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exit interviews

exit interviews and knowledge transfer - tips for employees and employers, sample questions and answers

Exit interviews are interviews conducted with departing employees, just before they leave. From the employer's perspective, the primary aim of the exit interview is to learn reasons for the person's departure, on the basis that criticism is a helpful driver for organizational improvement. Exit interviews (and prior) are also an opportunity for the organization to enable transfer of knowledge and experience from the departing employee to a successor or replacement, or even to brief a team on current projects, issues and contacts. Good exit interviews should also yield useful information about the employer organization, to assess and improve all aspects of the working environment, culture, processes and systems, management and development, etc.; in fact anything that determines the quality of the organization, both in terms of its relationship with its staff, customers, suppliers, third-parties and the general public. Many employers ignore the opportunity that exit interviews offer, chiefly because exit interviews have not been practised in the past, and starting them is a difficult initiative to undertake, given the potentially subjective and 'fuzzy' nature of the results; the time involved; and the unspoken corporate urge to avoid exposure to criticism. Exit interviews are nevertheless a unique chance to survey and analyse the opinions of departing employees, who generally are more forthcoming, constructive and objective than staff still in their jobs. In leaving an organisation, departing employees are liberated, and as such provide a richer source of objective feedback than employed staff do when responding to normal staff attitude surveys.

As ever, corporate insecurity and defensiveness can be an obstacle to implementing exit interview processes, so if the organization finds it difficult to begin the practice as a matter of general policy, you can still undertake your own exit interviews locally with your own staff as and when they leave.

From the departing employee interviewee perspective, an exit interview is a chance to give some constructive feedback, and to leave on a positive note, with good relations and mutual respect. Recrimination, blame, revenge and spite are destructive feelings and behaviours, so resist any temptation you might have to go out all guns blazing. Be calm, fair, objective and as helpful as possible. In the future you may wish to return to the organization (situations and people change..), and you may cross the paths of your ex-colleagues, managers in the future. The adage about treating people well on your way up because you might meet them on the way down applies just as well on your way out. The exit interview is an opportunity to shake hands and leave friends, not enemies.

On which point...

 

 

exit interviews and knowledge transfer

The days, weeks (or months in some cases) between the decision for the employee to leave, and the employee's actual departure date offer a crucial opportunity for the organization to gather important information and knowledge from the employee. This is especially relevant in roles where the employee has accumulated a significant amount of knowledge and personal connections, as typically applies in sales and buying roles, and obviously business unit management. The knowledge of the departing employee commonly has immense value, and the recovery of it is often overlooked altogether by the organization, until the employee has departed, or more likely been hurried out of the door holding the contents of their desk in a cardboard box.

When any employee resigns, or a decision is made for a person to leave for any reason, always ask: Should we spend some time thinking about how to enable some sort of knowledge transfer? In other words, if we place a value on the knowledge that the departing employee holds, isn't it worth thinking about how to enable this knowledge to be passed to the appropriate people remaining in the organization?

Instead of course all too often, senior management's response to all the head-scratching after a vital person has left, is to rationalise the loss of information (and vital personal contacts often) with the old cliché, "No-one is indispensable". The adage might ultimately be true, but that's not really the point. The fact is that most people who leave do actually possess useful (often critical) knowledge and experience. Moreover most departing employees are delighted to share this knowledge, to help a successor, or to brief a management team, if only the organization would simply ask them politely to do so (assuming their exit is handled decently of course, which the exit interview helps to enable).

This is another good reason for thinking properly about the exit procedure, and for properly organising some form of exit interview process.

So much depends of course on the atmosphere surrounding the departure. Often, particularly in sales, there is suspicion and imagined threat on both sides, which rather weakens the chances of a helpful hand-over. This mistrust should be diffused - it really does nobody any good. In an ideal world the leaver should be encouraged and enabled (and arguably rewarded if necessary) to hold a briefing meeting, which all interested parties (and certainly the person's replacement if possible) can attend and learn what they need to know. Regrettably however, it is not unusual for traditional-type 'theory-X' sales directors and managers to be so intoxicated with testosterone and the taste of blood that such suggestions rarely make it off the stony ground of the board-room. I would urge you to take a more open constructive view. Give people the benefit of doubt, and discourage the kill'em and eat'em advocates from retaliating before there's any suggestion of being attacked. There are some suggested enabling questions below.

For organizations large and small, exit interviews therefore provide lots of advantages and opportunities:

 

 

exit interviews aims and outcomes

Exit interviews are best conducted face-to-face because this enables better communication, understanding, interpretation etc., and it provides far better opportunity to probe and get to the root of sensitive or reluctant feelings. However, postal or electronic questionnaires are better than nothing, if face-to-face exit interviews are not possible for whatever reason (although I remain to be convinced that there is never a proper excuse for not sitting down for 30 minutes with any departing employee.....)

In some cases perhaps a particularly shy employee may prefer to give their feedback in a questionnaire form, in which case this is fine, but where possible, face-to-face is best.

