ICS Magazine

Saying Goodbye

May 18, 2006


I always hated the employee bombshell, "Steve, I've got a better job offer and this will be my last week." After that, it was easier just to ignore the traitorous employee! I was hurt, angry and obviously very, very inconvenienced (and the emotional dynamics got even more stressful when I had to fire them).

However, get rid of the chip on your shoulder. If you can get past all your negative emotions, much will be gained by having a non-confrontational exit interview with your departing employee. Just look at the benefits:

Learn from your past mistakes. This "exit interview" will let you view yourself and your company through the eyes of an employee. This new vision will be extremely valuable because likely you will hire your next worker from the same socio-demographic group as the departing employee. Therefore their needs, attitudes and desires will be the same. Learn from your departing employee the mistakes to avoid with his or her replacement and you will prevent future defections.

Set up clear expectations for the "departure phase." Okay, your employee has stated he or she is leaving. Now what? It is important to let them know what is required of them and what they should expect of you.

Find any "rotten apples" in your work force. Please don't be another ostrich with your head in the sand. If you have more than three non-family employees working in your company, the odds are very good that illegal activity is happening on a regular basis right under your nose. For example, U.S. government statistics state that 1 in 4 American workers abuse alcohol or drugs. During your departing worker's employment they may have been reluctant to "rat out" a fellow employee. But in an exit interview, the gloves may come off because they are leaving anyway.

Are you sold yet on the value of having a final chat with a departing employee? Here are some thoughts on how to perform an exit interview:

1. Remain calm, courteous and rational. Your first temptation may be to heap recriminations on your soon to be ex-employee as in, "How can you do this to me after all I've done for you ..." This is a waste of your time and it will impede the frank "listen and learn" discussion you are aiming for in the exit interview. Another trap is to lecture and preach at an employee you have fired. Remember, the very best way to prevent workplace violence is to treat everyone with respect and dignity - even if they don't deserve it.

2. Schedule the interview as soon as possible. Explain to the employee that while this interview is optional, you will pay them for their time and that both the company and you personally would appreciate their input. Few people will be able to resist this very flattering appeal.

3. The physical and emotional environment should be comfortable. Obviously this discussion should be very private. (You may want to schedule the interview after most of your workers have gone home for the day.) Be sure to keep the atmosphere relaxed, warm and congenial. Note: If the employee has left mad and bypassed normal checkout procedures, an exit interview is still valuable. However, you should meet them on neutral ground. For example, offer to buy them breakfast and then sweeten the pot with a cash payment for their time since they are not on the clock.

4. Avoid a canned, rigid approach. This is really more of a conversation instead of an interview. Your goal is to extract the golden nuggets of how you can improve the working environment, based on the perception of this employee. So follow the lead of the employee and let them talk about what they want. Obviously you will discard many of their no-doubt unjustified complaints. But even the most disgruntled employee will give you valuable insights into your business.

5. Welcome the employee and set some relaxed ground rules. For example, reassure your employee that nothing you discuss will be attributed to them and that they should feel free to talk frankly without offending you. Explain that you will be taking brief notes because you do value their input. You may want to put an informal time limit on the conversation, as in, "I know you are really busy and this shouldn't take more than thirty minutes."

6. Prime the pump with open-ended questions. Start with the easy questions first and then move into the more profound, thought-provoking questions later in the interview. Here are some examples: "What did you enjoy the most about working here?" "Now obviously you didn't like everything here or you wouldn't be leaving. (Both of you smile and chuckle!) Help me out. What did you dislike the most about your time with us?" "Do you feel like you were treated well by everyone? Did you have any problems with anyone in particular? I'll keep this just between us." "Do you have any ideas on where and how we can find good employees?" "Now here's a fun one. If you were the boss here, what changes would you do to make this a good place to work long term? I'd really like your input on this one." "If you could say anything to your replacement, besides ‘Don't do it,' (much laughter here, hopefully) what would it be?" "Thanks so much for spending this time with me. I really do wish you the best. Before we conclude, is there anything I need to know about the company or any observations you would like to share?" This "just one last question" tactic gives the employee, after they are warmed up and hopefully feeling good about you and the company, a final opportunity to uncover any secrets they are hiding, such as a dishonest employee.

7. Review their "departure timetable" and conclude. Go over the timetable for their last day, when they should turn in their uniforms, company keys, tools, manuals and other company property. You will also review any deductions on their final paycheck, how they will be compensated for unused vacation time and any profit sharing or pension plans if applicable. Be sure to keep all of these steps legal (you must consult an attorney when it comes to termination procedures for any employee) but, most importantly, keep the communication open. Finally, thank the employee for their time and input and wish them the best for the future. (Once you have covered the above questions it is better to promptly conclude the meeting with mutual respect, dignity and gratitude. The longer you let this conversation drag on the more likely you will get dragged into an argument and/or be forced into justifying yourself.)

Once you have these valuable insights from an employee on the way out, don't forget to analyze them and implement changes. Maybe that way you won't have to repeat this process so frequently with the employees who are on their way in!