Thoughts on the Traditional Exit Interview

Last week I shared information on Stay Interviews, and DeAnne offered additional thoughts.

Today, let’s talk about the traditional exit interview. I still think they can be valuable, but you have to be thoughtful.

Two big concepts to keep in mind:
1) Exiting employees might like to cite salary as a reason for departure. Dig past that. Salary is usually just the tip of the iceberg.
2) Avoid asking why questions. These can come off as judgmental and your question may not be answered honestly. Instead, ask what or how questions which are more thought-provoking.

Some Examples…

If you and your departing employee have done basic research, you both know whether or not their pay compared favorably to the market. If your pay is truly consistent with the local market, and your departing employee is staying in that market, pay is not the issue. In his book Drive, Daniel Pink recommends paying about 10% more than the market to make salary a non-issue.

My favorite exit interview question is, “What factors, if present, would have kept you here?” Sometimes the answer is more money. Good follow up questions to this answer are:

  • What factors would make you stay in a job where you are underpaid?
  • If we pay less than other employers, what benefits or opportunities could we offer to make up for that?

WARNING: At no time do you want to imply you will change anything to get them back. Make it clear that the exit interview is about learning more to make the organization improve.

If you’ve treated them well, they’ll give you answers to help you out. However, if you haven’t treated them well, or they feel unsafe, they’ll tell you what they think you want to hear.

How you ask is important.

What and how questions get more concrete answers than why questions. Consider these questions:

  • What factors, if present, would have kept you here?
  • How could your supervisor have trained you better?
  • What do you wish you had learned that you didn’t?
  • How has working here changed since you started?
  • What did you like/dislike about your job? (Make these two separate questions.)

Whereas it’s none of your business what they are doing next, if you have a solid relationship, you probably know what their plans. If this is the case, you can ask:

  • What excites you most about your next move?
  • How could we have made your experience here more like the experience you are moving into?

Overall, it is important to make the conversation safe.

Keep in mind even if you ask all the right questions in all the right ways, it’s still quite possible that people will tell you what they think you want to hear. But, you can use your wisdom to develop some skillful follow-ups and ask for specifics. Take notes, never get defensive or explain things, and stay curious.

I don’t think exit interviews are pointless or dead. However, I do think the stay interview I shared last week can round out the way you develop relationships and learn more about how to improve. It’s an employee’s market as I write this in mid-2021. The organizations that flourish will be the ones who know how to treat employees really, really well and still deliver top-notch products and services to their clientele.

Thanks for reading,

Alan Feirer

2 Responses

  • We use an exit interview template we developed based off the appreciative inquiry technique. We do capture some useful information, but my favorite thing about it is the sense of closure (in most cases, very positive closure) it brings between our Executive Director, myself, and the departing staff member. I will definitely review it for the suggestions provided here!

    • That’s great! It’s wonderful to hear from you, Amy. I’d love it if you’d share that with me sometime. Thanks for weighing in.

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