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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Management

4 Things You Should Ask an Employee Who's Leaving

A few months ago, one of my employees decided to leave the company. Her exit wasn’t a total surprise—we’d hired her originally as an intern, and we all knew her heart and her passion resided in the nonprofit realm. I tried to convince her that our business—employee engagement consulting—was saving the world in a different way, but alas, she wasn’t buying it.

We’re a relatively small organization, and life gets busy. On her last day, I was in client meetings and didn’t really get a chance to say a proper goodbye. I didn’t do an exit interview with her, either. (And I know what you’re thinking, by the way—so just do what I say and not what I do, OK?)

I’ve thought about her a lot over the last couple of months. I miss her presence in our office, but truthfully, I think she made the right decision. I’m a big believer in following your passion and purpose in life, and my guess is she will ultimately be much happier in a job that better fits with her life goals.

I wouldn’t have tried to talk her out of her decision, but there are a few questions I would have asked her if I had the chance to do it over again. (For the record, these are my questions as a leader and manager, not necessarily from a legal or HR standpoint. Google is your friend if you want loads of suggestions on that front.)

How did the job match your expectations?

Our own research at Brilliant Ink tells us that creating accurate first impressions is a key driver of employee engagement, so one of the first things I’d want to know is how the day-to-day realities of the job stacked up to our description of it when she began work with us. This doesn’t necessarily change the nature of the work in the future, but it would certainly help us know how to sell the job more effectively and accurately to result in better hires (which, in my opinion, is the toughest nut of all to crack).

Did you feel that the work you were doing aligned with your personal goals and interests?

We do a goal-setting process with our employees at the beginning of the year, and we revisit these on a quarterly basis. However, these are mostly professional development goals that tie directly to our business objectives. With this question, I’d be assessing how her work fits into the bigger picture of her life—something Millennials say is more and more important to them. And our research indicates that fully engaged employees report a greater likelihood of tapping into personal and professional passions and interests at work compared to less-engaged employees.

In this case of this particular employee, I already knew the answer—she had a passion for environmental work and causes, which doesn’t really relate to our field. And I wouldn’t necessarily change the nature of the work accordingly. But again, it gives clues into the kinds of questions we should be asking at the start of the hiring process and could guide conversations between managers and employees throughout their life with our company.

Did you have the tools and resources you needed to effectively do your job?

This is a big one. In the early years of the company, I got pretty comfortable with bootstrapping my way to success, which means we still operate pretty lean and mean. This is a good thing in terms of conserving costs, but we also have to remember that we can’t deliver outstanding work without the right systems in place to make the magic happen. Understanding how my employee felt about the kind of support she was getting would help us know what kinds of investments we should be making in the future.

Would you recommend this as a great place for a friend to work?

Would I get an truthful answer to this question? I honestly don’t know, but it’s worth a shot. The employee in question was a good, solid member of our team, and I’d trust her recommendation on future hires. If the job wasn’t a great fit for her, the next best thing I could hope is that she’d be an advocate for our company and a referrer of great potential employees. Plus, with the business that we’re in, it pays to know how we can improve our own employee experience.

Here’s a final exit interview question I don’t recommend: During a wrap-up interview, I once had a former boss ask me if there was anything she could do to change my mind. I enjoyed the job but was incredibly underpaid, so I felt a faint glimmer when she asked me this question. I told her a nominal raise would do the trick. Unfortunately, she promptly replied that it wasn’t possible. The lesson: Don’t offer something you can’t deliver. There’s nothing worse than getting your hopes up—only to have them doused with ice water.

We have an amazing team in place, and I hope I won’t be saying goodbye to anyone else for a very long time. But if we do, I’ll make the time for a proper goodbye—and a solid exit interview that will hopefully not only yield valuable insights, but that will leave everyone feeling good about our experience working together.

Photo of person leaving office courtesy of Shutterstock.