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The value of employee exit interviews for agencies

All agencies experience turnover, so it makes sense to have a process for when employees leave. The exit interview is an important part of that sequence.

In this episode, Chip and Gini discuss best practices for conducting effective exit interviews, including who should run them and what they should include.

The co-hosts also offer advice on the importance of ongoing employee communication to avoid surprises in the exit interviews that could have been avoided.

Key takeaways

  • Gini Dietrich: “Most people leave managers, they don’t leave companies.”
  • Chip Griffin: “If you are the one doing the exit interview, don’t react. Just listen.”
  • Gini Dietrich: “If I can follow the conversation, I am going to get much better information than if I just go through my checklist of questions that I’m supposed to ask in my exit interview.”
  • Chip Griffin: “An exit interview is an exit from their current role. It’s not the exit to the relationship.”


The following is a computer-generated transcript. Please listen to the audio to confirm accuracy.

Chip Griffin: Hello and welcome to another episode of the Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m Chip Griffin.

Gini Dietrich: And I’m Gini Dietrich.

Chip Griffin: Gini, I quit. Do you have any questions for me?

Gini Dietrich: Many.

Chip Griffin: Right after this.

Gini Dietrich: Please don’t quit.

Chip Griffin: Why? You don’t want to have to hit record on StreamYard?

Gini Dietrich: You do more than that. You produce it. You do the…

Chip Griffin: No, Jen produces it. I just…

Gini Dietrich: Okay, fair. But still, it’s on your side. If you quit, she quits.

Chip Griffin: All I do is I show up, I hit record and start talking.

Gini Dietrich: Can I hire her?

Chip Griffin: Which some would argue is probably not a good thing. They wish I would just hit record and shut up.

Gini Dietrich: That’s not true.

Chip Griffin: Some people, I bet, I bet, they’re probably not listening, right? That’s fair. If you believe that and you still listen, well, I can’t really help you then. You’ve got some issues that probably need to be dealt with in therapy. That I can’t assist you with.

Gini Dietrich: Go to podcast therapy.

Chip Griffin: Well, no, real therapy is what I was thinking. Like, you know, if you, if you want to listen to somebody that you hate listening to, in any event, that is not what we were talking about today. What we are going to talk about today is the exciting topic of exit interviews.

Gini Dietrich: Exciting, super exciting, important though.

It is important. Yep. And it’s challenging because it’s hard to get the truth from people when they leave. So I think there’s an opportunity for us to talk about how to conduct those and who should conduct them so that you can get really constructive information. Cause usually you get, especially as the, as the owner, you get things like, Oh, you know, I just…

I remember once one person quit, she was going to Chanel, which, okay, fine, you’re going to work for Chanel, whatever. And she was like, if it weren’t Chanel, I would still be here. And so there were, which was nice to hear, but there wasn’t any really constructive feedback in terms of, you know, what we could have done differently.

Or, you know, we certainly couldn’t have kept her just because it was Chanel and we can’t compete with that. But just getting some constructive feedback, even if, even if they’re leaving on great terms. It’s still important to get some constructive feedback.

Chip Griffin: Yeah, so I would argue that your goal should actually be not to get any constructive feedback.

Gini Dietrich: Oh, well then I did great with that one!

Chip Griffin: Because ideally that means that you’ve had good enough communication that you’ve already gotten the feedback along the way. Fair, that’s fair. And so, you know, and I’m not saying this actually happens in most cases, but in an ideal world, you don’t want someone to feel like it was only because they were on the way out the door that they were comfortable enough to say something. You know, you really want to foster that kind of communication is why I harp on one on ones and things like that.

You need to build that line of communication. The reality, of course, is that, you know, no matter how hard you try, there are probably going to be things that people will hold back. So, you know, you do want to take advantage of the exit interview to try to surface those things that, that fell off the radar from what they were willing to talk to you about while they were in your employment.

