responses

Rick Spence, Toronto, ON

The CEO of your Vancouver-based public relations company is to be commended for using exit interviews to try to gain more information about how employees view working at his company. Exit interviews can be a valuable source of feedback and insight.

But if he or she is serious about polling employees, just do it! Employees at exit interviews are understandably nervous and uncertain, and should not be expected to provide much in the way of useful negative commentary. Your ongoing employees, however, are dying to have the organization ask their opinions about what’s right and wrong in their workplace.

Provide an accessible (but anonymous) channel for employees to contact you about the problems they see. It could be as simple as a suggestion box (though issues of confidentiality may arise). Or you could offer employees the use of a generic company e-mail account (e.g. InsideShmaltzPrinting@hotmail.com; password: Truth) that anyone could use to e-mail you their complaints or questions.

Invite randomly selected groups of employees to a monthly ‘lunch with the president’ session in the boardroom (bring your own brown bag). This will introduce you to lots of problems and give you a good feel for how widespread the dissatisfaction is. It will also be a big boost for employee morale.

There are many surveys available for polling employees in a more formal way. Or you could just make up the questions yourself. Just make sure you provide a mailing envelope so that completed surveys can be submitted in complete anonymity.

There are lots of ways to find out what’s on your employees’ minds. The important thing is to make sure you act on what you learn — or the problems will only get worse.

Sarah Gayer, Sare and Associates

It is very common for departing employees to not say negative things about their employer as they will require a reference for future employment and they may wish to return to this company at a later date.

As an HR Consultant, I am often called in to conduct exit interviews with departing employees. I am considered to be neutral and have no direct interest in the organization. I may ask the employee(s) if they wish to meet at their organization or somewhere off the organization’s premises. I allow them to choose the meeting place. At the meeting, I make it quite clear that the information that they share with me is strictly confidential and that their names will not be made public. Also I state that this information is to help the organization provide a better work environment for the employees who are remaining. I also ask them to be honest and probe the answers that they give me.


The truth is it’s not only a concern about leaving on bad terms that will keep a person from spilling their guts. There are a couple of other issues to consider.

One, they’re on their way out and they know they’re more likely to be working for someone else than they are to be put back on your company’s payroll. As far as they’re concerned it doesn’t make any difference to them if your company improves. They might just be wishing the company would sink.

Two, they’re going to have good reason to doubt that anyone will listen to them. If their knowledge were an asset to the company, they wouldn’t be losing their jobs. Or, conversely, if the managers knew what they were doing, they also wouldn’t be unemployed. Management runs the company, so a company failing to perform is usually a sign of poor management.

They’re likely to be very angry about losing their jobs, or at the very least scared and hurt. Do you really want to trust any suggestions or information you receive from such a doubtful source? At the very least their motives will be suspect. They want their jobs back, they want someone else to lose their job instead of them or they want their former superiors to fail.

A more productive technique might be to speak to the employees you’re most likely to cut, before it gets to that point. Ask them how they think they could be more helpful in the future growth of the company. They might not have a clue, which would be a good reason they don’t make the cut when the dust settles. However, they might have some very good ideas and they’ve been lopped off at the knees by a supervisor in fear of losing his / her position. You might be surprised at the untapped talent sitting in your own company, just waiting for someone to listen.

You could distribute a company questionnaire, asking employees about their hobbies, and what they would like to see for future company get-togethers. It will give you a good idea where everyone’s skills and interests lie. Maybe one of your sales reps works on classic cars on the weekends. You might want to shift him to a position where you can both utilize that interest and talent. Your data entry clerk might write fiction in her spare time. Maybe she would enjoy writing advertising blurbs for your marketing department. Do you have one person in your company that everyone goes to when the chips are down? Are they working in your human resources department, or do you have them counting inventory?

As always, it’s best to talk to people before a situation reaches the point of lay-off or termination. You’re giving the employees a chance to better the company and help themselves. If you can have your people doing the things they’re passionate about, you’ll be surprised how well they do their jobs and how much the atmosphere in the company changes. Employees who feel appreciated will give everything they have to their jobs. You don’t want to show your employees that their opinion will only be valued when they leave. Hope springs eternal, but despair sinks a company.

Mary Newman, The Bay Charles Consulting Company, Toronto, ON

I’m responding to the question raised by a Vancouver firm about exit interviews — what’s the secret? I offer five:

First, the interviewer must be a trusted and objective third party who in no way will influence future employment prospects for the individual involved. Some possibilities are, if your firm is small: your favorite recruiter, an external HR consultant, the firm’s accountant — assuming they have a warm and understanding personality. If you’re larger, use the most trusted internal HR consultant that you have.

Second, make it a routine whenever someone leaves the firm, so that everyone knows this is normal procedure and that no-one is being singled out, or is looking for skeletons only at a time that might cause implications for others.

Third, wait until the sting of the release or resignation is over with and the respondent has ‘moved on’ both physically and emotionally. At this point, say a month to six weeks following their departure, the respondent will have had time to reflect and give a well rounded, rational perspective.

Fourth, the interview itself should communicate a few key things:

  • Guarantee complete confidence. Put it in writing when you invite the person to the meeting.
  • Reiterate why you want to gather their thoughts — it is for the betterment of the workplace and the working environment for former colleagues and for no other reason.
  • Be very thorough and professional in gathering feedback. Show that you have thought and care about their situation; prove, through the questions you ask, that the time is well spent; coverall aspects of the company, their role and their working environment.

Finally, DO something with the advice you get. Actions should be constructive for both the person giving it and the organization. At a minimum, summarize the findings over multiple interviews and identify key themes and issues. Let the respondent know that a plan will be developed to address the common issues they and others raise. Develop an action plan to address the key issues. If this is not done, future potential respondents simply won’t take the opportunity seriously and will be likely to decline when asked. However, if feedback is acted on, the sense of integrity will be contagious.

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Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com