Hello Goodbye: Conducting Exit Interviews

You may -- or may not! -- miss someone when they're gone.

In either case, holding exit interviews with departing staff will provide the co-op with valuable information to improve operations. It also will give employees a sense of closure and, ideally, good will toward the co-op. Especially if you are experiencing high turnover, conducting structured interviews and summarizing the results could help you diagnose the reasons for the problem and take corrective action. Even if turnover is low, exit interviews give employees a chance to reflect and contribute.

Experts in the human resources field advise employers to interview all staff who leave. Voluntary departures offer the most potential for useful feedback. But interviews with employees terminated for poor performance could also prove valuable by uncovering legal issues that might come back to haunt the co-op (e.g., management failure to follow existing policies), and by giving the employee a chance to vent feelings and be heard. For those who have been laid off due to lack of work, the exit interview can clarify the fact that they have not been fired and spell out the conditions under which they might return to work. The only employees for whom an exit interview seems inappropriate are those who have been terminated for serious proven misconduct.

Experts also agree that the best timing of an exit interview is on a day or two before the employee's last day. Because their last day is often a time for goodbyes to co-workers, with perhaps a farewell party, departing people are usually too distracted to concentrate on discussing the job they are leaving. The exception to this advice, interestingly, is for the departing CEO to be interviewed by the board president two to four weeks after the last day on the job, giving her/him time to reflect.

The question of who should conduct the interviews is crucial to their effectiveness. The interviewer must be perceived as fair, objective, willing to listen, open to whatever the employee has to say. It is expecting too much for the employee's supervisor to fill this role. Even when relations between employee and supervisor are mutually trusting and respectful, it is likely that the employee will hold back in criticizing her/his training and supervision. And if the relationship is at all strained, you can't count on honest feedback from the employee or an unbiased summary from the supervisor.

Moreover, the same person should conduct all the exit interviews, both to develop skills through practice and to get an overview of the issues behind turnover. A skilled interviewer can build trust and elicit honest, thorough answers, while picking up on nuances, "reading between lines." In larger organizations, the personnel department conducts all exit interviews. If you have a person on staff who functions as a personnel administrator, s/he would be the logical choice. However, most small co-ops can't afford a personnel function separate from management. In that case, there are several options, depending on the size of the staff and skills available. The general manager could interview departing staff who don't report directly to her/him. Managers who don't supervise the employee could conduct the interview. Those who report directly to the general manager, and the general manager also, could be interviewed by the board president.

At the start, the interviewer should explain the purpose of the interview: to gain information to make improvements at the co-op. Stress that the employee's comments will not be broadcast to the staff or board. The main barrier to open, honest communication in an exit interview is the employee's fear of receiving negative job references if s/he says unflattering things about management. Yet the greatest value of exit interviews lies in the insights they give management on personnel practices and operations. In larger organizations with many employees turning over, a personnel department can generate statistical reports that show patterns of turnover, without revealing the identity of interviewees. In smaller organizations the source ofspecific comments relayed to management probably will be obvious. I have not encountered any small organizations conducting exit interviews that have found a solution to this problem, beyond trusting the discretion of the interviewer. At the very least, you could keep notes of exit interviews in one file separate from individual personnel files. And use great caution in giving out job references in any case. (See CG #25, Nov.-Dec. 1989, on handling references.)

A consistent format for interviews is important, especially if your co-op is not in a position to have one person conduct all the interviews. Interviewers should be provided with a written format to use as a guideline, with an appropriate sequence of questions As in hiring interviews, these questions should be open-ended, not simply answerable with "yes" or "no." Rather than starting with "Why are you leaving?," I suggest asking for comments on different aspects of the person's job and co-op operations, allowing her/him to gradually reveal reasons for leaving. By listening with full attention and respect, the interviewer creates an atmosphere where the employee can get in touch with the underlying causes for her/his departure (don't assume that everyone is consciously aware of the real reasons for her/his own actions) and feels safe enough to talk about them.

In a series of questions, ask the employee to evaluate the co-op in different areas: salary and benefits, hiring process, training, performance evaluations, opportunities for skill development and promotion, working conditions, communications between management and non-management stafi, communications between board and staff. Are there areas of operations for which s/he could suggest improvements? What are her/his perceptions of the co-op's strengths and weaknesses? What did s/he enjoy most about the job? From there the interviewer can move into questions such as: "What could we have done to keep you?" "How do you think your departure is affecting your co-workers?"

For the co-op to derive the greatest benefit from exit interviews, the information garnered from them must be summarized at regular intervals for management to read and respond to as needed. The summary should include: number of employees who left, the length of time they each worked at the co-op, reasons given for leaving, feedback on co-op personnel practices and specific comments for improvements. The interviewer must use good judgment in deciding what to include in the summary. Not every opinion of a departing employee needs to be addressed by management. The general manager and all supervisors would benefit by reading reports of exit interviews and discussing the reaons for turnover and the suggestions for personnel practices and operations in general.

Should exit interview reports be used as part of a manager's evaluation? If a board is concerned about high turnover in the co-op as a whole, or if the general manager notices a pattern of frequent turnover in a department, they could turn to exit interviews for additional information in the course of an evaluation. But the fact that employees leave is not in and of itself a bad thing, and the comments of departing employees should not be blown out of proportion in evaluating a manager. Exit interviews should not be used to punish managers but to give them added perspective in running the co-op.

See other articles from this issue: #029 July - August - 1990