HR Blog

Breaking Up is Hard To Do - Asking the Right Question in an Exit Interview

10/01/2016 | Dee Yingst

Neil Sedaka is right, breaking up is hard to do. Whether it's the breakup of a personal relationship or an employment relationship it's rarely ever an easy conversation. The recipient of the news inevitably wants to know why and what could have been done differently. I'm going to leave the personal relationship stuff to experts like Dear Abby and stick to employment. We're not going to talk about employer terminations but rather the conversations that sometimes happen around employee resignations – specifically the exit interview.

It seems to me there are two schools of thought on the value of exit interviews – they're either a great tool or a great waste. I'm somewhere in the middle. Whether it's worth the effort depends greatly on what you're trying to learn, how you're asking, and how open you are to hearing answers that might challenge your perception of your organization. Coupled with the fact that oftentimes departing employees are hesitant to speak openly for fear of burning a proverbial bridge, an interviewer who is unable to listen without becoming defensive or dismissive will completely derail an exit interview.

Over the years I've learned that some questions produce more useful information than others, and often a small tweak in how you ask a question can make a big difference. For instance, my all-time number one pick for the least useful question in an exit interview is "Why are you leaving?" This question just begs a stock answer filled with charming little nuggets like "great opportunity," "expanding horizons," "learn new things," and every other plain vanilla response printed in dozens of different interview guides. No offense to all you folks who love plain vanilla; I like vanilla as much as the next person, but it's not helpful when what I'm really looking for is caramel.

Why someone has accepted another opportunity is not what you really want you know. It's also not what's going to be helpful. Even happy employees will leave for the right opportunity. Why they are leaving has more to do with where they are going than where they are

What you want to know is why they were looking for another opportunity in the first place.

I'm a firm believer in the distinction between what makes a person start looking and what makes them leave. What you're really looking for is the tipping point – that thing that made this employee feel they couldn't go on as a member of your organization. Even if you're dealing with a personality conflict between an employee and their manager, remember that the conflict may have inspired the search but it's the opportunity with the new employer that resulted in the resignation. 

It's a narrow, but important distinction.  A job search takes a lot of time so making the decision to forego other activities to go job hunting is a significant investment of energy. What was happening that made the employee want to take time from other areas of his/her life to launch a job search?  The answer to this question is where you'll find the insight you're seeking.  Even if the answer is something akin to 'needing more opportunity', you can still follow up with questions to help determine the types of opportunities that may be lacking in your organization.  You've still learned something useful.

While I'm not convinced there's a single best recipe for all exit interviews, if you're diligent you can create the mix that works best for you and your organization.  Remember, if you ask plain vanilla questions you'll get plain vanilla answers…and wouldn't you rather have caramel???