Gini Dietrich: Well, and I would say too, that, you know, most people leave managers, they don’t leave companies. So, you know, when you do an exit interview and that’s the reason they’re leaving, it’s important to get that kind of information as well.

Chip Griffin: It absolutely is. And you can you know, often get people to open up a little bit by just, you know, making them feel comfortable.

Now you want to be careful that you don’t make them feel like, well, you’re only listening to me now because I’m quitting. Right. Right. Right. Because, because another purpose of the exit interview is to make sure that you have a smooth departure, right? So, so if you do an exit interview, well, You can try to make it so that they’re not going to run around, hopefully, and, and badmouth your agency or their manager or that kind of thing because, you know, you gave them that, that platform on their way out to share.

It also helps you to build that relationship for the future, right? Because we’ve talked many times about how former employees can be a great source of business and other things. They’re boomerang employees where they come back to work for your agency somewhere down the road. So there’s a lot of benefits from doing an exit interview correctly.

Gini Dietrich: So in that, from your perspective, then how would you do an exit interview correctly?

Chip Griffin: Well, so it’s, you know, in a small agency that the exit interview is almost certainly going to be done by the manager or some, sorry, by the owner or by someone very, very senior. It’s, you know, it certainly is better to have it done by you know, someone who is a little bit more detached than the day to day manager, if possible.

Right? Because that’s, you know, if someone had to your point, if they did quit their manager, then that’s going to be a less comfortable place for them to share their candid thoughts, right? I’m unlikely to say, Yeah, you’re a micromanager. I just couldn’t stand working for you. Whereas if it’s someone else, and that’s why a lot of larger organizations will have someone from HR do the, the exit interview.

Obviously that tends not to be feasible for most small agencies because you don’t have a full time HR person. You can have your HR consultant do it, but that feels almost antiseptic to me. To have someone that they really haven’t built any kind of relationship with. Do it. So it’s, it’s probably going to be the owner or the owner’s right hand.

If that owner is not available for whatever reason. And so, you know, I think that’s, that’s where you start. That’s should be who’s doing the interview.

Gini Dietrich: So what, what we do is because I have learned that I don’t get the full truth, especially with somebody that’s upset or leaving because they feel like they’ve been wronged. And there may be chances. There may have been opportunities for us to discuss them at that, those issues in one to ones.

And we have, and I felt like they’ve been resolved and they’ve still harbored resentment because they haven’t, we haven’t had a full truthful conversation. So I do have our HR consultant do exit interviews, but I have them do it… I have them do it from the perspective of, you know, how, how would you rate your manager on these things?

What would you, you know, give us feedback. And then I do the final interview, which is just to say, you know, we’re, we’re sorry to see you go. And, you know, is there anything you’d like to tell me, but I know that they’re getting – the HR consultant gets the real full truth. That said our HR consultant is pretty involved.

Like they’re, they may not have a, you know a day to day relationship, but they do have the opportunity to build a relationship through benefits renewal and PTO and like all the like probably once a month. They’re talking to our HR consultant So there is we do that.

Chip Griffin: Yeah, and I think that’s the key if you’re going to have an HR consultant involved in this process it can’t be like the first time someone’s having a conversation because that just that feels weird And so it really depends on, you know, how you’ve set up with your HR consultant.

If they are someone who’s having regular ongoing contact with your team, that’s great, then they can absolutely take advantage of it. And some of this is case by case, right? Because if it’s someone who didn’t report to you, then it’s easier for you to be the one that conducts it as the owner. If it’s someone who did report to you, then obviously, you know, you do have that, that challenge.

So You know, you need to try to see if there’s someone else on your team could reasonably do it. I mean, it’s got to be someone at close to your level, though, right? You can’t have them do it with a peer or something like that. So your, your options may be limited in certain circumstances. But you do want to think it through and think about the circumstances under which they’re leaving too, right?

I mean, if they’re leaving for this great opportunity, you know, you have to be less concerned and sensitive to it than if they’re leaving because they’re clearly disgruntled, in which case you really want to be careful about sitting down with them.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And it’s not easy because even though you’ve built a relationship and there’s trust and all of that, there are situations where things get out of control.

