should I really conduct exit interviews?

A reader writes:

My assistant is leaving at the end of the month. I’ve always heard you should lead an exit interview with anyone who quits. Is an exit interview still the norm if the employee was part-time? He was at our organization 20 hours a week for one year. If I should lead an exit interview, can you please let me know what types of questions should be included?

I answer this question — and three others — over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

Other questions I’m answering there today include:

  • I heard rumors about about an employee’s professionalism
  • Can we charge a new hire who flaked for the cost of her training?
  • Responding to questions about an employee who’s on maternity leave

{ 53 comments… read them below }

  1. Falling Diphthong*

    Disappointed that number 3 did not explicitly cite Alison as an authority outranking the Dept of Labor and all relevant state and federal laws on the topic.

      1. KoiFeeder*

        I think the joke was that the Department of Labor is pretty clear on what the right answer to that question is.

        1. Falling Diphthong*

          A previous similar letter to Alison even specifically cited that the OP knew what the Department of Labor stance was on not paying employees, but hoped Alison would agree with them that you don’t have to pay people when you feel really annoyed.

      2. Nanani*

        A lot of people write to advice columns, this one definitely included, looking for a permission slip to do what they already know is wrong.
        no. 3 is clearly seeking that kind of permission from Alison even though it’s a blatantly illegal thing to do.

  2. This is Artemesia*

    Mary what do you want us to share with clients who ask about you and the baby — can we say you had a little girl and have named her Prudence and are doing well? Or?

    The reputation on the road thing seems to come from several sources so that is awkward. It is hard to supervise abuses on the road. There is also a hint that he is about to lose his job. If I were the OP, if it is true that he is on track to be terminated then I would cite the poor performance as a reason for not going on the road; if that is a misread on my part, I would have him go on a trip with very clear measurables and pay close attention to expense report and outcomes of the trip. It is not clear if the problem is that he didn’t do the job or that he behaved in ways that embarrassed the company e.g. got drunk or visited strip clubs (that people noticed and talked about).

    1. DisneyChannelThis*

      +1 to asking the employee how they want to handle it. Some people will share all the details, some don’t want pictures out there of their kids, it all varies. Just support whatever your employee decides.

    2. KatEnigma*

      Yes, just ask Mary what, if anything, she is comfortable having you share. Likely, as they know why she is absent something like “she had a boy a couple weeks ago” will be okay with everyone. The next time someone goes on leave, ask them proactively.

    3. I'm just here for the cats!*

      If Mary is already out of the office on leave I think it’s too late to ask her for what she would like shared. I would stick with the basic “she’s doing well” like Allison suggested

  3. L-squared*

    The Bob travelling thing just seems really bad overall. Even if we assume that he was bad at a previous job, that says nothing about how he’ll be here. He doesn’t work there, its been some time, so its very likely he has matured. But its pretty bad that a current job, who hired him, is now effectively punishing him for behavior from before he worked there.

    1. Lilo*

      LW really buried the lede on this one though “There are other issues I am managing with this employee as well, and he may not have this job for much longer”. If Bob’s having issues serious enough she might fire him, travel seems like a serious herring here. He can’t travel because he’s having performance issues. That’s extremely normal.

      1. Cool Tina, Train Conductress*

        You’d think “we heard he had professionalism problems at his last job” might’ve been reason not to hire him, but I guess not!

        1. I went to school with only 1 Jennifer*

          I assumed they heard that stuff after Bob was already in the position.

    2. Lilo*

      LW buried the lede here though. She said Bob’s ha ing issues serious enough he may not be in the job longer. You’d never let someone in that position travel if you could avoid it.

    3. Butterfly Counter*

      My take, especially with the rumor that he abused his authority while on the road, was that his behavior was EXTREMELY bad. I’m thinking bad enough that his behavior would be deemed illegal if done in OP’s home country, along the lines of his being a sexual predator. Bad enough that just the rumor is enough to stop travel, even if nothing official was ever done or reported.

      Obviously, there isn’t detail, but perhaps the last job didn’t want to get into a battle of “Well, no one pressed charges and it’s not illegal in that country to do X, so I technically didn’t do anything wrong.” And they just quietly stopped sending him out. New job had heard enough and would rather brush off Bob’s whining than risk Bob doing X to anyone else again.

      1. BubbleTea*

        Huh, I’d interpret it the other way. Bad behaviour that’s not quite clear cut enough to deal with, just in the grey area around the boundary (like expensing just over the limit every day, or alcohol at every meal and slightly annoying raucous behaviour that doesn’t rise to actually actionable) but as you say, there’s no detail.

  4. Lilo*

    For LW2, would the fact that Bob is having other issues preclude travel? LW is a bit vague about it but they sound serious. If someone’s having issues you generally don’t trust them with the autonomy or responsibility of travel.

