Managing People

Why Offboarding and Exit Interviews Are Important and How to Do Them Right 

September 27, 2019
March 9, 2024
Lesley Chen
Lattice Team

In hiring and managing employees, most organizations have well-documented onboarding processes to make sure a new hire’s transition into the company is smooth. But an employee’s transition out of a company is equally important. Whether or not that employee leaves voluntarily, it’s important to establish offboarding guidelines to instill a clear exit path that shows mutual respect for all parties, both in the short- and long-term.

What is offboarding and why is it important?

Offboarding is the process at the end of an employee’s tenure. It involves logistical details like returning company property, transitioning work and projects to others, and letting key stakeholders know about changes in personnel. It’s also a way to gain insights and feedback that can help the organization and employee in the future. Says Rachel Cooke, founder of Lead Above Noise, “Depending on the behavior of both employee and organization, offboarding has the potential to mirror a venomous divorce or an amicably conscious uncoupling, or anything in between. There should indeed be a process for it as it provides the organization with a template for handling the exit gracefully and proactively.”

Like a bad break up, a poor offboarding experience can leave a bad taste in the mouth and lead to consequences in the long run that extend beyond the individual affected. “Today’s world is much smaller and an employer’s brand is a significant element in attracting, retaining, and revisiting key staff,” says Jana Tulloch, founder of Tulloch Consulting. “Employees today are looking for challenge and growth and sometimes will return to former employees if the opportunity arises. But that can be blown by a poor experience when they left. Treating exiting employees as if they are of lesser importance of current ones is a sure way to damage your reputation, given that many individuals maintain contact and friendships with those they left behind. Knowing a colleague was treated well when they left creates a positive ripple effect for those who are left behind, knowing that when they leave, they can expect the same.”

Offboarding at the end of an organization/employee relationship (even if temporary) is the last impression an employee will have of that particular milestone in their career. Regardless of decisions or actions that led to the exit, maintaining professionalism and respect should be a priority. And can be a learning opportunity for the company.

Goals for Offboarding

Beyond simply transitioning an individual from current to former employee, there should be certain goals established to maintain a clear, strategic offboarding process.

Gain Feedback and Insight

Offboarding is a way for an employee to give honest, constructive feedback on their employee experience, identify any red flags, and find closure for a particular job. This can provide valuable insight for an organization regarding its corporate culture and help determine whether any concerns discussed were one-off incidents or could possibly be symptoms of a larger systemic problem. 

Maintain a Positive Reputation

This goes both ways, but it’s never wise to burn bridges. Word of mouth spreads quickly and reputations can be quickly damaged by a squeaky wheel or two. Says Cooke, “Too many employers take on the ‘good riddance’ attitude when watching employees exit the organization. But this is a short-sighted point of view as that employee will return to the talent marketplace speaking of their experience of their former employer, both with friends, colleagues, and even online where they may have a sizable platform. The more an organization can do to positively influence the last impression it leaves with an exiting employee, the better the organization's talent brand will be served.” 

Best Practices for Offboarding

Offboarding doesn’t need to be a drawn-out, belabored process — it’s better to be focused and direct. Similar to how onboarding is conducted, it’s helpful to have a list of best practices and to-do items. 

General offboarding items can include:

  • Discussion with their manager to transition ongoing projects or work and identify who will be handling them in the interim
  • Clear and timely communication notifying both internal and external stakeholders on the change 
  • Review of an employee’s files and property to determine what must be returned to the company and what can be kept by the individual
  • Review of an employee’s access to shared drives, documents, and email accounts and how to deactivate access and forward permissions
  • Review of the company’s benefits and when/how those will be terminated 
  • Exit interview to discuss the reasons for leaving and any outstanding items 

Best Practices for Exit Interviews

Exit interviews are a great face-to-face way to collect organizational feedback during the offboarding process, and they should never be adversarial. Because not everyone leaves a company on good terms, the way you conduct exit interviews must be handled with an extra level of care. But done correctly, they can lead to benefits for the employee and the organization.  

“In an exit interview, the goal is to understand why someone chose to leave,” says Tulloch. “There are some very valuable questions that can be asked to dig deeper into what their decision point was. Ultimately there may be attrition causes that the organization cannot do much about (budget constraints, nature of the work) but when possible, act on the feedback.” Any change is an opportunity for an organization to learn and grow, even if that change uncovers uncomfortable issues. Employee feedback gives an on-the-ground perspective about numerous facets of an organization that executive teams may not have considered.

The aim should be to have constructive conversation in a safe environment. “It’s important for those conducting the exit interview to view the conversation as a source of information for areas of improvement and act on main takeaways instead of taking comments to heart,” advises Stephanie Naznitsky, executive director for global staffing firm OfficeTeam. Likewise, “exit interviews can certainly leave the possibility for return in the future to departing employees, depending on how professionally they handle the meeting.” Mutual respect is key. Here are some guidelines and considerations for running an effective exit interview process:

  1. Establish proper timing. Give the employee advance notice that the exit interview is happening. “Consider scheduling the meeting on one of the worker’s last days,” suggests Naznitsky. This will help the employee wrap up their time at the company.
  2. Include Human Resources or an objective party. “Because departing employees may be uncomfortable discussing certain subjects with their immediate supervisor, have an HR representative conduct one-on-one meetings in a private setting,” says Naznitsky. Sometimes hiring an independent third party may be helpful to encourage honest feedback.
  3. Ask the right questions. The conversation should be brief, and asking the right questions will steer the conversation in the right direction. Questions such as “What is the primary reason for your departure?”, “What can the company improve on?” “How would you describe your experience here?” can open up lines of discussion. Keep the questions professional and open-ended to prevent leading the employee.
  4. Don’t get defensive and record all the information. Exit interviews provide a unique chance for employees to speak their mind without worrying about repercussions, like a negative impact on a performance review. Because of this, the exit interviewer should have an open mind and open ears. Says Naznitsky, “Avoid correcting or confronting the person. Listen carefully and gather as many details as possible.” Adds Cooke, “The person (likely HR) conducting the interview should be purely in listening and probing mode. This is not the time to defend. In some instances, the employee might be angry, and HR might see their responses as silly or not valid. Capture it all.” All responses should be considered valid and be recorded somewhere so the organization can review the information collectively to identify any overarching trends and themes. 
  5. Keep it confidential. This goes without saying, but whatever is said during an exit interview should not be broadcast publicly and should only be used internally to improve the team and organization.
  6. Express gratitude. “The employee has no obligation to participate in this process, so an expression of gratitude for their thought and candor is important,” says Cooke.

Back in August, we asked our Resources for Humans Slack community for ideas about how they conduct exit interviews, and Rescale Recruiting Manager Lauren Fraley shared her list of 12 favorite open-ended exit interview questions:

  1. Why are you leaving? (if  applicable) When did you know it was no longer a fit or what was the pivotal moment you realized that you were leaving?
  2. Why did you chose to come to [your company]and what did you like most about your experience?
  3. What, if anything, did you like least or dislike?
  4. What did you find most challenging about the day to day work experience?
  5. Did you have the resources needed to get your job done (support, equipment, etc.)?
  6. Describe your working relationship with your manager?
  7. What could we get better at (This can apply to anything! Whatever comes to mind, Sales, HR, Training, etc.)?
  8. What were your thoughts on pay for your position?
  9. How were your benefits of working at [your company]?
  10. How was onboarding for you (interview, pre-start, through training)?
  11. Did you feel like there was a job trajectory or career path for you?
  12. Anything else you would like to talk about?

Successful organizations are made by building strong teams and relationships; offboarding is a critical component in this process.