Like I remember a really specific situation with an assistant of mine that I did everything that I could to be supportive and understanding. And for some reason, she felt like I was not being genuine and I was, but she didn’t feel that way. And it became really terrible. It was terrible. And so I had to bring in the HR consultant to do all the exit interview and everything, because she was just…

she was flying in my face, very nasty. And there was no constructive conversation to be had. So I think you’re right. It is case by case for sure.

Chip Griffin: Yeah. And a lot of it comes down to how the individual just, you know, views it themselves. I’ve had exit interviews where someone just, you know, won’t give me anything.

You know, they just, they want to get through it. And you can’t force them, right? They’re, they’re leaving. You know, the same reason why they’re free to speak is the same reason that they’re free not to speak. Because, you know, what are you going to do to them? You can’t fire them. They’re already leaving.

So, you know, at that point they kind of get to drive the conversation, decide whether they want to open up or not. So, you know, I’ve had some of these where they just won’t open up at all. They’re just trying to get in and out as quickly as possible. I’ve had some who just completely unload, right? They just, they feel like this is the opportunity to unburden themselves of every, every, thought, gripe, et cetera, that they’ve ever had.

You know, but then you have some that are just really constructive and they, it ends up being a really good dialogue about, you know, what they might do differently. And, and those are the, those are the gems that to me, those are the reasons why you do exit interviews because they’re few and far between that you actually get that really high quality exit interview.

But when you do, you can really surface some useful stuff that will help you run your business better.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, I totally agree with that. And, and there, there are some great gems that you get, and it does help you. I mean, it’s like getting client feedback, right? Because it’s the same, same kind of thing. Some clients will say wonderful things.

Some clients will kind of hedge. Some clients won’t give you anything. And in there, you’ll be able to get some gems that help you, both positive and negative, that’ll help you run your business more effectively.

Chip Griffin: And, and I think it’s important, if you were the one doing the exit interview, don’t react.

Just listen.

Gini Dietrich: It’s so hard. Yes. Yes. It’s so hard.

Chip Griffin: Because if they have constructive criticism or just, you know a lot of negativity doesn’t matter. Just sit back. Listen to it, absorb it. You can digest it and do what you want with it later. I mean, you can just decide to completely ignore it and just say, yep, they were just disgruntled.

They were going to say that anyway, I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing. But don’t tell them that in the moment. Don’t start arguing.

Gini Dietrich: That’s fair. Yes.

Chip Griffin: Because again, they’re leaving, right? There’s no point. Right. And, and so if that’s what they believe, let them believe it. I mean, you know, if it’s really, truly a factual thing and they just don’t have a piece of information, you might just share it just for context, but be really judicious in that because, you know, you don’t want to turn this into a debate.

You don’t want to, if they’re already disgruntled, you don’t want to make them even more disgruntled. That doesn’t serve any purpose. So, you know, be mindful of that as you’re, as you’re going in and the advice that we give managers all the time is spend more time listening, but that’s never more true than the exit interview.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, I mean, more, I would say like, listen, listen, listen, and then just say thank you versus because it is really challenging not to react. And it’s really challenging not to defend yourself, but you will be better off in the long run just to like, one of my things to do is so that I don’t react is I take notes, pen and paper.

And then that allows me to just like, keep my head down and keep taking notes and not, not let them see my, I would be a terrible poker player, not let them see my face when they’re saying things that I might react to, and that allows me also to continue to, to listen. So I think there are tools that you can use to help you not react in the moment, and then you can go out and scream, drink some tequila, or do whatever it is that makes you feel better.

Chip Griffin: Exactly. And you also have to remember that this is, in most cases, it’s going to be the last professional impression they have of you. That’s right. Before they leave. Yep. And so you want to do your best to leave as positive a taste in their mouth as you can, right?

