• Clare Burlingham

The exit interview – process or catalyst?

One of our mantras at New Beginnings, is that we are passionate about putting the “human” back into human resources. We don’t say this to pass judgement or to be critical, but rather to emphasise the reason why HR partners choose their profession in the first place. Namely, because they want to help people.


The demands on HR, like any other function or department, have grown over time, and today are much about process, data and measurement. These aspects are of course important, but it is all too easy for process and procedure to take over, leaving little time for extracting real value from the process and implementing real change.


An example of this is the exit interview. Now a commonplace feature of many organisations, the exit interview is carried out with departing employees, just before they leave. The primary purpose of the interview is for the business to learn the reasons for departure, on the basis that any constructive criticism can be used as a helpful driver for organisational improvement.


Conducted well, they allow the employee, in a trusted environment, to be honest about any aspect of their experience of the organisation. Be it the working environment, the culture, process and systems, professional development and management. Depending on the nature of the business, it should also include discussion about relationships with suppliers, customers and third-parties.


In many ways it is a unique opportunity that may yield richer and more detailed, objective feedback than can be achieved from employed staff responding to a normal employee opinion survey.


I wonder however, what are your personal experiences of the exit interview? I would suggest that frequently they are little more than a tick-box exercise. By including them as part of the employee departure process, the business believes that they are sending out a sign of a positive culture. They show that the business is caring and interested in their employees and is open to criticism. But unless they extract truly useful information, and then go on to use that data to instigate real change, I would argue they are pointless.


So how to ensure exit interviews are not only carried out well, but also utilised to their maximum benefit?


An article in the Harvard Business Review from 2016 highlighted the importance of an effective exit interview programme, particularly in the knowledge economy. They concluded that done well, it can promote employee engagement and enhance retention, as well as allowing for a range of improvements to be made throughout the business.


Firstly, in terms of process, they recommend including a face-to-face interview with a second or third line manager. This can be combined with a questionnaire, and/or a survey but they argue the most useful information is generally gleaned from a meeting. Secondly, they suggest that the interview is “semi-structured”. This allows for unexpected insights to emerge which can yield highly relevant findings.


In summary, they identify six main goals:

  1. To uncover any issues relating to HR e.g. salary, benefits, succession planning and talent management

  2. To understand employees’ perceptions of the work itself e.g. job design, working conditions, culture, peers

  3. To gain insight into management leaderships styles and effectiveness

  4. To learn about HR benchmarks from competitors e.g. salary, benefits

  5. To foster innovation by seeking ideas

  6. To create lifelong advocates of the company

This final point echoes the opening of this article about “human” resources. Treating employees with respect and gratitude as they move on to pastures new sends a powerful message about the company’s culture. Whatever the reasons for departure, building a positive relationship that will last long-term should always be the aim.


An advocate will take with them the bricks to build the bridges of the future – future employees, future customers, future alliances.


The exit interview – never just a process, always a catalyst.