Turning Exit Interviews into Team Reviews

Here’s a thought experiment: “If you were to leave your team now, what would you say at your exit interview?” Has looking back in this imaginary scenario brought any different insights about how your team works? Or crystallised what’s important to you? In this blog post, Pilar suggests how to turn the concept of an exit interview into a team review meeting, to generate new insights into how we work.

Exit interviews are very valuable. They give those employees leaving their job the opportunity to say everything they want to say, as well as helping them find closure on that period of their professional life. Exit interviews can give companies information that might help them retain other employees in the future. They also provide a great moment to assess whether current practices are helping to keep people happy, or if they’re driving valuable employees away.

However, one problem with exit interviews is that employees might be worried about being too honest about those things they didn’t like in the company, in case it affects their job references or their chances of finding a different role in the organisation should they want to return in the future.

The other problem with exit interviews is… that they are carried out upon exit. A wealth of valuable information can be gathered during these interviews about what could make a team a better place to work in - so, why wait until someone leaves to gain this insight?

The Light Bulb Moment

One sunny April afternoon (there aren’t that many in London), I was catching up with my friend Lisette online. She had just carried out an exit interview with a very sensible person who quite enjoyed working in the team, but who needed to make space for her own business to grow.

She said lots of great stuff, all very valuable.”

Isn’t it a shame,” I said to Lisette, “ that we always wait until we leave a job, to think of all the things that could have made it better? Wouldn’t it be useful to identify some of these improvements while we still were in our jobs? For example, every six months, we could all commit to reflecting on what we would say if we were preparing for our exit interview. Then we could share as much or as little as we wanted with the rest of the team.”

One second later, we both reached for our pens to make a note: Lisette was preparing for her next team away-day, and I wanted to include this here for you to read.

Away from the Here and Now

There are many reasons why people wait until their exit interviews to communicate what they really think about the work environment. They might be afraid of speaking up for fear of repercussions or consequences, or just for fear of offending others. Sometimes, we simply don’t share what we think because we haven’t been asked, or we don’t anticipate it will go down well. Or we haven’t put aside the time or headspace to think about it.

The question, “What can we improve in our team?” is often answered with the same type of suggestions. We reach out for phrases that don’t rock the boat too much; we also don’t want to instigate too much change, as that would probably involve us having to go through some kind of change ourselves.

On the other hand, the question, “What three key points would you make at your exit interview if you were leaving tomorrow?” invites you to put some distance between you and your team or organisation.  It creates a new perspective from which to view your present role. It might even result in you discovering what is really getting in the way of your work, and what it is that you most value in your team or organisation.

Create a Safe Space

Using the exit interview concept can encourage your team to go through a slightly different thought process than the one you follow during your regular team reviews. The meeting itself will feel similar to your review meetings, but the starting point is different. 

You will need to travel into the future, and imagine yourself looking back as you're ready to move on. What really mattered?

During the meeting, there is no need to share every bit of feedback team members have thought of, but to concentrate on what they think could benefit the team or organisation (and themselves!) in the present. How much people feel they can share will depend on factors like how long they have been a part of your team, and how confident they are in their own assessment of the situation.

The Meeting

If you think this exercise will be valuable for your team, give people at least a week to think about it. Make it clear that they won’t be expected to share all of their insights, one or two will do.  However, in order to come up with reflections beyond those we regularly come up with in our team, you need to go through a different thinking process:

“If I were to leave today, what would I recommend the team change? What would I recommend they continue doing?”

At the meeting, capture everyone’s thoughts under different headings. For example, individual work, team communication, organisational level, work structure. Ask people to write their ideas down first or share a sketch or image (either in an online document or platform) and then elaborate on them verbally.  If you collect these in a moveable format, like file cards or post-it notes (physical or virtual), it will help with grouping and connecting.

While in “exit interview” mode, ask everyone to share just ONE thing they feel about something they wished had been different at their job, and ONE thing that helped them do a good job.

After everyone has elaborated on their two items, see whether any themes emerge, and try to group the thoughts into topics.

Ask yourselves:

  • Is there something we could do tomorrow to address this?
  • What would be a first step to change this?
  • What can we do to sustain this, and build upon what’s working well?

Finally, don’t forget to turn these ideas into team action plans, or else, you know what will come up at the real exit interviews… Hopefully you won’t have many of those just yet.  

If you read this post looking for information to carry out actual exit interviews in your remote team, you might want to check out episode 80 of the 21st Century Work Life podcast "Exit Interviews and Farewell Chats".