Finding Insight in an Exit

Exit sign

Finding Insight in an Exit

This resource has been written by guest author Jeff Yenzer, SPHR. He has been working within the fields of human resources and personnel management for 20 years, operating in the Oklahoma City metro and working with several industries across Oklahoma and other states. After serving as an in-house HR professional for several years, he founded Yenzer Consulting Services LLC, where he provides outsourced advisement and solutions as a strategic business partner to organizations of every size.


No matter the reason for departure, the loss of an employee is never an ideal situation. Aside from the remaining staff needing to find a replacement, and regardless of the particular employee’s performance, those that willingly abandon their position always leave behind the question “Why?” While some companies are willing to live with that unknown, many successful companies that are looking to continually improve their workplace will find themselves taking some manner of responsibility for discovering an explanation for the termination.

Enter, the exit interview!

An Often-Overlooked Resource

In the two decades I have been working in management and HR, few better solutions come to mind than the method of exit interviews being openly offered to all employees. On the surface, a choice to conduct these nontraditional fact-finding sessions could be dismissed as a misuse of resources and effort, but the intrinsic value of getting open and relatively honest feedback from someone with little to lose can be invaluable. Someone scoffing at the idea could be indicative of some shame over the idea that skeletons may be hiding in those closets.

I have seen revelations come to light for my clients when reporting their findings – they never would have realized something could have been an issue without the interview. If they have several employees leaving frustrated, the problem could be anything from the professional style of a single manager to a rampant culture issue the CEO is fostering – or something else entirely. The only way to know for sure is through honest, transparent feedback, and few are more brutally honest than someone that has already put in their notice.

Questions to Ask and Who Should Ask Them

While there is no “right way” to conduct one of these interviews, there are a wealth of resources out there to create a concise list of questions to ask every departing employee. Some of these questions are simple, such as “What are your reasons for leaving?” and “What did you enjoy about working here?” However, I would challenge you to think of questions that dig deeper for underlying issues within your organization. Two questions I regularly use are “How would you describe the company’s culture?” and “Was there ever a situation in which you felt you were ignored or treated unfairly by your colleagues or clients?” These are open-ended and often serve as a springboard to show how an employee truly sees their workplace. If the answers run opposed to how you envisioned your company’s mission and culture, then it might be time to ensure you are practicing what you are preaching. The latter question can also bring to light potential pitfalls or legal liabilities your remaining staff could be creating if they are not remedied.

There will always be the school of thought that says a departing employee may directly seek to undermine those at the helm when they leave, or try to sabotage those left behind, but the amount of insight to be gained at stake is worth more than the possibility of a bad actor. To combat this, it is always my advice to seek out an objective third party to conduct these interviews. Because even a departing employee will rarely trust the company representative no matter how removed they may have been from the incidents that led to the position being abandoned, arranging an impartial interviewer is usually best. Another key I have found to getting honest answers is to conduct the interviews outside the company walls, as they do not feel like the interview is dishonest or that there may be a power imbalance due to it being at the worksite.

How and When to Conduct Exit Interviews

The single largest mistake I see companies make while trying to do the right thing and conduct exit interviews has to be the idea that these should be automated. It might be awkward and cause the interviewer anxiety, but for these interviews to be fully rewarding, they must be done in-person (or via a video call at the very least). I have witnessed the futility of corporations sending an automated email with an invitation to voluntarily complete an online survey of generalized questions in the effort to “check this box.” The value of that practice is, frankly, only a small step above worthless. The need of the human condition to feel empathy in order to vocalize vulnerability is key here; and it is imperative that the person gathering information be deemed trustworthy by the former employee in order to be granted the honesty needed to gain insight from this meeting. The evidence doesn’t lie, as exit interview participation rates tend to sit around 30% when passive methods (online surveys) are used, whereas in-person methods (using outsourced consultants or indirect managers) tend to achieve rates of 90% or more.

When looking at the timing of the exit interview, it is best to conduct these interviews during the final week of employment, as it usually results in the highest rate of completion. I often encourage clients to have me come in on the employee’s final day of work, or the day before if the interview is conducted off-site. I also inform both the company and the interviewee that my findings will be given to the company only after the employee’s last day to ensure no lines are crossed and transparency can occur without the worry of retaliation.

Gain Insight to Gain an Edge

The information I have seen a company gain from well-structured exit interviewing has ranged anywhere from reducing absenteeism or potential litigation to increasing overall productivity and streamlining recruiting processes.

In addition, I have also seen merely the mentioning of exit interviews as a standard practice wind up being a recruiting tool that interests prospective candidates, as it showcases a company’s genuine focus on continual improvement.

In short, if you aren’t currently implementing these with each employee leaving your company, then it is high time to consult a professional to help you.

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