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Are you doing thoughtful exit interviews with all levels of departing employees? The exit interview is one of few concrete opportunities to learn what makes someone comfortable to work in your organization — or not — and to glean information you can use to improve management, leadership, process, and structure.

In many ways, an exit interview is the last service an employee can choose to do for an organization — it’s a gift of both time and candor. Businesses can get real value when departing employees are willing to share their truths — so long as the interviewers have the skill to learn more about both the departing employees and the conditions they worked under.

Conducting an Effective Exit Interview

Don’t ask the departing employee what would change their mind about leaving — unless you’re deeply committed to keeping them in the job, and you have the authority to deliver on whatever they request. And don’t just ask standard questions like why they’re leaving, why they took a new job, and what they liked and disliked about their job with your company; you may not uncover many insights that way.

Instead of “Why are you leaving?” try asking: “What made you decide to seek an opportunity with another organization?” This helps the employee not to become negative or defensive and lets them explain what they care about — not just what didn’t work for them. If they tell you they’re leaving for concrete reasons like “more money” or a “better title,” listen carefully beyond the answers. In particular, pay attention if they say they were seeking more growth, but didn’t find it. Why weren’t they able to grow? Were they not recognized sufficiently or not given enough learning experiences? Did their ideas go unheard? How much of the roadblock was their immediate boss, and how much was the organizational climate?

You can probe even more deeply with the following questions:

  • What makes the new opportunity/job/company better for you? Before you decided to look for a new job, did you actively investigate opportunities here, or the possibility of other changes that could have made it comfortable to stay? Listen for expectations of more engagement, excitement, advancement, and impact. What will they be able to do in the new job that they couldn’t have done with you?
  • Did you feel that you were getting support for your desired career trajectory? The answer to this question may help you learn about their experience of leadership styles and cultural norms, and whether their management is more geared toward the status quo than growth and change.
  • What did you like about the working environment in your department? What about when you were working cross-functionally with other groups? Listen for intra- and interdepartmental tensions, the strains or conflicts that can get in the way of someone doing their work or lead to the perception that they’re not able to have impact. If the only positive they give you is “I love the people,” it means that your firm’s structure or culture didn’t help them thrive or feel appreciated.
  • Did you get the feedback and direction you need to improve functional and technical skills? At higher levels, these skills should include such things as decision-making, collaboration, planning, strategizing, and execution. Listen for concerns or complaints about others’ competence, ability to collaborate, and loyalty.
  • Were you meeting your goals? Was goal-setting and accomplishment taken seriously by the departing employee, their leadership, the culture? Did they have a sense of autonomy? Was there clarity about their goals, and did their goals match back to the organization’s norms and purpose? Was there negativity about goals in their environment?
  • Was there a clear sense of direction? When there was conflict, was it about big things or small things?

There’s Always More

Be sure to leave enough time to ask: “What else do you want me to know?” — and listen carefully to the answer. Of course the import and impact of departing employees’ data will vary with their roles. Their individual views may or may not be consistent with what you hear from others. But the information they provide about both self and group perceptions can help you refocus as you work to improve your organization’s culture and strategy.