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Getting the Best Info From Exit Interviews

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When an employee hands you a resignation, is there anything left to discuss? Plenty, says Leigh Steere, co-founder of Boulder, Colo.-based human-resources consulting firm Managing People Better LLC. While exit interviews – the business version of the “why are you breaking up with me?” talk – can be uncomfortable, Steere says they can also be important sources of information about why employees are leaving and what you can do to prevent future attrition.


Employees who are leaving have less to lose if they tell you about an abusive manager or a substandard benefits and compensation package, among other things, Steere says. Use these tips to get more out of your exit interviews.

Make it a policy. When the employee delivers a resignation, either verbally or in writing, schedule the interview before his or her last day of work. Your employees should know that exit interviews are part of your company’s human-resources program, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Put the employee at ease, she adds. Reassure him that it’s a common, confidential practice designed to help the company get better, she says.

Get a degree of separation. Sometimes, it’s a good idea to have a consultant or a supervisor from a different department conduct the interview. Employees “may withhold feedback because they may be concerned about leaving on a good note and not hurting anyone’s feelings,” she says. Speaking with someone who has some distance from the employee may help him or her feel comfortable being candid.

Related: 5 Keys to Engaging Performance Reviews

Ask the right questions. Keeping the tone positive is critical, Steere says. Asking the right questions contributes to the dynamic. Steere suggests asking about the new role, including its responsibilities, and how the opportunity came about. Questions about what attracted the employee to your company in the first place and how the employee’s experience differed from expectations can yield good information about your market perception and culture. Also, asking what the employee would change about the company and his or her department can reveal concerns or problems. Even if the interviewer is disappointed about losing the employee, he or she should project enthusiasm, she adds.

Be careful about countering. If the reason for the resignation is something you cannot fix, let the employee go. Even if the employee accepts your counteroffer, Steere says there is a high likelihood the employee will continue to be frustrated and will leave anyway at some point in the near future. She recently saw a company retain an employee through a counteroffer even though telecommuting benefits, which the woman needed, were discontinued. She ended up leaving for good a few months later because of her need to work from home.

Use what you find. Of course, exit interviews are a waste of time if you don’t follow up or apply information you uncover, Steere says. If you hear something troubling in an exit interview, it’s time for further investigation to see if it’s an anomaly or the norm, she says. 

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