Tom had been the VP of Sales for a successful mid-sized software firm. He had been a key member of the team and had helped plot sales strategy, drove sales and had been responsible for hiring many of their best salespeople. Then, one day, he was gone. He went through a non-committal exit interview and no one in the company ever found out the ‘real’ reasons for him leaving.

I had known this super-achiever for a number of years and he had always been fully engaged, with no thought of looking at other opportunities. Then, about 8 months ago, he suddenly had a shift and his radar was on and fielding calls on opportunities elsewhere. Not surprisingly he was gone within six months and all that business knowledge, customer goodwill, critical and thoughtful input  was gone with him.

The vast majority of companies would love to find out the real reasons why these stars leave, yet few actually make a concerted effort to dig into the underlying causes of dissatisfaction beyond the standard exit interview. When this relationship ends most employees simply clam up for fear of burning bridges and believe that, oftentimes, little will actually change. So, here are some suggestions to dig into the real reasons they left you.

First, give it some time: Emotions are too raw right after someone has resigned. The employee is concerned that, somehow, you or your firm might derail their new opportunity and also is worried about legal issues. You, as a leader, are also frustrated and upset.

Get an outsider to have the discussion, someone you trust: More often than not, when the HR representative does the exit interview the exiting employee’s reaction is to not rock the boat. From there standpoint nothing positive can come from them opening up to this individual. Call on an executive who the employee was friendly with, or perhaps a mentor that you know he/she respected. Another option is to use an outside recruiter you trust. This is someone who can frame the conversation in terms of broader knowledge of the market but can also explain, with clarity, the benefits to the interviewee.

Admit that you/the company didn’t do a great job of (fill in the blank). Admitting you’re wrong will go a long way towards taking the edge off the individual’s response and open them up to a true set of answers.  Tell them why you’re following up. Let them know how much he/she meant to the company and highlight the great things they had done for the firm. Tell them you’re trying to improve so this doesn’t happen again. Here are some suggested questions:

  1. What were the main reasons you decided to leave?  What  else? What else?
  2. With hindsight, what could we have done differently to have kept you?
  3. How long had you been thinking about leaving?
  4. Was there a specific catalyst that triggered you to leave?
  5. If you were in my shoes, what changes would you make to this organization?

Let them know they’re still valued: Be clear to the ex-employee that you are thankful for what they’ve done for the firm and wish them well. You’ll gain a ton of future “elegant currency” from the employee and you might learn a thing or two, as well.

Be positive and don’t take criticisms personally. Remember, that they are actually helping you here by sharing what could be valuable information. There may be things you do not agree with but don’t be defensive. This information is priceless.

If you carry out these exit interviews consistently you’ll gain a much clearer picture of what motivates your staff and what you can do to improve your company for all your people.