When exit interviews go wrong

23 September 2015 -


Accountant Francesca Wilson’s exit interviewers were dismissive and arrogant when she left her job. Find out how why and how you can avoid making the same mistakes as this big four accountancy employer

Jermaine Haughton

“What started out as a pleasant chat, ended with me almost storming out,” said Francesca Wilson, who worked for several years for one of the major big four accounting firms in the late 2000s.

Faced by a line of HR managers, the accountant took a large gulp as, 15 minutes in, they revealed the most-anticipated question of her exit interview, “Why have you decided to leave us?”.

Fuelled on just three black coffees and a half-eaten sausage roll, Francesca tried to be diplomatic. She said: “I have enjoyed my three and a half years here, but feel my career has stagnated and I feel I can gain greater progress elsewhere.”

To her surprise, one of the interviewers challenged her assertion. “She stopped me in full flow and began to spill some corporate rhetoric about how the company has a robust and meritocratic promotion and rewards system, suggesting I basically wasn’t as good at my job as I thought,” Francesca recalled.

“It was intimidating. I couldn’t believe it, especially as I had been one of the key performers on a recent project for one of the company’s biggest clients.”

Explaining further how she felt underpaid for the hard work and results she provided, “like an insignificant cog in a factory machine,” Francesca said her anger cooled to mere frustration as she realised the nonchalant body language of the interviewers showed they didn’t care about what she was saying.

Instead of trying to understand the reasons for Francesca resignation, the managers wrongly sought to challenge her on her opinion, coming across as arrogant and dismissive. This is just one of a series of examples of poorly-executed exit interviews by managers, completely opposing the reason for such meetings.

Exit interviews are an invaluable opportunity for employers to tap into the employee psyche and find out attitudes within the workplace. A survey by recruitment firm OfficeTeam found that the vast majority (95%) of HR directors believe exit interviews are either ‘sometimes’ or ‘very’ beneficial in helping to improve the working environment for employees; potentially reducing long-term employee turnover.

The process is particularly useful if workers are critical of the firm’s practices, culture and management system.

Exit interviews can be conducted either in face-to-face interviews or through services like Survey Monkey, and some employers regularly observe their company reviews on Glassdoor. Despite the benefits of exit interviews, the OfficeTeam survey also showed that less than a third (31%) of HR directors said that they ‘always’ conduct exit interviews with staff.

Phil Sheridan, UK managing director of OfficeTeam, said employers should value the unique perspective into the day-to-day goings-on throughout their organisation.

"With increased job market confidence and employees looking for new opportunities, having a standardised exit interview strategy will ensure companies glean the right information to help them instil a positive work environment and employee programmes that will both retain and attract top talent," he added.

Managers will generally hear similar reasons for leaving the company. According to research from recruitment specialist Robert Half, the main reason people leave their jobs in 2015 is to seek out opportunities with a better work life balance (30%). Some 29% of departing staff also said they were moving on to secure a new position offering opportunities for further career advancement (29%), the report said.

But how should an exit interview be structured? Here are four expert pieces of advice to get you started.

Earn the employee's trust

Assure interviewees that the information they provide will be taken in confidence, and that their comments will be used to help improve the working environment of the company.

Listen carefully

The goal of exit interviews is to extract as much useful information from the leaving staff member as possible. Therefore, they should be given every opportunity to talk.

Ask direct (but non-confrontational) open-ended questions

Don’t be afraid to be frank when asking questions to the staff such as enquiring how the employee would describe the culture of the company? Or what could have been done for the employee to remain employed here? These sorts of questions will give the interviewee an opportunity to fully explain their views and provide a variety of different answers for HR managers to think about.

Follow up the interview

Managers should review their findings, see how they compare to other exit interviews, and determine an appropriate course of action.

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