What is an Exit Interview?

Once an employee hands over their resignation letter, it’s nearly time to leave the job, but the employee still needs to go through an exit interview before they are officially finished with their employer. The goal of exit interviews is to prevent future resignations. These types of interviews allow employers to find out exactly why an employee is leaving, what they can do to improve the company culture, and ensure that everything is in order for their replacement.

An Overview of Exit Interviews

Importance of Exit Interviews

Most HR experts agree that employees who quit usually have the same motivational reasons: a new career, an unexpected job offer, or an unresolved grievance. Other reasons include poor pay, benefits, job fit, flexibility, and job security. There is also a common HR saying: employees don’t quit their jobs, they quit their supervisors. Research by the Society of Human Resource Management shows that it usually costs over $4,100 to replace an employee. These costs include job ads, interviews, screening, and training. The costs for replacing an administrator or mid-career employee are two to three times higher.

Companies that experience high turnover rates without ever investigating or resolving issues will suffer financial losses, interrupted operations, and poor staff morale. So, when an employee suddenly resigns for voluntary reasons, it’s a surprise that needs to be scrutinized. If there is a legitimate reason, such as moving or having a baby, the exit interview offers healthy closure that is respectful and meaningful. This is a chance to praise and thank employees, which is very useful for providing positive word-of-mouth marketing.

All Feedback is Welcome

Both positive and negative feedback is encouraged during exit interviews. This is the employer’s chance to learn about how they’re doing with the position and how they treat staff. It is a good chance to learn how employees really feel about their supervisors and company policies. The exit interview is thus a vital audit process that helps organizations understand why people leave and how they can improve their operations, policies, decisions, and expectations. The primary outcome of the exit interview is the resolution of hidden, outstanding concerns that may indicate a much deeper problem involving other employees, policies, or departments. 

Exit interviews are typically conducted by a human resource professional or manager. In some contentious cases, a third-party may do the interview so the employee will feel more comfortable and be more candid about their experiences with the company. HR professionals are the preferred choices because they have the legal training in how to handle sensitive issues, carefully ask questions, and mitigate legal risks. A casual supervisor who conducts the exit interview may simply chat with the employee and wish them well instead of learning about improvement areas and resolving any issues the employee may have had during the course of their employment.

Basic Questions During Exit Interviews

HR professionals usually ask a range of questions on a variety of topics, which include daily frustrations, opinions of senior staff, overall job satisfaction, and thoughts on the work environment. Employees may be asked questions like:

  • What do we do well?
  • Why are you leaving?
  • What do we need to improve?
  • Have you enjoyed working for us?
  • What did you least enjoy and why?
  • Why did you choose your new employer?
  • If possible, what would it take for you to stay? 
  • Was your future and career path here clear to you?
  • Did we appropriately handle any of your complaints?
  • What did you enjoy the most about your team/department?
  • Did we provide enough training and development opportunities?
  • How can we make our organization stronger and more successful?

Preparing for the Exit Interview

HR professionals may prepare for the exit interview by reviewing the employee’s personnel file. They may also briefly interview key staff and supervisors to find out more background information. Remember that not all employees are willing or comfortable sharing their feelings, especially if they are quitting because of exclusion, harassment, internal politics, or gross misconduct by someone else. So, an HR professional will go into the exit interview already knowing the average length of employment at the company, the top reasons why staff quit, and the turnover patterns within groups or departments. They must be prepared to establish trust and elicit answers to hard questions.

If an employee has been with the company for a long time, they will have many contacts and useful information about how to successfully perform the job’s duties. Therefore, employees may expect questions about contacts with whom they already have a relationship to maintain those connections going forward. Managers may request additional tips to pass along to the employee’s replacement and may even ask the exiting employee to help document their job duties and responsibilities.

How and Where

HR professionals may start out by formally notifying the exiting employee why, how, and where the exit interview will take place. They will tell the employee that their information will be kept confidential. This will help to reduce the employee from feeling nervous, avoidant, or upset. It helps when HR professionals explain that they simply want to improve working conditions and collect valuable information. HR professionals may include in the notification some options, such as choosing who interviews them or when it takes place, as well as topics to prepare for discussions. 

Face-to-face interviews should be in a neutral place. A rarely visited HR office and a large executive desk may be intimidating and produce a tense boss-subordinate standoff. It’s helpful to sit next to the employee rather than opposite of them. HR professionals promote a problem-solving discussion by explaining they will take notes and listen without being defensive. If the employee is vague or quiet, the HR professional may prod them open-ended questions or focus on what they enjoy talking about. Some HR professionals offer an exit luncheon for those who have been valued employees.

How to Handle the Disgruntled Employee

Conducting an exit interview with an employee who is being unexpectedly terminated for misconduct will not be pleasant. Discharged employees who have been in conflict with peers and management may be emotional, confrontational, and accusatory. They will usually self-victimize and may threaten to file erroneous lawsuits. HR professionals will usually have one to two managers in the room as witnesses. They will bring the employee into the room and explain the decision to terminate them because of objective, documented reasons. These could include tardiness, unsatisfactory performance, failure to follow instructions, and budget constraints.

Most states are employment-at-will, which means employees and employers may terminate their relationship at any time. However, there should always be a factual and reasonable motivation for termination. During the exit interview, HR professionals may offer the employee a severance package that includes certain benefits, liability releases, and confidentiality agreements. Sometimes, high-level employees will be able to negotiate their benefits in exchange for agreeing to specific things. For example, a sales manager may agree to refrain from convincing their best clients to follow them to their new employer.

Formal HR Logistics of the Exit Meeting

HR professionals will carefully listen to what the employee has to say and ask them what statement they may want to include in their file. Some employees will want to go on record disagreeing with the decision. They may request to insert a detailed explanation of the triggering event or historical events into their file. This could be an act of aggression against a staff member, but the terminated employees feel that they are victims. HR professionals will require the departing employee to turn in company property and provide access to emails, files, and materials. 

Well-behaved employees who tried their best and never engaged in misconduct will appreciate an explanation of the unemployment claims process. The HR professional may explain that the company isn’t going to fight their unemployment claim and may offer letters of reference. Although the floor is open for discussion and employees are encouraged to voice their opinions, it is still important to avoid saying certain things, according to the Business Insider. Employees should be aware of how they express their feelings since they may need this company to provide a positive reference for their next positions. Although being honest is a critical component of exit interviews, employees should do so in a polite, respectful, and constructive way.

Keep in mind that exit interviews are typically voluntary, so employees do not have to attend if they simply want to move on without them. On the other hand, in some cases, employees wish to attend exit interviews, but the employers are reluctant to organize it. If an employee is second-guessing the interview or has had a terrible experience with the company, he or she should question whether the interview will be of any benefit down the road. Should an employee feel that his or her negative feedback would not be of any use or that there is a high risk of offending the boss, it may be worth it to simply decline the exit interview.

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