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Here’s how to get good stuff about the office during an exit interview

An exit interview should bring to light far more than what is good and bad about the office. It should give insight into what’s really going on and produce ideas for making improvements.

There’s an art to exit interviewing. It’s a matter of getting the staffer to talk and asking the questions that will keep them talking.

A smile at the start

Start by setting a positive atmosphere to quell the fear most employees have that any interview will be negative. It’s only in a positive atmosphere that a staffer will speak candidly.

Open with a compliment of, “You’ve been an asset to the office and everybody is sorry to see you leave.” Point to the staffer’s accomplishments. Perhaps the person was a team player or always picked up the slack when other staffers were out.

A lot of people don’t think the boss knows what they’ve accomplished. Mentioning the contributions shows the staffer is appreciated.

From there, move smoothly into the questions by saying that the experience has given the staffer valuable information that can help the office improve its operations. Ask for honest answers and emphasize that what’s said won’t be made public.

Let the staffer shine

Now for the questions. To keep the positives flowing, start with questions that let the employee shine:

  • What have you done that you are most proud of?
  • What have you liked about working here?
  • What have you most liked about your boss?
  • What do you think we are doing right?

Those questions show the manager values the staffer’s opinion and that makes it easy to shift to the more telling questions:

What have you not liked about working here?

There may be hidden issues that are affecting the other staff and can be easily corrected such as, “I could have used a little more privacy,” or, “Nobody ever showed me how to use the XYZ software program.”

What could we have done to make your job easier? More rewarding?

This will identify subtleties that need to be changed regarding the job setup or the workflow. For example, “I did all this work but I had to hand it over to someone else to finish and I never got credit for it.”

What perks could we offer to make the job more enjoyable?

Find out the reason for each one. Ask, “What makes you say that?” and, “What would be the result if we did that?”

Do you feel you were valued as an employee?

If the answer is no, respond with humanity: “I’m sorry because you are valued. What did we not do? This is very important to me.” Admitting to being human and making mistakes is a demonstration of strength.

What can I do to be a better leader?

Pay close attention here and don’t get on the defensive. The staffer could have some insight such as, “You never say good morning to anybody” that will make a significant difference to the other staff.

Ask whatever other questions will help the office such as these:

How can we improve our training? Our patient service?

Do you feel you were paid adequately?

Why are you leaving?

Now for the clincher

End with a clincher:

Give me three suggestions on how we can improve.

Why three? Because the first one is not going to be what’s really on the staffer’s mind. People tend to start off with obvious and acceptable things such as, “It would be great if those of us with young children could come in at 7 a.m. and leave at 3 p.m. to be home when our kids get in from school.”

So don’t expect to get much information from that first item. Instead, encourage the staffer to continue and do that by expressing appreciation and asking for more information about it: “How could we work that out?”

And now for the truth

Seeing the first suggestion well received, the staffer gets confident about making suggestions that may not be as easy to bring up. Move on to the others: “What is your second suggestion?”

Here comes the truth. And it may not be pleasant. It may be something such as “Doctor A doesn’t get in till late in the morning and then demands that everybody stay late to get her work done. I think she should get better organized so we don’t have to put in so much overtime.”

Don’t get angry. This is the manager’s one chance to get the real picture. Keep prodding for more information.

Guides for good interviewing

There are techniques for pulling information out of people.

One is to keep asking questions. If a staffer says, “My boss was a jerk,” follow up with, “Can you give me some examples?” and “How often did that happen?” and “How did it make you feel?”

Or if a staffer points out some contribution ask, “Why was that important to you?” and, “How did you feel after accomplishing that?”

Follow-up questions encourage conversation because they show the manager isn’t just going through the motions of the interview but is genuinely interested in what’s being said.

And what comes out is often a surprise. She gives the example of a remark of, “I felt it was a great accomplishment to keep Doctor A happy.” Ask why that was and the answer may be, “Because then I knew he wouldn’t yell at me in front of everybody else.”

Another rule is to never argue with what’s said. If a staffer wants to vent, listen without interrupting. Argue and that staffer will clam up.

Yet another is rule is to “check your ego at the door.” Don’t take offense at anything personal a staffer mentions.

Don’t argue with anything either. “Listen with an open mind.” Don’t say, “We can’t do that because …”

Another rule is to empathize. When a staffer mentions something that was difficult or unfair, respond with more than just a nod. Empathize with a, “I’m very sorry. I wish I had known about it sooner.” That can be enough to turn around a staffer’s negative perception of the office.

And maybe an invitation to return

Sometimes an exiting employee mentions reasons for leaving that could have—and maybe should have—been taken care of. Perhaps the staffer is quitting because she can’t get childcare that corresponds to her working hours.

When that’s the case—and if the employee is someone the office truly wants to keep on board—it can be worth telling the staffer, “Would you consider staying if we changed that?”

But don’t go too far with it. Unless the employee is a top worker the office is devastated to lose, draw the line at offering more money. A raise may keep somebody from leaving right now, but as soon as a better offer comes along, that staffer is probably going to jump ship.

Worse, the other staff will find out and think all they have to do to get a raise is threaten to leave.

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