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Exit interviews can be a headache for the departing employee and the HR team, but that’s likely because the discussion involves routine questions from a checklist rather than a constructive conversation with an end goal. The exit interview should be an opportunity for the employee to voice whatever is on his mind.

Aside from covering legalities, the exit conversation is an opportunity for the employer to show the employee that he was valued and to learn about how to improve the company. “There is nothing sadder than handing in your badge and computer and walking out the door unnoticed,” writes Barbara Milhizer, partner at human capital consultancy PeopleResults.

Many experts in the HR space don’t see the value of exit interviews, mainly because they haven’t thought about them strategically. The questions and answers from an employee who is leaving can help the company learn how to better keep current employees happy and productive. Unsatisfied employees present challenges that a majority of companies are facing — 85 percent of employees are either actively looking for a job or open to talking to recruiters about relevant opportunities, according to a recent LinkedIn survey.

How to Reframe the Conversation

The exit interview often starts with the question, “Why are you leaving?” Instead, the HR folks should be asking “What made you start looking for another job in the first place?” suggests Sharlyn Lauby, HR Bartender blogger and president of HR consulting firm ITM Group. Whether the response is salary, a long commute or the work-life balance, the employer can use that insight to reconsider the basis for the compensation or to introduce telecommuting.

When asking employees to speak honestly about their experience and why they’re leaving, be sure to remind them that their conversation is confidential and will help the company in the future. Karen Skillings, an HR manager at Munich Reinsurance America, told the Wall Street Journal that her company uses the information from these conversations as a data point by inputting information from exit interviews into a database to view trends. Then the company can identify the reason most employees are leaving, whether it’s compensation or a better offer from a competitor.

“All too often, exit-interview responses are simply filed away with the employee’s profile, to be used only if litigation looms later,” wrote David Hakala on HR World. “It is vital to track these answers, look for long-term trends and take action to correct mistakes or improve areas in which management excels.”

The main reasons that employees left their job or would be convinced to leave their current job are better compensation and benefits, better work-life balance, greater opportunities for advancement and better leadership from senior management, according to a LinkedIn survey.

4 Exit Interview Questions to Improve the Workplace

While it’s best for companies to foster an open, honest environment and continually check in with employees to see how they’re doing, often companies have the conversation about what didn’t work when it’s too late to retain the employee. 

During the exit conversation, here are four questions to ask, suggests Liz Kelly, CEO and founder of Brilliant Ink, an employee engagement consultancy:

  1. How did the job match your expectations? It’s important to know if the job is what the employee expected. If not, the HR team should rejigger how they market and talk about the position.
  2. Did you feel that the work you were doing aligned with your personal goals and interests? Employees should always feel like they’re developing new skills and working in an area that they’re passionate about. A majority — 70 percent —of employees feel disengaged, and when they’re disengaged, they’re more likely to leave. While the job tasks won’t change, HR can integrate questions about personal goals and hobbies into the hiring process.
  3. Did you have the tools and resources you needed to effectively do your job? Without the right training and resources in place, employees might not feel that they can effectively do their jobs, or worse they might feel that their work isn’t valued enough to get adequate support. This is something that HR can easily change, given adequate financial resources.
  4. Would you recommend this as a great place for a friend to work? This taps into the heart of the employee experience. Even if the company isn’t a good fit for one person, every company hopes that former employees continue to promote the company as a good place to work.

Aside from one-on-one conversations, the HR team can collect feedback from current and former employees by looking at online reviews, such as those on Glassdoor. They should keep documentation and, similarly to the exit conversations, this data can help show overall trends on what the company needs to improve.

Photo: Can Stock