How to Respond to Employees in Exit Interviews: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

By Jenn Steele - Dec. 10, 2013
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exit interview shootoutHave you ever been caught off guard by a surly employee in an exit interview? Or have you been unable to extract any helpful information because the person got stuck on the first question and wouldn’t stop talking about it? Beginning an exit interview is like a box of chocolates; you never know what sort of employee you’re gonna get.

PROTIP: Before you begin the discussion, you have to prepare. You may not know exactly what you’re going to get, but at least you’ll have an idea of how to handle what’s going to be coming through your door.

Here we outline some tips for dealing with certain types of behavior employees are known to exhibit in an exit interview.

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THE (maybe too) GOOD

The Employee Talks Too Much

There’s some things you just really don’t need to know. Like the long ‘he said / she said’ backstory of why the employee doesn’t get along with the person who sits opposite them. If you’re going to get any useful information, you need to help this employee sift through the details and get to the point.

For the first few minutes, allow them to get it out. Sometimes they just need to vent. When they take a breath, talk about how much time is left. Say, “I’m aware we only have 20 minutes left and I want to make sure I have time to talk with you about everything.” This will prompt them to get to the point.

If you’re getting desperate, summarize the outcome of their issue in a closed ended question and quickly move on.  For example, “So, just to make sure I’ve got this right, you felt your time would have been more productive if your manager had given you clear outlines?” “Yes.” “Okay I have written that down. We can get back to it later if we have more time. I want to also ask you about…”

The Employee Who Only Has Good Things to Say

This employee has read all the blogs advising that saying bad things about the company and talking truthfully about their experiences will only burn bridges. No workplace is perfect, but to listen to them you’d think you’d somehow stumbled on Employee Heaven (nevermind that they’re leaving!).

Don’t ask them to say bad things. It just won’t happen. Instead, acknowledge that every workplace has room for improvement somewhere and ask them to speak in general terms about ideas for improvement. If they still avoid the question, use your structure to try to break through: “Well, I need to put something down here for areas we can improve in. Shall I just leave it blank?” Focus on getting one or two things that the workplace in general can improve on.


The Employee Who Doesn’t Want to Talk

On the other end of the self-protection spectrum are those employees who just clam up. Some advice columns online go so far as to assure the employee they are perfectly within their rights to say “No comment”. How awkward.

To get around their surliness, ask open and personally focused questions. “How are you feeling about leaving at the end of the week?” or “What would you like to talk about?” Avoid black and white questions like “Did you enjoy your time with us?” or “Were there things we could improve on?” These will put the person on the defensive.

If the employee really won’t open up about their time with the organization, the best you can do is try to leave them with a good feeling. Get friendly and talk to them about the job they’re going to and their plans for the future. Wish them all the best. Leave the door open for future feedback by letting them know that if they’d ever like to talk about their time with the organization that you are just an email or phone call away.

The Employee Who Only Has Bad Things to Say

This employee may have read the advice, but he’s mad and he just doesn’t care. He’s had bad things happen and frustrations galore and, by George, you’re gonna hear all about them.

Two key words here: acceptance and action. Don’t agree or disagree with anything this employee says, especially if it is about you. Simply note it, acknowledge their feelings by saying,  “Sounds like that made you feel demotivated,” and ask them for specific things that could make thing better in the future. Write it down – obviously. Then let them know you’ll be following each thing up.

Don’t defend.; it’s just not worth it. Finish by thanking them for being so honest and discussing their future job.

The Employee Who Doesn’t Show

Call. Send an email. Wander over if you can. If they’re not around, send a message, cc’ing their manager (if that’s not you) and offer them another opportunity for the interview.

Then go get a cup of (good) coffee and get on with your day. Not showing up is their decision, and sometimes you just have to live with it.


The Employee Who Cries

This one can be painful, since most of us aren’t accustomed to tears in the workplace. The best thing to do is to recognize that this situation is awkward for both you and them. Then assure them that they are welcome to cry as long as they need to, give them a box of tissues, and let them know you are going to go and get a glass of water. The glass of water does two things: One it gets you out of the office, giving them some time to compose themselves; and two, drinking curbs the crying urge. Now they have an additional tool to help them say what they need to say without breaking down.

The Employee Who Will Blog About It

It’s hard enough to say the right thing when the discussion is just between you and the employee. When you’re aware that every word you say can and will be distributed out in public, causing either good or bad PR for your company, the pressure is enormous.

This situation requires some back up. Having a third person in the room provides validation for everything that was said and the manner in which it was said. The second person is also available to watch your back and jump in to clarify or take over if the discussion is getting heated. Ensure that you clarify up front that the discussion is confidential and that any paperwork surrounding it is company intelligence and not for public consumption.

Thankfully, not every exit interview will have these problems – many of them will run smoothly, and you won’t have to handle tears or a PR nightmare. Methodically preparing for every exit interview and following a consistent template will help you handle these and any other good, bad, or ugly situations that arise.

Image courtesy of Alan.


Jenn Steele

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