Parting Gifts: Eight Strategies to Make Exit Interviews Pay

Employees leave. It’s a fact of working life.

It’s up to you to decide how to handle those goodbyes. You can be angry and hurt and take it as a personal rejection. Or, you can turn every departure into an opportunity to learn about, and maybe improve, your workplace.

If your goal is the latter, there is a simple tool you need to master: the exit interview. Everyone grills potential employees before hiring them, but I would argue that a conversation when they are heading out the door is just as crucial, if not more so. After all, employees tend to be a lot more honest when they’re leaving a job than they are when trying to get one. If you want an accurate picture of what it’s like to work for you, through an employee’s eyes, you can’t afford to skip the exit interview.

Of course, what you get out of that conversation depends on what you put into it.

Here are eight strategies to help that final goodbye transform from a loss to an institutional gain:

  • Offer congratulations. Someone who’s done good work for you has earned whatever new opportunity is drawing them away. If you pride yourself on running an organization that celebrates your employees, then celebrate them across the board. Acknowledge the work they did and the contribution they made, which hopefully benefited you and them.
  • Ask what excites them about the new opportunity. This isn’t just to make pleasant conversation in an uncomfortable moment. Use this question to learn about your organization – what was this departing employee looking for that you didn’t offer? Or do you offer it and she just didn’t see it? Either way, view this as a chance to either add some variety to your opportunity menu, or maybe just do a better job of displaying it.
  • Where is the employee headed? Not this instant – obviously they’re headed out the door. But where do they want to go, long term? What roadmap are they envisioning for their career, and how will this move help them get there. The question, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” is such a common interview device that it’s become cliché. But it’s one that’s just as important to ask in an exit interview. I always tell departing employees to consider whether the move is a step toward an ultimate goal, or just a quick move for more money or an impressive title.
  • Are they running away from something? Or running to something? If it’s the latter, great. You and your company likely helped that employee learn and grow and become equipped with the skills that made them irresistible to another organization. Celebrate that. If it’s the former, then you’ve got work to do.  You need to find out what, or who, in your workplace or culture is driving this person away. If it’s a personality clash or a bad individual fit, just hope it’s a one-off situation and move on. But if there’s a problem workplace-wide, that needs your attention.
  • View the departure as a compliment. When a talented worker gets plucked from your team, it often means you’ve done a great job training them and nurturing their talent. When I served as a dean of admissions at a small college, I told my staff: If those of you who are admissions counselors go on to become deans of admission somewhere, I view that as flattering. Remember: Great workplaces are talent factories, not talent prisons. 
  • Don’t begrudge ambition. Talented staffers want to move up. Sometimes, that means they have no choice but to leave – or take your job. You can’t expect them to be static forever.
  • Burn no bridges. Wish them well, be gracious. Long ago, I learned from a former boss what not to do when an employee gives notice. When I said I was leaving, he didn't say a word -- just grabbed his laptop and started reading my non-compete clause. When I realized what he was doing, it made me sick to my stomach. And very happy to be leaving. Keep in mind that corporate America is a small world. The employee you enrage today could become your client tomorrow. Or your boss. Remember, too, that in this age of Glassdoor reviews and the potential for your every word and deed to gain eternal internet life, you can’t afford to make an enemy of a talented employee just because she takes another job.
  • Stay connected. After a former employee starts a new job, I send them a note. Whether they left on good terms or bad, it's important to stay in touch. Because, like I said, corporate America is a small world.
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