In terms of managing the interview, listen rather than talk. Give the interviewee time and space to answer. Coax and reassure where appropriate, rather than pressurise. Interpret, reflect and understand (you can understand someone without necessarily agreeing). Keep calm, resist the urge to defend or argue - your aim is to elicit views, feedback, answers, not to lecture or admonish. Ask open 'what/how/why' questions, not 'closed' yes/no questions, unless you require specific confirmation about a point. 'When' and 'where' are also more specific qualifying questions, unless of course they are used in a general context rather than specific time or geographic sense. 'Who' should be used with care to avoid witch-hunts or defamatory risks (moreover many exit interviewees will be uncomfortable if asked to name people or allocate personal blame - exit interviews are not about 'blame', the allocation of which is not constructive and should be avoided for anything other than very serious complaints or accusations, which must then be suitably referred as follow-up would be beyond the normal exit interview remit.

Prepare your exit interview questions and topics that you'd like to explore, especially when you believe that the interviewee has good experience, appreciation and understanding.

Take notes and/or use a prepared questionnaire form.

Importantly, see also the job interviews page for interviews techniques, which relate to exit interviews too. Remember simple planning aspects such as arranging a suitable time and place, avoiding interruptions, taking notes, preparing questions, being aware of the body-language and feelings of the interviewee and adjusting your own approach accordingly, etc.

Obviously the style of exit interview is different for someone who is being asked to leave, retiring, being made redundant, dismissed, or leaving under a cloud, compared to an employee leaving whom the organization would prefer to retain. However everyone who leaves should be given the opportunity of an exit interview, and the organization can learn something from every situation. In certain situations (where appropriate) the exit interview also provides a last chance to change a person's mind, although this should not be the main aim of the exit interview situation.

When the interview is complete say thanks and wish the interviewee well. If there is some specific checking or follow-up to do then ensure you do it and report back accordingly.

After the interview look at the answers and think properly - detached and objective - about what their meaning and implications.

Take action as necessary, depending on your processes for analysing and reporting exit interview feedback. If there's an urgent issue, or the person wants to stay and you want to keep them, then act immediately or the opportunity will be lost.

 

 

exit interviews - responsibilities, process and outcomes

Participation in exit interviews by the employee leaving is voluntary. Do not compel departing employees to attend exit interviews. Offer a questionnaire form alternative, which again must be voluntary.

You cannot compel a departing employee to give you knowledge that is in their head, although the return of files, paperwork and material is normally something that an employer rightfully can insist happens. In any event, a positive constructive, grown-up approach is the best assurance of a happy outcome and an optimal transfer of knowledge and contact names, etc., should this be helpful, which often it will be.

If you hear any of your people using the ridiculously confrontational maxim " No-one is indispensable..", as a defence for not bothering to gather important knowledge from a departing employee it probably suggests that all opportunities for a cooperative hand-over have yet to be explored, so encourage people to explore them, or go explore them yourself.

Ideally the organization should have a documented policy stating how exit interviews happen, when, and by whom. Some organizations hand the responsibility to a skilled interviewer in the HR or Personnel department. Alternatively line-managers or even supervisors can conduct the interviews. Interviewers need to be trained to interview, just as for normal job interviews. All types of interviews are sensitive emotional situations which require ability and maturity to manage properly, especially if interviewees are anxious or volatile.

In large organizations HR or Personnel department should be responsible for designing the process, issuing guidelines and documentation, collecting results data, analysing and reporting findings, trends, opportunities and recommendations, especially including anything relating to health and safety, or employment law and liability.

If you design a questionnaire or exit interview form which will be used as an input document towards central analysis it is a good idea to convert questions wherever practicable into a 'scoreable' and/or multiple-choice format, which makes analysis far easier than lots of written opinions.

Actions resulting from exit interview feedback analysis, in any size or type of organization, fall into two categories:

The head of HR or Personnel would normally be responsible for raising these issues with the board or CEO, and the conversion of exit interview feedback into action is a critical factor in justifying and maintaining a serious priority and operation of the process.

For many organizations, exit interviews provide a major untapped source of 'high-yield' development ideas and opportunities. Use them.

 

 

sample exit interview questions

These questions can be used in face-to-face exit interviews, or to compile exit interview proforma questionnaires or electronic feedback forms.

If using these questions to compile forms to be used for large scale analysis take care to format the questions into a format which can be analysed numerically, as far as is reasonable (certain questions and answers will always be difficult to format in this way, for example the 'how do you feel about...?' and open-ended questions seeking ideas and suggestions - such questions and can only be analysed and reported 'by exception' when something of particular note crops up, or of a particular recurring theme is spotted).

In face-to-face interviews particularly, use the word 'why' if you want to probe, especially if the first answer is vague or superficial. Questions beginning with 'what' and 'how' are better for getting people to think and convey to you properly and honestly about their views. Some of these questions samples are more suitable for management employees, although always give people at all levels the chance to comment on issues normally 'above' their remit - you'll be surprised at how informed and insightful people can be. These questions examples are not in a sequential process, although broadly there is a logic to the order of the types of questions. There are lots more questions here than you would normally ask in a typical exit interview. Pick the questions that are most relevant to the leaving circumstances, the interviewee and your organization situation.

And, to address opportunities for knowledge-transfer prior to departure, possibly in advance of exit interview:

knowledge transfer questions

Start thinking about using these questions when the employee and the organization knows that the employee will be leaving. Don't leave these questions until the exit interview.

 

 

As ever, you will derive most for the organization, and be able to give most help to the departing employee, by being positive, constructive, understanding and helpful, prior to and during the exit interview process. Treat people with integrity and decency, and generally they will respond in kind.



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