A Case for Conducting Exit Interviews

For associations concerned with retaining talent—and which association isn’t?—a successful exit interview can give you the knowledge you need to make talent-saving tweaks to your business operations or management styles. Plus, some tips for making the most out of them.

Is an exit interview worthwhile? After all, an outgoing employee already creates a lengthy to-do list for various people in an organization—including distributing work to other members of the team, advertising for his or her replacement, and closing out payroll and benefits, among others. But a 2016 Harvard Business Review article and a conversation with Zell Murphy, SVP of finance and administration at the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing (CTAM), convinced me that exit interviews are very worthwhile, even if they add another task to the list.

Why? HBR says it better than I can: “In today’s knowledge economy, skilled employees are the asset that drives organizational success. Thus companies must learn from them—why they stay, why they leave, and how the organization needs to change.”

And exit interviews are a great way to gather some of this information. “If you start hearing consistent concerns about something that the organization might not be doing or may be doing that is somehow causing folks to want to look elsewhere, and that’s something that’s within the organization’s control to correct, you want to know that,” Murphy said.

After all, knowing the concern is the first step to addressing it—and hopefully keeping more of your employees from jumping ship. To that end, here are a few rules for conducting profitable exit interviews.

Let HR professionals handle the exit interviews. According to a recent HBR survey of 188 executives, about 70 percent of respondents said their HR departments handle exit interviews, while 19 percent said that an outgoing employee’s direct supervisor conduct them. But Murphy advises against the latter. “The employee may not open up or may feel intimidated in speaking with the direct supervisor,” Murphy said. “Some of the questions are asking about the supervisor. It’s important that the employee be as open and honest as possible during the exit interview, because it’s not doing anyone any good if the employee holds back.”

Conduct exit interviews face-to-face. If you want candid responses to your questions, you’ll want to perform the exit interview in person, as opposed to over the phone or via email. “It’s not as spontaneous or honest as you might get when someone is sitting across the desk from you and having a casual conversation,” Murphy said.

Inspire real responses with transparency. This comes down to trust, Murphy said, and this has to be established long before the exit interview occurs. Still, even in the exit interview, it’s important to stress the value of an employee’s thoughts and experiences and how they will contribute to the future wellbeing of the organization. It’s also important to be transparent with them. “When I begin the exit interview, I actually say to them, ‘I plan to share these comments with your supervisor,’” he said.

Make sure the timing is right. At CTAM, Murphy gives an outgoing employee the exit interview questions in advance of the actual interview, so that he or she can start formulating responses. Next, he’ll sit down with an employee a couple of days before his or her last day, and they’ll chat through the questions. He will then type up the responses and send them back to the employee for review. Then, after the employee has left the organization, Murphy will forward the exit interview responses to both the direct supervisor and the CEO.

Analyze and act if necessary. If the end goal is retaining and engaging talented employees, then organizations better be willing to analyze their exit interviews—and make organizational or personnel tweaks if necessary. At CTAM, the majority of employees who have resigned have done so for reasons outside of CTAM’s control and not due to any negative experience they have had. But if there is a recurring issue in multiple exit interviews, it’s important that the senior staff talk about that and address it. “Because if the problem is serious enough and no changes are made, the other staff—they’re going to see that, and they’re going to know that the company didn’t address it,” Murphy said. And that lack of action will likely create more employee turnover and less employee engagement.

What tips have you found helpful in the exit-interview process? Please share in the comments.


Emily Bratcher

By Emily Bratcher

Emily Bratcher is a Contributing Editor for Associations Now. MORE

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