    1. A Simple Narwhal*

      Agreed! Unless the travel responsibilities are somehow completely unrelated and different from the home base responsibilities, it seems easy enough to say “we need you to improve on handling X Y and Z before we can let you go out and do them in the field”.

    2. Generic Name*

      Yup. If Bob is on a PIP, I assume that would preclude him from dong international travel, no?

  5. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

    I think you do still hold the exit interview, even if the employee was part-time or a short-timer. One, it’s about the process, not the circumstances, and two, the right feedback can come from anyone.

    1. Caramel & Cheddar*

      Agreed, part/short-timers can still have useful feedback about their experience! I think this is where I might ask questions specifically about things that might be common to those scenarios but aren’t answers you could get from full-time/long-timers who might depart.

      You might ask a part-timer about whether or not they felt workload was appropriate for the number of hours, how it was to work in tandem with other part-timers doing the same role, etc. For short-timers, I’d definitely be asking about how they found the onboarding and training process since it will still be comparatively fresh in their minds and lack of these things might have contributed to their early departure. And that’s just off the top of my head, I’m sure there’s a lot of other stuff that could be asked!

    2. Mongrel*

      Although the way the question is written I don’t think exit interviews are the norm.

      As for preserving the process, that also depends. Is an exit interview just a tick-box exercise? If the next step of the process is to step back and digest the feedback then that’s good but far too often it gets brushed off and buried in the HR files.

      1. Stitcherly*

        Exactly! If the information from an exit interview will actually be used, reviewed, assessed, then yes, absolutely, start making exit interviews standard. Ask the difficult questions. And LISTEN to what people have to say.
        It’s when their jobs are no longer on the line that you will start to get ‘real’ information regarding bad bosses, bad policy, bad work process, dysfunctional depts, etc.
        Exit interviews, when conducted properly, can tell you a lot about the company and the department, they came from. You can spot trends early. There is a reason people leave. Don’t you want to know why? If it’s just a check the box formality, you’re not interested in feedback, you’re not going to do anything with the info, don’t waste their time.

  6. Don*

    I thought “I heard rumors about about an employee’s professionalism” had a hint of amusing irony before I read the question. Knowing now that it’s from a supervisor I’m finding it less amusing.

    1. Exme*

      Agree, type of ‘unprofessionalism’ matters to my judgement and that term’s umbrella can be wiiiiide.
      Was this snoring in a client meeting?
      Adding guac to his expense reports?
      Or was it harmful to people?

  7. Laila*

    The idea of responding to clients with “ her episiotomy stitches are giving her a lot of trouble!” has meeeee in stitches

  8. Frally*

    Are we allowed to comment on the new style? I really don’t like the bigger, thinner font for the post titles. The old style was so much clearer and easier to read.

    1. Eldritch Office Worker*

      She’s not going to be able to please everyone, but empirically this sans-serif style is more accessible so I hope she sticks with it.

      1. My Useless 2 Cents*

        Just an FYI, the font is not sans-serif. The serif refers to the little “feet” at the end of an line like the bottom of the “I” or “m”. A sans-serif font would be Arial. This would more accurately be described as a simple serif font.

        1. Eldritch Office Worker*

          I know what a sans serif font is I’m talking specifically about the titles which are in a different font than the rest of the post

        2. Frankly*

          Just an FYI, the title has a sans serif font. It has a different font style from the body and the comments.

    2. winter frog*

      The first comment on today’s first post has a link redirecting to a thread where she is collecting comments.

  9. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd*

    OP4 (asking about someone on maternity) – if there’s any likelihood that they are asking because they feel the work isn’t being covered to the same standard as it would be by the maternity person – that’s something to address. It may or may not be obvious from context (an implied “because we can’t wait for things to get back to normal around here!” tacked on to “when is she due back”) but is something to think about.

  10. Anon Admin This Time*

    Re: #1: This letter is extremely timely, because I have a question about confidentiality that came up as a result of a recent exit interview. Our HR manager always does exit interviews (but never checks in with employees during their time actively working for the company. I can feel Alison’s disapproving frown from here.)

    I’ve never worked somewhere that had an HR department before, but I was under the impression that things discussed with HR are generally supposed to be confidential and shouldn’t be disclosed outside of the people directly involved. But I recently found out our HR manager likes to gossip with a friend of hers in IT about former employees’ exit interviews, and then the IT person spreads it around. As a result, even though I don’t have any interest in other people’s business, I know the exact drama-filled reasons why many of our now-former employees have quit since I started here. Are things like exit interviews not confidential outside the employee, HR, and management, then? This is certainly not making me feel like I can say much of anything in my own someday exit interview. I have a definite aversion to receiving or being the topic of gossip.

