Featured Article – 2013 October

Easing exit interview pain

Easing the exit interview pain

By Jeffrey L. Thommes

When valued employees leave a business, most companies have some sort of ritual sendoff. Perhaps it’s an office party, or lunch with the boss.

It’s not always that way for companies that are struggling, and such celebrations could strike a discordant note when downsizing or restructuring prompts the departure.

In these situations, another step in the departure process, the exit interview, can become even more difficult.

Companies that take exit interviews seriously use them to determine areas where the business can improve its procedures, to gather information about employee characteristics that can be helpful in recruiting new employees, and to give departing employees a positive feeling for the company as they transition into their new life.

Those objectives are relatively easy to achieve when a company is running smoothly but become a challenge during a downsizing or restructuring. After all, businesses become distressed when leaders fail to plan, cannot operate efficiently and fail to react quickly to challenges. A management that can’t run a business well isn’t likely to handle the exit process well either.

Often the departures are emotional, as any remaining positive relationships become frayed, as managers realize they delayed too long in conveying the bad news, as employees struggle to understand why their job, and not someone else’s, is being cut, as everyone wonders what might have been done differently to have prevented this outcome.

It could have been done better, but how?

First, good communication between management and employees becomes more crucial in bad times than when things are going well. If everyone has an understanding of the problems the business is facing, it becomes less of a shock for employees to accept the reality that some jobs, including their own, might be eliminated.

Second, just as companies improve their hiring by standardizing their preliminary screening and the interview process, so should they standardize procedures for managing exit interviews.

The procedure typically has two parts: a discussion about the employee’s experience with the company and a meeting to discuss retirement or severance packages, insurance and any services provided as part of the separation. In larger companies, specialists in the human resources department handle these interviews, but that is not always the case.

With smaller companies, it is sometimes more productive for a supervisor, preferably a supervisor one level above the employee’s manager, to handle the discussion about the employee’s experiences. Another option is to entrust this task to a mentor or coach who has the respect of the departing employee.

While those options are the most common, in a distressed business I strongly recommend that the company’s top leadership participate as well. A valued employee whose services are being terminated deserves some direct acknowledgement that failings in management led to this situation.   

No matter who conducts the interview, it is important to make the employee feel comfortable, to understand that there can be no negative repercussions to whatever he or she says. Don’t be surprised if there’s some bitterness, since it may be difficult for someone who is losing their job to speak calmly to supervisors or colleagues as he or she is about to depart. Nonetheless, let the employee know that expressing concerns about the workplace may help improve conditions for the colleagues who remain.

In the interview, it is important to explore two key themes, the organization’s operations and its human interactions. You want to see what you can learn from the employee, especially a perspective of how your company operates, views of its strengths and weaknesses, and how people are getting along with each other, especially supervisor-employee relationships.

The insights gained as the result of one exit interview may not be telling, but observations from a series of interviews can help you compile useful information. For example, if multiple interviews turn up complaints about a particular supervisor, or about production methods, scheduling or an imbalance in workloads, the interviewer should bring patterns of concerns to the attention of top management. By examining these concerns, managers can determine how to improve processes or working conditions, in effect using the suggestions of departing employees to strengthen the business and even build morale.

The second part of the exit interview procedure — covering retirement or severance packages, insurance and so forth — is also important because, no matter how difficult the separation, you want the employee to not only understand any benefits clearly, but also to leave in as positive a frame of mind as possible in such a situation.

If your company is undergoing a downsizing or restructuring, and even if your budget is tight, consider retaining outplacement consultants who will help departing employees update their resumes and prepare for interviews with prospective employers. As your company rebuilds, having former employees in the community who will say they were treated in a dignified manner can be an invaluable asset.

Also, consider following up with the former employee after they have settled into a new position. This can add to the healing and provide fresh insight into your company’s operations. Early in my career, about a year after I had changed jobs, a supervisor from my previous employer called me and asked for suggestions on how they could improve training and developing their personnel so they would stay longer with the company. The call showed me that the company truly valued my services and I was more than happy to share my ideas with them.

Breaking up is hard to do, songwriter Neal Sedaka reminds us, but treating your departing employees with respect during difficult circumstances should help preserve the good reputation of your business and perhaps yield helpful suggestions to make it better.