While it isn’t something most tech leaders look forward to, an exit interview with a departing staff member can be incredibly valuable for managers and companies striving to keep good talent and improve their work culture. Yet, like anything else, if it’s not done right—if you don’t prepare ahead of time, understand the best approach, and know what kind of feedback you want to get—an exit interview won’t be beneficial.

The right approach to take
According to Marc Lewis, president of Morgan Howard, a global executive search firm, it’s a big mistake for a company not to have an exit interview. He describes the forum as a perfect opportunity to find out about issues that are impacting company operations—and also to prevent the layoff situation from hurting potential future relations with the employee. “Employers are now jettisoning even ‘A’ players, some of whom might become future customers, partners, or even employees again [once the economy improves],” Lewis said.

Given the importance of the exit interview, managers need to prepare and learn the appropriate etiquette needed for the final employee conversation. Paul Glen, certified management consultant for Los Angeles-based C2 Consulting, suggested that IT managers and companies approach exit interviews with these tips in mind:

  • Don’t expect too much.
  • Don’t believe too much.
  • Don’t ask too much.

Glen said his experience has proven that many terminated or exiting employees aren’t eager to invest much energy in answering too many questions. They’re more likely to give socially correct answers—like “the pay is better at the new job”—than candid ones. The trick to avoiding that scenario is asking a short list of specific questions. Managers also need to know that an employee’s relationship with a company isn’t the only element that comes into play with exit interviews. Corporate culture, trust, and respect often dictate how truthful an employee will be at an exit interview.

“If your organization’s culture is secretive, competitive, and untrusting, don’t expect any useful information to come out of the interview,” said Arlene Vernon, a human resources consultant at the Eden Prairie, MN-based HRx, Inc. She said a company would be far more likely to glean useful information out of an exiting employee if its culture and work environment were more supportive.

ArLyne Diamond, a professional development consultant, said that the main purpose of the exit interview is to learn how to improve as a company so that other employees won’t leave. Diamond recommends framing exit questions in a neutral context that would elicit thoughtful responses rather than empty, safe platitudes.

“Never put a person in the position of having to directly criticize the people to whom [he or she] reported,” Diamond said. “It should never be an interrogation.”

Use exit interviews to reinforce policies
Michael Lindsay, an employment attorney and partner at Thelen Reid & Priest LLP, said the exit interview is very handy for stressing conformity to specific employee policies and legal issues. “The second purpose of an exit interview is to communicate to the employee those company policies that may continue to affect the employee as she or he becomes employed elsewhere,” said Lindsay, who advises technology companies on the way to conduct exit interviews.

Lindsay cited continuing obligations regarding company trade secrets as well as issues of confidentiality in connection with other matters handled on behalf of the employee. “The exit interview is a good time to remind the departing employee that the obligations continue even if he or she becomes employed by a competitor,” Lindsay explained. He recommends that managers give the exiting employee a copy of any confidentiality and/or trade secret documents signed during their tenure with the company as a reminder of the terms of those agreements.

Especially in the IT world, where ongoing project responsibilities must be properly transitioned to other staff, Lindsay strongly advised that the company verify the exiting employee’s contact information should this person’s assistance be required in the future. He also proposed that the company finalize, as much as possible, the terms on which such assistance would be provided. For example, the exiting employee might be hired on a consulting basis for a set period of time. It is important to negotiate these particulars while the employee is still on the payroll and still feels some sense of obligation.

Respect can reap big rewards
According to Lewis, of Morgan Howard, an IT manager can learn a lot from an exit interview if the manager remembers to “treat an exiting employee as you would like to be treated if you were in his or her shoes.” Managers might be surprised at what they find out, he added.

A good exit conversation can provide insight on the following:

  • Whether the departing employee’s new job is truly a better opportunity or simply an escape from an underlying problem in the company
  • Whether the employee was actively recruited—and what you might do to prevent other desirable employees from being lured away—or whether the employee sought out the new job on his or her own

The truthful input from the employee on these two issues alone can help IT managers avoid losing top talent and reassess organizational issues in order to make improvements. Essentially, the key is to conduct the exit interview as professionally as any other business interaction in the company.