And if it is a, if it is an amicable departure, great, you know, and, and, but, but still even then bend over backwards to reinforce that. You know, make sure that you’re, you’re letting them know that if you can ever be helpful to them down the road or open a door for, you know, that you are there for them.

Because this is the first step in building that ongoing relationship with the former employee that may open doors for you down the road, as long as you are genuinely offering to be of assistance to them in the future.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, that’s for sure. And, you know, I always say that employees are remembered by how they left.

Not what they did while they were employed by you. And that’s, that’s true on our side too. Like you will be remembered by the way that the days and hours go after they, they give their notice. That’s what they’ll remember. They won’t remember all the great things you did together, but they’ll remember the last, the last impression that you gave them.

Chip Griffin: So as, as we’re thinking about these exit interviews, you know, we’ve sort of talked about the general approach and demeanor, but you know, what are some of the questions that you would ask in an exit interview to try to explore you know, the kind of feedback that you’d like to get?

Gini Dietrich: You know, I would ask things like, I mean, congratulations on your, your role. Can you give me some, some thoughts on why you’re leaving and let them start the conversation there. And just like I do with new business meetings, I would just kind of dig deeper in, but that’s the one I would start with is let’s talk about why you’re leaving. And tell me why that is and help me understand this.

Or, you know, depending on what they, they say, I dig further. It’s the, the why, why, why I like to ask at least three times and just continue to dig. So that’s where I start. And then I sort of let the conversation go where it goes based on what they’ve responded to.

Chip Griffin: So it’s interesting. So my approach is actually a little bit different.

So I want to get to the same place, but I don’t usually start with asking them why they left. But instead, I start asking more general questions about, you know, what are we doing well, what could we improve? And so instead of trying to drill right into their own personal reasons or their personal experience, I want to, you know take that, that step back to get them comfortable talking first.

It, it doesn’t necessarily make it right or wrong, right? Cause most people want to share their own personal story anyway. So it can be helpful to, to take the approach you do where you just, you know, you, you get right to the point. You know, my, my own personal view was I wanted to try to, to start more broadly and then kind of narrow down to the – cause usually you’ll get the answer from that anyway. Right, yeah, absolutely. You know, so a lot of it though comes down to your personal style. And frankly your personal relationship with that individual. Yep. You know, hopefully you have some idea already before the exit interview why they’re leaving. Right? I mean, if you’re the HR consultant doing it, you probably have no idea.

Right. But you know, if you are the owner or a senior executive in the small agency, chances are you’ve got some, at least you have your own theory. Let’s put it that way. As to why they’re leaving. So, but you do, the whole point, and I like that you said, you just kind of follow the conversation where it goes, which is exactly right.

Don’t go into this with some list of questions. I’m sure you can go on the internet and find some list of exit interview questions. I beg you not to, I mean, go ahead and read those things.

Gini Dietrich: Go down your list. Okay. Next question.

Chip Griffin: Right. I mean, make it a meaningful dialogue. That’s where you’re going to get the good stuff.

If you’re just, if you’re just working through your, your checklist of questions. You’re getting nothing, right? And, and so you need to be able to engage with them. So even though you’re doing mostly listening, you want to make your follow up questions show that you actually are listening. So you’re not just, you know, sitting back and ask one question, write down the answer, move on to the next.

It really does need to be much more interactive than that. If, if you truly want to get useful information out of it. And I think you ought to be trying to do that.

Gini Dietrich: You should, just as an example, you should listen to a variety of podcasts. And the podcast that hosts, the host has guests on, the really good ones, in my opinion, are those that follow the conversation.

The ones that are like, okay, well, that, that was a great answer. Great. Well, my next question is, and you’re like, Terrible. But there are lots of podcasts that do that because the host hasn’t figured out how to listen and then ask questions based on the conversation. And just from your perspective, when you listen to the different, different pieces like that, you start to understand, wow, if I can learn how to follow the conversation, I am going to get a much broader and better information than if I just go through my checklist of questions that I’m supposed to ask in my exit interview.

