The exit interview may be your middle market company's most effective tool for retaining talent. Insights gained from exit interviews can help you keep the people you already have by allowing you to identify workplace problems before they balloon into a turnover crisis.

Conducting an Effective Exit Interview

A departing employee is leaving your middle market company for a reason, which may include a better position elsewhere or disappointment with a manager, compensation or workload. No matter the reason, the goal of any exit interview should be to discover problems and keep them from affecting the rest of your workforce.

How to Conduct an Exit Interview

Here are four tips for approaching exit interviews the right way:

1. Have an HR person facilitate the interview. The departing employee's manager or department head is not an appropriate choice for this crucial meeting. The tone of the interview needs to be professional, nonjudgmental and solution-oriented, and employees are less likely to be candid with their managers out of fear of burning bridges. Ensure the interview is private and ask your HR person to be open. Let the departing employee know you're trying to retain people and that any feedback offered during the interview will be used proactively to improve the workplace experience for their soon-to-be-former colleagues.

2. Explain that feedback will be kept confidential. The interviewer should begin by asking about the employee's general experience with the company, then move on to more specific areas like compensation, relationship with managers and opportunities for advancement. Think of the employee as a consultant who can offer valuable, actionable information to your middle market company. Of course, the employee can choose to remain silent, but the goal of the interviewer should be to foster an open and frank discussion. You should not share specific details or the exiting employee's statements with their manager.

3. Keep in mind the usual suspects that drive employee turnover. These include a lack of recognition, poor management, conflicts with colleagues, lack of opportunities for promotion or development and a dissatisfaction with compensation. Be prepared to explore all of these possible reasons for the employee's departure. Common patterns over multiple exit interviews represent the drivers of turnover that you'll need to fix quickly. Explain these to your middle market company's leadership and make a plan to address them.

4. Ask good questions, and then listen without judgment. Don't give in to the temptation to defend the company or argue with the employee, but seek out further information by following up on their pain points. Focus on questioning and listening. Remember, the goal is not to talk the employee out of departing, but to collect information that could be useful in retaining your other talent.

You might also consider asking the employee to fill out a survey before the meeting, then going through their responses together when you meet. That way, they will know what to expect and will have more time to consider what they want to say.

Here are some questions you should ask, whether in person or via a survey:

  • What made you to decide to leave the company?
  • Before deciding to leave, did you share your concerns with your manager or anyone else inside the company? If so, what response did you receive?
  • How would you describe your working relationship with your manager and colleagues?
  • What did you like the most about your job, and what did you like the least?
  • Do you feel you had enough resources and support to effectively do your job?
  • Do you feel you were compensated fairly?
  • What does your new company offer that encouraged you to leave your job here?
  • When you were hired here, were you given a clear understanding of what the job required? Did your supervisor/manager provide expectations and offer regular feedback when those expectations were or were not met?
  • Can you offer any other feedback that would help our company become a better place to work?

While it's difficult to lose even one member of your middle market company, do take advantage of exit interviews as valuable opportunities to learn. By following the tips listed above, you'll approach exit interviews the right way. Knowing why someone is leaving today may be the best way to prevent an exodus of talent tomorrow.

What are the problems your employees pointed to when leaving your middle market company? What measures did you take to fix them?

Boston-based Chuck Leddy is an NCMM contributor and a freelance reporter who contributes regularly to The Boston Globe and Harvard Gazette. He also trains Fortune 500 executives in business-communication skills as an instructor for EF Education.