How to conduct an exit interview

Written by Nate Hendley

Question: When an employee leaves your company on good terms, do you:

  1. thank him for his good work and dedication
  2. ask him to turn in his security pass
  3. conduct an exit interview
  4. all of the above

While many will answer a or b, the best answer is d.

Exit interviews are a human-resources tool not to be neglected. They’re an excellent way to gather honest information about everything from your work environment and managerial style to workplace ethics and employee morale.

They can also be used to identify toxic staff, malignant managers and day-to-day job concerns.

Finally, exit interviews are also a good forum for getting feedback on employment issues such as health benefits, pensions and vacation pay.

If you’re not already doing exit interviews, then you should start right away. And if you already do them, are you getting the most out of them? Benchmark your organization with help from human-resources experts interviewed by PROFIT.

Who should be interviewed?

Generally, you should only interview employees who have resigned, says Suzanne Vernon, human resources specialist at Toronto-based Rogers Media (which owns PROFIT). Employees who are fired or laid off, says Vernon, “are usually not so helpful.”

Others say fired employees should in fact be interviewed. Rasheena Moorthy, team leader of recruitment for the Toronto-based human-resources consulting firm Infocheck Ltd., regularly meets with employees who were let go, although she’s wary of the results. “We find the information far more accurate for people who have left on their own volition.”

When should the interview take place?

Vernon typically conducts exit interviews within an employee’s last few days in the office. However, she rarely schedules the interview on the very last day, in case the employee misses the appointment.

Infocheck, on the other hand, opts to conduct exit interviews a couple days or even a week after the employee has left the company. Giving employees a cooling off period, says Moorthy, is a good way to generate “more honest and accurate information.”

Who should conduct the interview?

Exit interviews should be conducted one-on-one by an interviewer who is neutral. This could be a human-resources manager or a person from an outside organization, such as Infocheck. Unless it’s absolutely unavoidable, supervisors and managers should not interview their own staff members. Employees aren’t likely to speak their minds under such circumstances.

Where should the interview take place?

Hold exit interviews in a private location, away from managers and supervisors, so the interview subject feels comfortable speaking his mind.

Vernon, for example, conducts exit interviews in her private office in her company’s HR department, making it highly unlikely the employee’s manager or colleagues will walk by.

Infocheck conducts phone interviews with former staffers, so employees can talk in the privacy of their own homes.

Never conduct the interview in a public place, such a coffee shop. Although it’s unlikely colleagues of the ex-employee will stumble upon the interview session, public places do not offer the privacy an interview subject deserves.

Indeed, privacy is a huge issue when conducting exit interviews. The interviewee should be told up front that their words are not going to be used against them. Employees won’t open up if they fear that their names or comments will be reported directly to their supervisors.

Vernon always lets employees know why they are being interviewed. She explains that their comments will be used anonymously to help the company retain employees, recruit new staffers and gather info on working conditions.

What exactly should you talk about?

Ask interviewees:

  • the reasons why they’re leaving
  • what they liked most and least about the company
  • what they liked most and least about their department

Also try to solicit details on the job functions and skill sets of the person who is quitting, says Vernon. Then you’ll know what to look for in a replacement.

While Vernon takes detailed notes during exit interviews, she does not record the session on audio or videotape. Taping the interview, she explains, would destroy any semblance of confidentiality.

Occasionally, an employee will turn the exit interview into a gripe session, and detail all his complaints about the firm. If this happens to you, allow him to rant for a bit and let off steam, then try to get things back on track by asking how he would fix the problems he cited.

What should I do with the information?

You may be wondering: if someone else conducts the interviews with my staff and guarantees it will be confidential, how do I benefit from the information?

Vernon compiles her interview notes in reports that discuss various issues about the company. No employee names are used in these reports, and the information is presented generically to avoid helping readers deduce the source of specific comments.

A typical statement might read, “Several employees expressed concerns about the lack of overtime pay …” The reports are forwarded to senior management, but not to the employee’s direct supervisor. Once senior management has the report, it can be used to implement new company policy.

Read other pointers on How To contribute to your business success!

© 2004 Nate Hendley

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com