How to Handle Exit Interviews

Sooner or later, people are going to quit your company. And although it means your workforce is taking a hit, it's also potentially a chance to learn a lot about your business in the form of an exit interview. They're a great way to get truthful feedback about your company and what it's like to work there.

But, the problem is that an employer can confuse business with it being personal and as a result be dismissive or completely disregard anything they might say when they're on their way out to greener pastures. "Employer representatives should be in full-listening mode and ask open-ended, non-judgmental questions," said Jennifer Crittenden, who has worked in corporate America for "almost 25 years" in big pharma and biotech. "I wish employers took better advantage of this unique opportunity to receive useful feedback… Bringing up performance issues, old history, or being defensive about past squabbles are all pointless, but a common trap."

Crittenden also points out that an annoyed employer can make for a defensive employee who will give information that "may be in code."

Generally speaking, if you can keep your little hurt feelings aside and listen, this is a chance to hear another perspective on the gears that run your business. "I try not to focus too much on negativity with the exiting employee," said Kimberly Roden, a principal consultant with Unconventional HR. "Rather, I want to find out what was the motivator for them to start looking for work and/or decide to leave the company… it's [a] mirror that [shows what] needs to be changed."

Another pointer is to not merely have this be a checklist of questions to ask. This isn't a time to go through the motions. If you want, many people I spoke with suggested you should ask what circumstances it would take for the employee to come back, but don't seem desperate. Actually, in some cases it might be wise to have your HR rep do the interview instead of their direct manager since the employee might hate that individual and so it would just be awkward or unnecessarily painful, a la Michael Scott asking Toby "who do you think you are?" That's not really information that's gonna help better run the company.

Two other things? It's kinda classless to ask your employee where they're leaving you for, which is usually part of a tactic managers will do to offer a higher salary or surpass their compensation in another way after they leave. Unless the employee offers it up, respect their right to work wherever they please.

The final, and probably most important point to make here is to implement whatever changes they suggest if the employee isn't disgruntled due to things that would be silly to change because they were difficult to work with. Mallary Tytel, the president of Healthy Workplaces, told me a story that provides an example of when you should make that call:

This was a senior manager -- leaving on his own when he did not get a promotion -- who had completed and submitted the forms. Upon review, I discovered that all of the responses and comments consisted of verbal abuse, profanity, and pointing fingers at others, including me, for everything negative that had happened to him during the previous three years. I felt there was nothing more to be gleaned from a discussion. A direct quote from his comments, addressed specifically to me, was: "You have a lot to learn about supervising people. How could I possibly be successful when you were always holding me accountable for my actions?"

Uh, yeah. If you have someone like that working for you, maybe you're better off without them.

David Wolinsky is a freelance writer and a lifelong Chicagoan. In addition to currently serving as an interviewer-writer for Adult Swim, he's also a columnist for EGM. He was the Chicago city editor for The Onion A.V. Club where he provided in-depth daily coverage of this city's bustling arts/entertainment scene for half a decade. When not playing video games for work he's thinking of dashing out to Chicago Diner, Pizano's, or Yummy Yummy. His first career aspirations were to be a game-show host.

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