One of the most common challenges that my CEO clients face is the unexpected departure of key employees. First reactions are always the same. These announcements initially generate feelings of uncertainty and loss, mixed in with a small amount of dread. As a 25-year business owner of multiple companies, I've been there.

Experience has taught me that in most cases, it's not worth the effort to try to persuade a departing employee to stay. In the event you can convince them otherwise, it's likely temporary, and they'll end up resigning again anyway.

Pivoting your mindset to let go of what was and embrace what is happening is essential in turning an otherwise unpleasant situation into a positive opportunity. I remind my clients that leaders are always being watched

Once you've accepted that they're leaving, you can determine how to leverage the situation. Your departing employee has a wealth of knowledge, insight, and perspective that you don't. Collecting this information will be the most strategically important task of their departure. 

Here are the steps to take to have a great exit interview:

  1. Plan the interview.  
    The exit interview should be a routine part of your offboarding process. As soon as an employee gives notice, it's time to schedule the interview. 
  2. Prepare your questions.
    While you can't force employees to answer your questions, you can prepare a comprehensive list. Organizations should ask the same questions in each exit interview to discover patterns and trends related to departures. Some questions are:
    - Why are you leaving?
    - What is the company doing right?
    - What is the company doing wrong?
    - What could the company do better specifically regarding your position?
    - What would you want future new hires to know about the company?

    Do not ask anything about a specific person. Do not criticize or slander another employee. Do not ask about personal situations.

  3. Plan to implement lessons learned.
    The worst thing leaders can do when they collect employee input of any kind is fail to act. Employees invest valuable time sharing their analysis of their experiences. Dismissing the information by failing to act or make changes marginalizes and demoralizes employees. 

Building the Culture Through a Great Exit Interview

Leaders set the tone through change and are always being watched, so how they handle departures is critical. Here are three reasons a great exit interview is critical to culture and your company's reputation:

  1. Exit interviews demonstrate that leaders care what employees think.
    The most valuable resource for organizational insight is employees. 
  2. Exit interviews demonstrate that organizations are continuously evolving and changing, and that's good.
    Attrition and turnover are not necessarily bad things. One of my favorite business books is Marshall Goldsmith's What Got You Here Won't Get You There. As companies evolve from stage to stage, everything is subject to change: employees, customers, vendors, processes, infrastructure, the org chart, etc. A departing employee opens the door for new ways of thinking and doing. 
  3. Exit interviews demonstrate a commitment to an organization's core values.
    Core values are the DNA of an organization. They apply to every aspect of business, and should be present in every phase of the employee lifecycle, from recruiting and hiring to termination and offboarding.

    Treating employees with respect and concern from the moment they join until the moment they leave, and never burning a bridge, demonstrates to employees that integrity and respect are engrained in all aspects of the company. 

Anticipating Departures

Employees who move on are a natural part of business growth. This is why it's critical to institute processes that enable companies to transition work from one employee to another with minimal disruption. It's also why business owners must maintain connections to essential customer relationships so that in the event a key person leaves, the relationships are secure. 

Departing employees don't have to be crisis situations. Leaders can seize these moments as opportunities for growth and learning.