Exit Interviews: Handling the Bad News

Rod Stephens
August 4, 2008 — 2,680 views  
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All things being equal, why wouldn't an employer conduct an exit interview? In many instances that answer is fear. They fear they will learn information that might shed light on a problem or might confirm an internal deficiency in the company. Let's address that fear head on. If there is a problem that led to the departure of an employee, that problem won't go away just because your company did the equivalent of closing your eyes, plugging your ears and chanting, "I can't hear you. I can't hear you." Problems left unchecked will ripen into a full blown crisis at a later date. By being proactive, the information you learn in an exit interview can be used to conduct an investigation while memories are fresh and there is an opportunity to minimize your legal exposure. 

So you learn of a problem in the workplace, what now? You could panic but that won't accomplish anything. Instead, treat this the same way you would if the report were brought to your attention before the employee decided to leave. Learn the facts that support the concern. Start by asking open ended questions in a non-threatening manner. 

What happened?
When did it happen?
Who was involved?
Who knew about it?
Why didn't you come to us sooner?

Most importantly, this is not the time or place to minimize or challenge the report. Some comments made by interviewers that are counterproductive are: 

You know him, that's just the way he is. He didn't mean anything. 
Don't you think you might be overreacting? 
We've never had a complaint about that person before. Are you sure this happened? 

Any comment along these lines will cause the departing employee to shut down. This may be your last opportunity to interview this person and ask the questions you need to know to correct a problem, learn of potential defenses and minimize any potential legal exposure. Make the most of this opportunity. Listen attentively and let the employee tell their story. You are not required to offer an opinion as the merit of the report, nor should you. Instead, assure the person that their report will be treated seriously. Communicate your company's policy on the issue presented. For example, if the departing employee has raised an issue of harassment or discrimination, make sure the employee understands that your company has a zero tolerance policy on these issues, that an investigation will be conducted, and that all reports are taken seriously. 

At all times retain a professional tone and, if appropriate, a sympathetic tone. If the exit interviewer is not the person with responsibility to investigate the report, offer to provide that investigator's name and contact information. Assure the departing employee that the information will be passed on to the appropriate individual and disclosure of the information will be limited to those with a need to know basis. Make sure this information is then conveyed to the appropriate person.  

It is critical that the employee understands their report is being taken seriously. That means don't delay in handling the report because the employee no longer works for your company. It also means that if you make promises, keep them. Delay in handling the report will be the death knell of any effort to take steps to mitigate the harm. Keep in mind that a delay in reporting a problem in the workplace can be a sign that your reporting policy is not being adequately communicated or that there is a perception in the workplace that reporting will not accomplish anything. There is a high probability that if the departing employee waited until the exit interview to report harassment, they will walk into a lawyer's office if they feel their report is not handled seriously.

Finally, after the exit interview, sit down and prepare a detailed report setting forth all information received during the course of the exit interview. The report should include the who, what, where, and why of the interview. Emotions displayed by the employee should be noted in the report, including those that do not seem appropriate. The interviewer should then follow up with the employee within two to three days following the interview to assure the employee that the interviewer has contacted human resources. Follow up and follow through are key at this stage. The employee should be left with the perception that their complaint was treated seriously, that human resources did not delay its investigation, and they were treated fairly. These factors often are more important that the outcome of the investigation.

Once the investigation is completed, take time to evaluate your processes to determine why the employee waited to report until their exit interview. More often than not, the reason is that the employee does not feel management will take the report seriously or will retaliate. One of the most common themes I hear, when contacted by an employee, is they did not go to human resources or management because of a fear that they would be the subject of retaliation. This is unfortunate, because the human resources professionals I interact with are hard working and underappreciated people that take their job seriously. More often than not the employee's reticence to report is based on a rumor and institutional myth. If that is the case, perhaps it's time to implement a regular program of training on reporting for management and non-management employees.



Rod Stephens


Rod brings a unique perspective to the table in that he represents management and employees. We feel this allows us to offer a broader perspective to our clients in that we understand cutting edge employment law issues and how they are perceived by management and employees. Employment law matters can require immediate response in times of crisis. On those occasions, you can take comfort in the knowledge that we are prepared to provide the type of response that takes advantage of years of experience.