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Lots to learn from an employee on the way out

I was a couple of years into my first business when I got absorbed in starting a second one. To manage it all, I had to delegate more to the staff of my first business, challenging them to be as independent as possible.

It was all going along swimmingly until I found out one day that, in my original business, 25 per cent of my employees were giving notice.

My position wasn't as dramatic as it sounds: We were a four-person shop, and one of my team was leaving to accompany his fiancé to a big job out of the province.

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I saw this as a blow, but also as an opportunity.

Interviewing employees as they depart is a common practice for most large corporations. It's not as common in smaller businesses, but can be even more valuable.

Working for you is the single biggest investment of their time that employees make in a weekly activity besides sleeping. Don't miss the chance to find out what it's really like, and how to make it better.

An employee on the way out is more likely to reveal the good, the bad and the ugly about what kind of work experience they've had than an employee in a performance review who has to come to work the next day.

My little shop wasn't big on policies, procedures or formal human resource protocols, but I saw this as a chance to be a better boss and own a better business.

I asked simple questions, off the top of my head. Among them:

1. What did you like least about working here?

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2. What did you like most about working here?

3. Do you feel like you were an important part of the team?

4. Did you feel that you were treated fairly?

5. What was the most inefficient part of your job that you wish could be taken away?

6. Who did you like working with the best, and why?

7. Who did you like working with the least, and why?

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8. If this was your business, what would you do differently to make the job more enjoyable and productive?

9. Would you recommend working here to a friend? Why or why not?

10. Are there any comments that you would like to make about your experience working here that you have hesitated to communicate before now?

I listened. I took notes. I asked follow-up questions, and I made sure the whole chat didn't last more than about 20 minutes.

I learned a lot. I made improvements to my business based on the feedback.

I have used and refined the practice of exit interviews ever since, and I would never miss the opportunity to do so.

Some staff hesitate and some let the floodgates open. Every interview is different, but every one is valuable.

I suggest that all small-business owners conduct exit interviews, no matter how casual.

Surf the Internet for a broad range of interview approaches. Be genuine. Incorporate what you learn.

You'll be a better boss, and own a better business.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Chris Griffiths is the Toronto-based director of fine tune consulting, a boutique management consulting practice. Over the past 20 years, he has started or acquired and exited seven businesses.

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