Using Exit Interviews to Identify Problems in Work Teams

Instructor: Scott Tuning

Scott has been a faculty member in higher education for over 10 years. He holds an MBA in Management, an MA in counseling, and an M.Div. in Academic Biblical Studies.

Regardless of whether employees are leaving a team assignment for positive or negative reasons, it is a great opportunity to evaluate team performance. The lesson outlines how to capture this data using an exit interview.

Learning from Mistakes and Success

Imagine that you have spent two years leading a team working toward a deliverable of improving customer flow through a retail store. About halfway through those two years, an employee on the team suddenly misses two consecutive team meetings. After tracking down the employee and asking about the absence, you learn that the employee wants to leave the team because she feels her presence is no longer important. It's not likely that you would force the employee back onto the workplace team, but it is certainly important to understand why she did not want to return and why you are just now hearing about the problem.

Exit interviews are like a search button. They help team leaders discover important things about the team dynamic.

Exit Interviews Defined

Without an exit interview, team leaders will never know what caused an employee's departure. An exit interview is the process of listening to employees who are leaving a current role with the team or organization. Although these are two-way discussions, exit interviews should be a lot more about listening than they are about talking. When employees are departing a workplace team, it's critical that the organization understand the reason for the departure so that they can respond appropriately. Regardless of whether the departure is occurring for a positive or negative reason, exit interviews provide employers a chance to change configurations of workplace teams in order to achieve their objectives.

Components of an Exit Interview

Positive vs. Negative Team Experiences

Although most organizations conduct exit interviews for employees who will depart the company, a far smaller number conduct exit interviews when individuals seek to be removed from a workplace team. This is a mistake because it deprives the organization of an opportunity to make improvements based on feedback they might not otherwise obtain. During exit interviews, employees are almost always more candid because their departure from the team means closing a chapter in their professional life.

When exit interviews are conducted, some paths of inquiry will always be included. One of the first questions in an exit interview should determine whether the employee is departing the team for positive reasons or negative reasons. The reason it is important to capture this early is because it allows the interviewer to place answers in context. In other words, an employee departing a team because of a negative experience is likely to frame responses in a negative way. Conversely, employees who are moving up and out of the team are likely to frame their experiences in a much more favorable light.

Everyone wants a team to be cohesive and functional, and exit interviews help assess progress toward this goal.

Leadership Evaluation

A second critical element of an exit interview is an assessment of the leadership situation within the team. When employees depart a workplace team for a negative reason, team leadership is almost always cited as a factor in the decision. As a result, an outgoing employee should always be asked to discuss the pros and cons associated with the team's leader.

It is important to note that asking a departing employee to assess the team's leadership doesn't mean you have to accept all of their statements as fact. In other words, an exit interviewer can listen to a departing employee discuss the flaws they observed in the team's leadership, but the interviewer should understand that this is one perspective and not accept everything said as substantive truth. Any statements presented as fact by the departing employee should be independently verified if they rise to the level of something that might result in significant team leadership changes.

The Plus / Delta

The Plus / Delta exercise is another critical piece of an exit interview. The process gets its name from the Greek letter Delta (Δ), which is used in mathematics and science as a symbol for change. Likewise, the plus describes value added activities or functions. During an exit interview, the process asks the employee to provide information about team practices that should be subject to change as well as practices that should be retained because they continually add value.

A simple but effective method for conducting a Plus / Delta is to use a piece of paper divided into two columns. The departing employee is asked to place their observations in the appropriate columns.

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