When Employees Leave: Conduct Comprehensive Exit Interviews

Give workers the opportunity to return company property and provide feedback

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This is the first in a three-part series of articles on what to do when employees leave the business. Today's article explores how employers should handle exit interviews. Read the second part on protecting trade secrets and the third part on transferring social media accounts..


T

he exit interview can be a useful way for employers to protect their property, identify any morale or culture problems, and limit the risk of lawsuits being filed later. Here are some of the benefits of conducting a meaningful exit interview with departing employees.

The exit interview is a perfect time to retrieve employer property and materials, such as swipe cards, laptops, company-issued mobile phones and keys, said Kate Gold, an attorney with Drinker Biddle in Los Angeles. While doing this, the employer can also follow up with the exiting employee to confirm that no company data is stored on personal computers, tablets, phones or other devices.

Ask workers to identify all the locations where business information could be housed—including paper copies, external hard drives and thumb drives, suggested Robert Yonowitz, an attorney with Fisher Phillips in Irvine, Calif. "Tell us all the places where that information exists, don't destroy it, and let's make arrangements to get that information back."

An exit interview also gives an employer a final opportunity to emphasize any obligations the employee may have regarding the confidentiality of trade secrets and employer data, said Melanie Pate, an attorney with Lewis Roca Rothgerber Christie in Phoenix. "In addition, it may raise a warning flag for the employer if the employee objects to any provisions of a confidentiality agreement that he or she may have signed or otherwise challenges the obligation to keep trade secrets and data confidential," she said.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Involuntary Termination of Employment in the United States]

Importantly, employers should view the exit interview as an opportunity to make the organization's processes better. "The whole purpose of an exit interview is to obtain information that will hopefully improve the employer's relationship with its employees and their employment experience," Pate said.

Resolving Problems

The exit interview allows the employer to "explore, to the extent the departing employee is willing to share, the reasons for the employee's departure," Gold noted.

A thorough exit interview can allow an employee to air any grievances based on his or her experience with the employer, Pate said.

Hopefully, the employee hasn't waited until the exit interview to report inappropriate workplace conduct or a problem with a manager. But even if this is the first time he or she has voiced concerns, it may give the employer the opportunity to resolve things with the departing worker or to address the issues that were raised so that other employees don't have the same problems, Gold said.

If the worker doesn't air any grievances but later files a complaint or lawsuit, the employer can show that it gave the worker a chance to discuss any issues and potentially resolve them, Yonowitz said.

Additionally, if the employee raises compensation or benefits compliance problems, the employer may be able to correct those issues before the employee files a complaint or seeks legal advice, Pate noted. "Employers are almost always better off knowing about negative or problematic issues before they result in litigation."

Remote Workers

It is always preferable to do an exit interview in person, attorneys said, but employers should still conduct interviews remotely when in-person meetings aren't possible.

Ideally, employers should use video-calling technology to conduct remote exit interviews so they can see the departing worker's facial expressions and body language when potentially sensitive or controversial issues are discussed, Pate said. Conducting exit interviews by e-mail or text is discouraged due to the impersonal nature of such communication, she added.

Tips for Employers

To start, employers should ask workers why they are leaving and if there is anything the employer can do to make its workplace experience better in the future, Pate noted.

Gold suggested that HR or a designated representative conduct one-on-one interviews because employees may be less candid with their supervisor present. She said the interviewer should:

  • Explain that the purpose of the interview is to help the company improve its processes and retain its valuable employees.
  • Encourage employees to share the reasons why they are leaving. There are a number of reasons that may come up that employers can address. Perhaps employees didn't receive sufficient training, didn't think there were opportunities for advancement, felt their work wasn't appreciated, felt they weren't treated fairly or thought tasks weren't distributed appropriately.
  • Ask how the company could be a better place to work.
  • Tell employees that their statements will be kept confidential to the greatest extent possible.

"Employers should use the information they learn and apply it to the workplace to prevent the loss of employees, prevent litigation and improve morale," Gold said.

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