The exit interview

From a conversation on LinkedIn last week, I’ve been thinking about the exit interview. What is it for and who does it serve?

The concept of an exit interview baffles me, to be honest. Yes, I understand what it is for and why an employer or line manager would want to schedule one with a person who’s leaving the organisation.

“If done well and properly, exit interviews can give you great insights into your business and help with employee engagement and satisfaction. It’s also a chance to hear from a more honest staff perspective – after all you’re highly unlikely to get such frank answers from current employees.” – Andy Stewart

Well, that’s great, in principle. But how many of us leave a job where we’ve not felt secure, supported, encouraged, cared for, or have any kind of positive feelings about thinking that the exit interview is really what it’s supposed to be? If this is the case, surely the day before you leave is way, way, WAY too late? If an employer is interested in hearing about my experience on my 2nd to last day, why were they not interested enough to listen in the many hundreds of days before this and do something about to prevent me from leaving?

I get it. The exit interview is a significant component of an employment lifecycle. It serves as a critical tool for an organisation to gain valuable insights from a departing employee – it’s supposed to offer a unique perspective on the workplace environment, the culture, and maybe uncover aspects of the work that are somehow hidden from management’s view until now. Equally, they provide an employee a platform to share their experiences and offer constructive feedback.

An exit interview conducted with an employee who is leaving, voluntarily or not, can gather feedback on the employee’s experience, reasons for departure, and suggestions for improvement. The primary goals are (from ChatGPT):

  • Identifying areas for improvements: Understanding what works and what doesn’t within your time or wider environment can lead to significant improvements in workplace culture and operational efficiency.
  • Enhancing employee retention: Insights gained can help address issues that contribute to turnover, thereby enhancing retention strategies.
  • Transferring knowledge: Departing employees can provide valuable information about their roles, ongoing projects, and client relationships, facilitating a smoother transition.
  • Maintaining Alumni Relations: A positive exit process can help in maintaining a good relationship with former employees, who can be valuable alumni network members.

This does, however, rely heavily on the one departing wanting to help the organisation grow after their departure. If you’re leaving under a cloud, either voluntarily or not, then this immediately breaks down. I think most people have left a job because of either a specific person, a specific trait or unrealistic expectation or culture, the unreasonable workload, or some other toxic experience – what use is the exit interview here if you’ve already tried everything to fix it (including HR and senior management)? Is it the best thing to leave quietly and work on yourself to gain back your confidence or motivation? For some, the experience has been so bad the thought of dragging it out longer by yet another meeting that will offer no resolution for you is just too much.

  • For employers: Exit interviews offer a window into the real experiences of employees. They reveal patterns that might be contributing to employee dissatisfaction and turnover. These interviews can also highlight strengths, helping to reinforce effective practices. Moreover, they demonstrate to current employees that the organisation values feedback and is committed to continuous improvement.
  • For employees: These interviews give departing staff a chance to express their thoughts and contribute to the future improvement of the organisation. It’s an opportunity for closure and to leave on a positive note, ensuring their tenure is acknowledged and their feedback valued.

In my role as a leader and manager, I’ve found that exit interviews should ideally confirm what I already know. Regular communication and a robust feedback culture should mean that there are no surprises during these interviews. I’ve always strived to create a safe, developmental environment for my team members, fostering open dialogue and continuous feedback. This approach not only enhances team performance but also ensures that any potential issues are addressed long before an exit interview.

Even saying all this, sometimes people want to leave and pursue another role – added responsibilities, increased salary, different industry, new location, wellbeing or the promise of a better work/life balance, etc.

An exit interview, when conducted effectively, is a powerful tool for both parties. It can provide critical insights for a manager or an organisational improvement, enhance employee relations, and support a culture of open communication and continuous development. As leaders and managers, our goal should be to create an environment where the exit interview is a reflective session, rather than a revelatory one, embodying a culture where feedback is actively sought, heard, and acted upon throughout the employee lifecycle.

Photo by Daniel McCullough on Unsplash