operations

How to run the perfect exit interview

An exit interview is a conversation between a company and an employee who has decided to leave the business. It’s helpful to imagine them as the opposite of a job interview - instead of asking why they want to join your company, you’re asking them why they’ve decided to leave.

Why are exit interviews important?

A great many people within HR say that exit interviews are among the most important conversations you’ll ever have at work (although Charlie's COO actually disagrees). It will be one of the most honest conversations you have with your employees; your one opportunity to find out what your team is really thinking.

And in a very basic sense - if someone is leaving your company, it’s important to know why. People rarely decide to leave jobs for trivial reasons. If they’ve gone down this path, it’s likely that some substantial aspect of their role was leaving them dissatisfied in some respect.

If you want to keep your best employees and attract even more, then it’s crucial for you to find out why they would leave, and also what might make them stay. A properly run exit interview gives you the perfect opportunity to find out.  

1.First off - every leaver gets an interview

Every person that leaves your company deserves an exit interview. There are a few practitioners out there who will tell you to only conduct them with your star performers (the ones you really want to keep) and not to worry about ‘trouble-makers’.

Marking out exit interviews as valuable only for certain parts of the business sends out a really damaging message. It tells the rest of the company that only some people’s views are worth listening to. The reason exit interviews exist is to give you a clear oversight of everything that goes on at your company - not just the impressions of a few.

If you’re discarding the experiences of so-called ‘trouble-makers’ then you’re creating a massive structural blindspot. You’re going to miss out on the crucial information that could tell you why that hire turned into a ‘troublemaker’ in the first place - perhaps there is something wrong with the way that role is managed that makes it harder for people to succeed. Unless you ask, you’ll never know.

2. Be timely

The best time to hold an exit interview is on the leaver’s last day, or in the days immediately following their departure. Before this, they aren’t going to be as free with their thoughts.

A few days worth of ‘mental distance’ from the role is especially valuable. It gives the leaver something of a vantage point, from which they can make a more critical assessment of their experiences rather than one based on emotions.

Try not to leave it too long though - longer than a week and they’ll start to feel disengaged from the business, particularly if they’ve already started in a new role. You might find their feedback becomes quite general or less direct.

3. Keep it transparent

Always share the topics that you’d like to cover in advance. Make a list of the questions you want to ask or areas you’d like to tackle, then drop it round to the leaver in an email ahead of time.

Not only does this help to put them at ease, but it also makes it more likely that they’ll come back with some thoughtful, well-developed answers. It gives them a few days to mull over their experiences and come back with some considered feedback, rather than have to come up with something on the spot.

4. Keep it casual  

It pays to make exit interviews as relaxed as possible. At Charlie, we try to make sure they aren’t held in the office but somewhere more informal, such as a nearby cafe. This helps to reinforce the idea that this is an amicable, two-way conversation between ex-colleagues, rather than some form of disciplinary.

If you’re going to run the interview at work, it’s inevitably going to feel like they’re at work.

5. Keep it personal

One interviewer is always enough. You don’t want them to feel like the company is ganging up on them - and as much as you can, let the leaver decide who they’d like to conduct the interview. You’ll receive much more honest (and therefore more valuable) feedback if the two get on well together.

That being said, it’s well worth trying to make sure that the interviewer is at least ‘one-remove’ higher than the leaver, rather than their direct line manager. There’s a couple of reasons for this.

Firstly, it helps the leaver to be a bit more honest with their feedback. There’s an old saying in HR circles that says: people don’t quit jobs, they quit bosses. This is your chance to see if that’s true of your business.

Secondly, it automatically shifts that feedback one step further up the hierarchy of the business, making it more likely that action is taken on it.

6. Listen more than you talk

As the interviewer, don’t feel that you have to respond to feedback - that’s not what this process is for. You’re not there to defend the business or justify your own decisions, but to learn as much as you can about your company.

This could be a really tough experience - particularly if you’re a founder. But take heart in the fact that even the most damning feedback can be acted upon to make your company better.  

"Exit interviews can be really difficult, especially if the company is your own. It’s a conversation where someone basically has free reign to have a go at you and your company... It can feel like you’re being kicked whilst your down. But the trick is to just swallow your pride, and let them have their say.”

Ben Gateley, CharlieHR COO

7. Don’t lead the conversation, guide it

As the interviewer, you might feel a temptation to lead the conversation to the topics you badly want to talk about. This is especially true of founders, who often feel passionately about the business they have built and have strong ideas about how they think it should be run.

However, it’s a mistake to seize control of this conversation. By all means, guide it to the topics you think might be relevant, but the goal is to hear what the leaver has to say - so let them take the interview where they want to take it.

You may find that it yields unexpected and surprising answers.

8. Share the results…

At Charlie, we make sure that the notes from exit interviews are shared across the whole company leadership, not just amongst the leaver’s immediate team. This helps to ensure that company leaders have a clear understanding of how every side of the business is performing.

9. ...then act on them.

Everything up until this point has been the easy part. Now you need to actually act on what you’ve learnt.

If you’ve run the exit interview properly, you may well have heard a few things that made you feel uncomfortable - tales of team members not pulling their weight or managers who aren’t supporting their staff.

It might make for difficult listening, but if you’re serious about improving the way your business is run then you need to commit to making the changes that are needed.

Final thoughts  

As far as you can, treat the leaver with respect and gratitude for the work they have done with you. They'll go on to work at many other places, with many other people, and you want them to leave your company as an advocate and ambassador for you and the way you work.

There is an instinct to be defensive about exit interviews - after all, someone that you hired has decided to quit, and is about to tell you every single reason for that decision. Yes, staff exits mean that your company is changing, but as long as you are in control of the direction of travel that is a good thing.

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