    (As an aside, said HR manager doesn’t just share exit interviews with her IT friend, but also the proceedings and results of disciplinary actions, which I KNOW should not be spread around.)

    1. Caramel & Cheddar*

      “Are things like exit interviews not confidential outside the employee, HR, and management, then?”

      They should be. Your HR manager sucks.

      1. Anon Admin This Time*

        I know your reply wasn’t a happy one, but it’s actually super helpful to me in eliminating the guilt I’m feeling over leaving this job ASAP (I only took it to help out someone I’m close to), so thank you! Because if everyone here sucks as much as I suspect they do, it’s only self-preservation if I get out, right? Right!

        I know I don’t need a “good” reason to leave any situation, but it helps me to have one. And my future exit interview will be the blandest exit interview that ever exited an interview.

        1. Nameless in Customer Service*

          You are free and encouraged to rescue yourself from a terrible situation.

        2. HQB*

          You can decline the exit interview, if you want. And you can decline it as blandly as you want. :)

        3. Run mad; don't faint*

          If asked about reasons for leaving, I’d be very tempted to say, “Because the HR department doesn’t keep exit interviews private.” I wouldn’t do it, but I’d really want to. Stick with blandest of the bland, Anon.

    2. Ama*

      I think exit interviews CAN be shared with the person’s former boss (or grant boss), but also every time that was the case at one of my previous jobs, I was told that going in to the interview (and at my really dysfunctional job, I did keep my comments very general because of that).

      But HR should not just be gossiping to other coworkers that aren’t the employee’s supervisor about the contents of those interviews.

    3. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

      I always understood that HR should be discrete, but it was never confidential; HR is not an Ombuds office — they really aren’t there to listen and give unbiased advice. They are there to protect the business not the people. The business reasons for people quitting should, IMO, be made somewhat transparent; why protect a problem manager, or inadequate/inequitable pay or benefits? It’s one way to keep administration accountable. But at least at my org, most coworkers already know why others quit even when it’s entirely personal — it would be hard to track it back to an HR leak.

      1. kiki*

        Yeah, the HR shouldn’t be gossiping with whoever will listen, but the point of exit interviews is that the company/management gets feedback so they can work on improvement. And people in those conversations, even if the names were redacted, will likely be aware of who recently quit and therefore likely said those things.

  11. Baron*

    I’m surprised Alison was as kind as she was to LW #3.
    If a workplace has the kind of culture where the boss would demand money back for training (that’s not how jobs work), it’s little surprise that employees are “flaking out” on that kind of workplace.

    1. Thin Mints didn't make me thin*

      One solution to this in the future is to document procedures followed in key jobs. Don’t rely on already-overworked people to do it, though. Hire a technical writer or training person to do it as a contract gig.

  12. zinzarin*

    For LW 2 (about the travel), I think the EASY BUTTON is just to cite the ongoing performance issues as the reason why you–current manager–isn’t letting Bob travel. Don’t even bother with trying to explain any past reasons, especially since they’d be so hard to defend.

    Let Bob know that once he’s performing to expectations in ALL other areas, he’ll be considered for travel opportunities. If he achieves that (great news!), then you pay attention to how he behaves on the road and manage any issues that arise out of that, in the moment.

  13. For what it's worth*

    I’ve never had an exit interview, even at places that purported to do them. Probably for the best, I’d be too tempted to lay them out for the shitty management and criminally low pay.

    1. NotHappening*

      Same. I’m not sure if I didn’t get an exit interview at previous job b/c I was a lowly paraprofessional (I worked there for 15 yrs) or b/c they didn’t want to hear anything.

  14. Pobody’s Nerfect*

    Really, really wish HR had conducted an exit interview with me after I left a job recently; I asked about it but the HR person was clueless and didn’t do one, so I left with so many things unsaid, complaints unresolved, and so many ways the organization could’ve improved if they’d only taken the time to ask me and listen. Bad HR allows bad processes to continue.

  15. kiki*

    I think exit interviews are almost always a good idea. People can be really insightful on their way out. Additionally, people hold back way more of their thoughts than a lot of bosses expect.

  16. JG+*

    The downside of the maternity leave question….I had a vendor I managed that worked closely with several members of our direct and extended team (mostly female if that makes a difference) who was having a baby, and trying to make sure everyone understood the transition to a temporary replacement during leave. TW here, but she wound up losing the baby extremely late in the pregnancy, just AFTER she had stepped away. This was obviously devastating news and hard to process as a leader and colleague on many levels. She specifically asked that the extended team not be told about it, as she didn’t want people reaching out, so instead, we had several weeks of well intentioned people drilling away at updates about the baby. Eventually, we told the team when things calmed down. She came back to work a few weeks later.

    One of the sucky things about being pregnant is that there’s often no way to hide it, and no way to hide from ‘well intentioned’ peoples curiosity when they find out.

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