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Happy endings: Making the most of exit interviews

There has been a big focus on recruitment recently - and rightly so given the challenging recruitment climate. This month’s blog focuses on the other end of the employee lifecycle - the exit…and in particular the exit interview.

Thinking back to when you left your last organisation, were you invited to an exit interview? Did you feel it was valuable? As a manager, is this something you prioritise and encourage?

Managing the leaver process well is an important (but often underrated) part of the employee journey.

In this article, I've shared why I think exit interviews are useful, as well as some practical tips for doing them well.

What is an Exit Interview?

An exit interview is a conversation with an employee who is leaving your organisation, to find out their reasons for leaving and any additional insights on their time working there (the good and not so good), which you can in turn, take on board and use to improve the experience of current and future employees.

It’s worth pointing out here that an exit interview is different to an exit questionnaire or survey, which is a self-completion form given to employees who are leaving. These generally contain a series of questions and ratings, and are often anonymous. They are valuable and useful, and work well in combination with an exit interview.

The Benefits

Now you may be thinking, "we already know the reason why this employee is leaving" (and dare I say it, their gripes too). You need to focus on getting the work done (and recruiting someone else to do it), rather than on the departing employee. But there is a lot more to gain from an exit interview than their reason for leaving alone.

People leave organisations for many reasons but if you manage their departure correctly, there are benefits for both you, your organisation and the departing employee. Here are just some of those benefits:

  1. Good quality feedback - The formally stated reason for resigning may not provide a complete account of why the employee is leaving – the conversation is an opportunity to gain a better understanding and insightful feedback on their reasons for leaving and their experience working for the organisation – the good, the bad and the ugly.

  2. Trends - The information gathered from the interviews (alongside other data sources) can allow you to report on trends across all areas of the employee lifecycle – whether it’s around the company culture, development opportunities, or pay and benefits offered. You can learn from this and use it to inform future developments, which could make you a better and more attractive employer. For example, if a high percentage of leavers indicate that they experienced poor work-life balance in their roles, you could consider steps to address this by reviewing or enhancing your flexible working policy.

  3. Supporter - The employee could become a great advocate for your organisation - even though they are leaving, they can still be interested in what you do. They can promote your organisation and recommend it as a great place to work. Only last week, I was asked by a potential applicant about an organisation where I’d worked previously. And you’ve probably experienced similar.

  4. Concerns - In contrast, it’s also an opportunity to nip in the bud or address any concerns which are shared, that might otherwise end up as a negative review online, or in person with friends and family. Being heard is a helpful first step and it’s an opportunity to resolve issues where possible, both for individual closure and the organisation’s reputation.

  5. Opportunity - They could be someone you might welcome back one day, having gained valuable experience and skills elsewhere. In the future, their experience, along with their knowledge of your organisation, could be what you need. In the UK, LinkedIn data, shows 5% of all new hires in 2021 were former employees who returned.

For departing employees, the opportunity to have a conversation with their employer about their experience is highly appreciated and valued when carried out properly. In contrast, not having this opportunity can leave some employees frustrated. This is because:

  • Many appreciate the opportunity to feedback their experiences so that they can make things better for current employees and new starters.

  • Some appreciate the opportunity to have a conversation, describing it as being cathartic to share their feelings.

  • Others value the opportunity as they are leaving, as they feel they can be more open, in the safe space.

Top Tips for a useful exit interview

  • Identify the right person to carry out the meeting – will this be a member of the HR team (if you have one) or perhaps a senior manager? It doesn’t need to be the same person, but it's best if the person conducting the exit interview is independent, i.e., not the departing employee's line manager.

  • Invest in the process – set aside adequate time, thought and consideration to get the most out of the conversation and for it to be meaningful for the employee. To be effective, it’s not about going through the motions.

  • Explain the purpose of the meeting – set out how you plan to use the information and confidentiality around this.

  • Listen – although it’s called an exit interview, its more about engaging in an open conversation, not about asking the closed questions from an exit questionnaire. You can guide the conversation using open questions, but should allow them to speak freely about their experiences. Be aware that it can be just as much about what isn’t said than what is. Be open to feedback and constructive criticism.

  • Act on the feedback – consider how the information will be used and the processes for reporting, which will differ depending on the size of your organisation. This could include identifying insights that the organisation can learn from (the good and not so good), developing an action plan of recommendations to make any necessary improvements in specific work areas, and whether there are any immediate actions required.

We know that high levels of employee turnover can be costly and disruptive, so it is beneficial to have as much quality information as possible on the reasons people leave. Good quality exit interviews can provide valuable insight and can help you develop a strategic approach to improving employee retention and recruitment, particularly when used alongside other employee engagement surveys and workforce analytics e.g., turnover and absence data.

In the current challenging recruitment and retention climate, and with many employees appreciating the opportunity to have a conversation before they leave, a good quality exit interview can be a win-win situation, benefiting the organisation and the departing employee - particularly if they boomerang back one day!


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