Powerful and Positive Exit Interviews

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When I left the company I had worked at since I was 16 years old I was asked to complete an exit interview. In talking with colleagues, I was advised to be careful in how I responded to the survey – I didn’t want to burn bridges in case I ever wanted to come back.

As I recall, the questions were pretty standard –

“Why are you leaving the company?

“What suggestions do you have to improve the company?

“Rate your supervisor on a scale of 1 to 10

In fact, most exit interviews follow a similar vein. The objective is to capture feedback from the exiting employee to potentially help the company make changes that will prevent others from leaving.

The fact that most organizations don’t really take exit interviews seriously, and don’t have a solid process to evaluate feedback and incorporate it into process improvement is concerning. In fact, a recent HBR article reports that “two-thirds of existing programs appear to be mostly talk with little productive follow-up.”

And part of problem is that we’re asking the wrong questions.

In the Appreciative Inquiry (AI) methodology, asking positive, powerful questions helps organizations discover strengths and uncover what the organization wants to see more of. The questions we ask move us in a certain direction. While it’s important to find out why someone has decided to leave and evaluate whether their feedback can help improve practices (like benefits, communication, career paths, etc.), I suggest that we start by considering more valuable questions.

The following questions are designed to lead us toward a more appreciative exit interview:

1.    Why did you start looking for a new job?

2.    What is a highlight of your experience with us?

3.    Thinking back to when you joined the company, what was it that got you to accept the offer?

4.    Have you accomplished what you had hoped to in your role?

5.    What opportunities do you see in the role you’re leaving?

6.    What skills and experience should we look for in your replacement?

7.    Tell me about the leadership and management experiences at this company. When did you feel you were being managed well? What experiences or interactions could have been improved?

8.    Describe the support you received here from your manager and others. Were you provided opportunities for learning and professional growth?

9.    Explain what it’s like to work at this company to someone considering a job offer here.

10. How do you compare our compensation and benefits package to the one you’ve accepted at your new company?

These questions will elicit more thoughtful and useful responses from exiting employees. The qualitative feedback may be harder to put into a pie chart, but provides valuable insights that can lead to positive change.

The HBR article mentioned earlier recommended moving execution of the exit interview process out of human resources into the front lines, which is more likely to lead to change. In addition, it’s recommended that a post-departure interview be conducted through a third-party (objective) consultant – which will lead to more honest answers.

Exit interviews should feel like a conversation, and the appreciative questions are intended to bring a sense of humanity to the process. Handing (or emailing) a 20-question survey to a departing employee, with static formality, is impersonal and disengaging. Face-to-face interviews with a direct manager (or one up), conducted in a conversational tone, expresses genuine interest in the exiting employee’s opinions and experiences.

To set the right tone, consider meeting away from the work area – such as in a cafeteria. A casual seating area is best, but definitely avoid sitting behind a desk. Know the questions well so you can easily navigate through them without it feeling like an interrogation.

As responses are collected, leaders need to process the feedback and seriously consider how to make positive change happen. While one exiting employee’s experiences may not be representative of the entire department or organization, they warrant some reflection and perhaps some specific observation, or additional feedback, of others in the organization.