Last reviewed 29 February 2016

Employees under notice are, perhaps surprisingly, of huge value to you. They are a mine of truly useful information, so grab them while you can and start digging says Bob Patchett.

You are likely to unearth a load of dross, but among it you may well find some valuable nuggets of information that may help you to increase the effectiveness of your organisation, and certainly improve your employee relations. You achieve this by carrying out well structured and well conducted exit interviews with every employee who leaves.

Do not be put off by the probably valid expectation that a poor employee will feed you only with complaints. This may indeed be what you get; nevertheless they will be the perception of one person and may contain an element of something that is bothering other employees. Regardless of your view of this outgoing employee, treat him or her with respect and listen carefully, as this may affect the comments he or she makes about your organisation to outsiders. Good employees of course may be far more co-operative and positive if you give them opportunity to be so. However, too often, good people, especially ones you believe you have looked after well, are treated as ingrates and betrayers when they give notice to leave. Put this aside, express appropriate disappointment that they are leaving you and invite them to give their reasons. Be aware that some of their reasons may have nothing to do with negative feelings about your organisation but rather their wish to gain more experience or to gain a promotion that you are unlikely to be able to offer for some while, in which case signal clearly your understanding of their decision and, as appropriate, congratulate them. Handle this conversation well and you will maximise the chance that they will return to you in the future having acquired useful experiences and greater skills. The comments these people make about their time in your organisation are more likely to be fair and objective, so listen carefully.

If you decide to carry out exit interviews, a first consideration is who is best suited to conduct them. The line manager knows the outgoing employee probably better than anyone, but the employee may not be prepared to criticise the manager who, in turn, is unlikely to record scathing comments about him or herself. A personnel officer should be able to do the job well, as he or she will be relatively objective and should have the ability to tease the truth out from vague phrases. However, what is important is that the person carrying out the interview is trained in interviewing techniques and is respected. The interview should be conducted in a private room such that nobody other than the employee can perceive what is happening. Again, an office in the HR department would be ideal as an outgoing employee might have several reasons for being there. Give the employee plenty of notice of the meeting, make its purpose clear, and suggest that he or she makes a few notes beforehand so that the meeting might have some structure and so that information the employee feels relevant is not overlooked. Make clear that the employee’s name will not be shown on the notes you make and that the information you record will be kept confidential and will be used as part of a collection of general comments that will help to identify problem areas in the organisation so that necessary improvements might be made.

Before going into the interview, consider what you would like the employees to tell you about the organisation. For example, ask how well they feel you and your colleagues manage your employees. How well do they feel they were treated during the recruitment process. Did they feel welcomed? Were they properly inducted into their department and job, told about their role in the organisation and given help in settling down? Was the induction and job training carried out thoroughly and was their early performance monitored effectively? Do they feel that they have been treated fairly, and if not, what was wrong? How do they rate the way the organisation keeps its employees informed?

As far as possible, make your questions open-ended so that they invite comment rather than single-word answers. Prepare a few general questions such as “If you could make one improvement to the workplace or to the team, what would that be?”; “How do you feel we could improve the way we communicate with each other?”; or “What do you like best and least about the organisation?”. Ideally, make notes as you go along but, if you need to record more than a few words, ask the employee to pause while you write. Keep good eye contact, nod regularly and voice a few “mms” to show that you are truly listening. Do not keep thinking of explanations or responses to what the employee may be saying but rather try throughout to imagine how the employee feels. The facts, the misconceptions the employee may voice, are not important; what is critical for you to understand is how the employee feels, because that feeling is likely to be shared by other people. If the employee criticises a manager, do not rush to defend but instead ask for examples of what happened and how the employee felt about them. If, however, the employee clearly is using the interview to slag off members of staff, try to bring the conversation around to positive comments but, if that fails to work, you had best terminate the session.

When you feel that the interview has come to an end, summarise what the employee has said. This ensures that you have fully understood what he or she has said — even if you disagree with it — and also indicates clearly that you have been truly listening. Finally, thank the employee for his or her contribution. You may feel it unwise to promise to do anything, but do assure the employee that you will give his or her comments careful thought with a view to improving the organisation and particularly how employees will be treated.

Take great care with your use of the results of the interview. You may pick up some points that require immediate attention, if not action, but the greatest value of exit interviews is to throw up a pattern of problem areas. For this reason, you should not give anyone sight of your notes, as any comments will be viewed negatively as subversive or sour grapes. If you have enough exit interview notes you may circulate a summary to management staff to make them think, but the greatest value really comes from tabling ideas at management meetings “based to some extent on the comments made by leavers” designed to improve performance and people management. This may call for adjustments to the work environment, training courses or mentoring of individual managers.

Exit interviews, well structured, conducted and analysed, can, with little time and effort, provide you with valuable information about employees’ views that will enable you to fine tune your organisation for better performance and the better use of your workforce.