Conducting An Exit Interview

Written By: Reid
Jun 01, 2002

When an employee gives his two week notice to leave a company, the typical response centers around how to find a replacement for that person. What is often overlooked is that the departing employee represents a potential wealth of information in such areas as violations of company policy, theft, sexual harassment, and employee drug use. The reason this employee is a valuable source of information is because he probably has direct or indirect knowledge of wrong-doings within his department and will often reveal this information because there is no fear of being terminated or disciplined by the employer.

One of the keys to a successful exit interview is to introduce the interview in a manner that encourages truthfulness. The employee should be allowed to feel comfortable revealing misconduct by others and should be made to feel important by providing his input to corporate decisions. The following introduction accomplishes these two goals:

"Jim, something we have learned over the years is that to really find out what's happening in a particular division of the company, we need to talk to the people who work there. You've worked in (shipping and receiving) for almost five years and have done an outstanding job. I would like to spend a little time this afternoon reviewing your observations and experiences with (Company). I know that we are not perfect and that sometimes things happen within the workplace that shouldn't happen. For some time now we have talked to employees who have decided to leave the company in an effort to learn how we can improve our organization. The information they have provided has been very helpful in making corporate decisions.

There are a couple of important things to keep in mind during our discussion. The first is that none of the information you tell me will be released to your co-workers. So this information is confidential in that regard. Second, much of what you tell me today I've probably already heard from other employees that I've talked to, but I certainly would appreciate your candor and input. When a group of employees work in the same area around the same people they oftentimes tend to observe the same thing. But I am asking you to share all of your observations with me, even if you think I am already aware of the situation, because your perspective on things in very important to me."

Following this introductory statement, the interviewer should ask some background questions. One reason for this is to allow the employee to feel comfortable talking about their job experience, but in addition, this information will help target areas to be addressed later during the interview. It would not be appropriate at the outset of the interview to ask the employee why he or she is leaving the job as this question immediately puts the departing employee in a defensive position. Possible introductory questions would be:

How did you originally come to work for (Company)
What positions have you worked within the company (how long, which locations)
What shifts have you worked?
Who have your supervisors been?
The interviewer will then want to cover specific topical areas with the departing employee. The sequence of these topics should go from less serious to more serious behaviors. The reason for this is that most employees will make admissions to less serious misconduct and by the time the more serious issues are raised the employee has already established a pattern of sharing sensitive information. This makes admissions to the more serious areas much easier to make. As an example, the following sequence of topical areas might be discussed with the employee:

Violating company policies
Safety violations
Sexual harassment
Work related drug use
Each topical area should be introduced with a short statement to encourage admissions. After the area is introduced, the interviewer should ask a series of principal questions that address specific behaviors. If the departing employee makes an admission to the principal question, appropriate follow-up questions should be asked. The following is a possible introduction for violation of company policies, along with principal and follow-up questions. Notice that all of the principal questions are phrased in the past tense. This is to reinforce, in the employee's mind, that he soon will be an ex-employee and cannot suffer consequences for admissions.

"Jim the first area I would like to discuss with you concerns not following company rules. Now everyone bends rules on occasion and we expect that. What we would like to identify are problem areas where major rules are violated on a regular basis."

"What percent of employees in your work area showed up more than 15 minutes late to work at least once a week?"
(If there are time cards) "Do you know if someone else punches their time card for them?"
"Did any of your managers or supervisors report to work more than 15 minutes late at least once a week?"
"Were any of your co-workers disciplined or talked to about their tardiness?"
"How were they disciplined?"
"What percent of employees came back from lunch more than 15 minutes late?" "Is it usually the same ones or does it vary?"
"What percent of employees in your work area left work more than 15 minutes early at least once a week?"
"Are you aware of employees who called in sick, when in fact, they were not sick?"
"Was this common for everyone, or did some people do it much more than others?"
"How often did employees in your area use the company phone for personal calls?"
"Are there one or two people who tended to do this more than the others?"
"Have employees in your area used a company vehicle for personal errands?"
"Do you know what personal errand this employee did?"
"Have you seen employees intentionally damage merchandise in the shipping and receiving area?"
"What was damaged?"; "How was it damaged?"
"Has a supervisor ever told you to keep something secret?"
"What did he or she ask you to keep secret?"

As these principal questions reflect, the departing employee's answers will generally indicate whether or not there is a potential problem within a particular area. The follow-up questions should establish the extent of the problem but not request the names of employees responsible. We have found that a departing employee will continue to divulge meaningful observations as long as specific names of co-workers are not elicited. On the other hand, if the interviewer presses for a specific name (or too many details) after the first admission is made, the departing employee will be reluctant to volunteer further information. Therefore, it is our recommendation to go through all of the topical areas in a general sense before attempting to elicit specific names.

Consider that a departing employee has acknowledged, during his exit interview, that he is aware of two employees who smoke marijuana during breaks, an employee who intentionally damaged company property and an employee he suspects of theft. To elicit the names of these employees, the interviewer might say something like:

"Jim, you've been really helpful this afternoon and I appreciate your honesty. Much of what you've told me has either been suspected or mentioned by others. I would like to discuss these employees in a bit more detail with you. As I told you earlier, anything you tell me today will not get back to co-workers. In fact, I've probably already heard their names before but I want to make sure we are talking about the same people."

"Who is it that you suspect has taken merchandise from the warehouse without permission?"
"Why do you suspect (Name)?"
"Do you think anyone is helping him do this?"
"What merchandise do you suspect him of taking?"
"How do you think he is getting it out of the warehouse?"
"Who intentionally damaged the lamp shipment that you told me about?"
"What other company property have you seen him damage?"
"Has he made any verbal threats to co-workers?"
"Are you aware of any violent behavior he has engaged in outside of the job?"
"Who is using marijuana during breaks?"
"How do you know this?"
"Who else do you think is aware of this?"
"Do you know if they are selling any drugs from the company?"

The purpose for the exit interview is to elicit, in an efficient manner, relevant work related information an employee may possess. While opinion questions such as, "How did you like working for (Company)?" or "What changes could you suggest to improve our company?" may be appropriate as ice-breakers for the interview, what needs to be developed is factual information the employee has seen, heard or was told. By developing factual information a disgruntled employee, who is motivated to offer negative opinions about co-workers or supervisors, is much easier to detect because of the lack of specific observations to support any derogatory remarks.

The information learned through an exit interview may be used in a number of ways. It could serve as the impetus for an internal investigation or heightened security. It might indicate the need to counsel a manager or supervisor on enforcement of company policies or treatment of employees. In an opposite situation where the exit interview indicates good compliance with company policies and favorable rapport with management, the manager should be awarded with positive feedback.

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