Chip Griffin: Right. And I mean, that’s true in all sorts of things. You know, earlier in my career, I was a Congressional committee staffer. You know, one of those people who sits back against the back wall behind the actual members of the committee and leans forward and whispers to them, you know, hands them things.

And one of the things we always did was we prepared lists of questions for hearings for the witnesses who appeared before the committee. And so we would prepare these questions and we would give them to the members and the, the best members were the ones who, who took the question in front of them, but they had also been listening during the hearing.

And so they, they stuck with the theme that we had given them. So we could, you know, tell the story we were looking to tell in the hearing, but they, you know, they did it in a more conversational way. They, you know, if someone didn’t get, cause we would also put the expected answer under the answer. And so the good ones, if they didn’t give anything close to that expected answer, they would kind of try to drill back to it, to get them to come to that point.

The worst ones took the list of questions and asked them verbatim, waited until the person took a breath at the end of the response, and then asked the next question. And so I can tell you how many times I saw ones where it just, it made no sense because sometimes a witness will go on and on. And so they answer question number two while they’re answering question number 1, and so you ask question number 2, and they’re like, well, like I just said Congressman. Or, or the best one is where someone asked the same question that the member before them asked, right? Cause the member before them went off script. Right. They weren’t paying any attention cause they were too busy.

I mean, well back in our day, they didn’t have like, you know, iPhones, but you know, well, their BlackBerry, I mean, actually they didn’t have BlackBerrys back then, but they’re pager, I don’t know, whatever it was, they were not paying attention, they were not, they were not paying attention, they were doing something entirely different. And so, you know, you need to make sure that, that when you’re going through this exit interview, that you are having that engaged conversation, because that’s, that is where the, the real gems come from.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, absolutely. And I will say it’s, it’s hard, it’s hard to have that conversation, even if somebody is leaving on good terms because you’re losing somebody. And that, that’s always a challenge just as human beings. So this is not an easy thing to do, but it is important for you to do them just so that you can get both so that you can get some good information, you know, about how to run your business differently, but also so that you can leave a positive lasting impression after they leave.

Chip Griffin: Right. And don’t take any of it personally, frankly, good or bad. Right. I mean, if they tell you you’re the best boss ever, take that with a grain of salt, because, you know, are they just saying that because they want to exit comfortably or do they really mean it, you know, take the input, think about it, ask yourself, does this make sense?

Right. So if they say. you know, that we think you’re a micromanager, look at your own behavior and ask yourself, am I? And, and so, you know, but typically if someone says, you know, you could do less micromanagement, I will ask for examples in that case, right? So, so tease it out of them, explain to me what you mean by that, because what they think of as micromanagement may not be what you think of as micromanagement, right?

And so you want to try to understand it because, you know, there may be behaviors that you could change or just even shift how you’re communicating it, or maybe even explaining why you’re doing it. If the micromanagement is because you’re asking for timesheets, well that means you probably didn’t do a very good job of explaining why timesheets are actually beneficial to the employee.

And so you can get those little tidbits out of there if you’re asking those follow up questions and following that thread to where it goes.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah. And the timesheets.

Chip Griffin: I, you know, I can’t help myself, exit interviews, timesheets and speaking of taking it personally, don’t take it personally that they’re leaving.

Right. I mean, to your point, it’s not comfortable. We don’t, we don’t want, particularly, we don’t want good people to leave. Although frankly, most agency owners don’t want bad people to leave either. They just, you know, they view it as an insult.

Gini Dietrich: We don’t want change. We don’t want the change.

Chip Griffin: I mean, you could think this is the worst employee in the world and still be upset they quit.

Yes. I don’t understand that one personally. , but you know, it is what it is. And, and but don’t take it personally. Yeah. People move on and, and it’s not a bad thing. It can actually be a good thing for you. It opens up new opportunities for you. You bring in someone new, new blood, new perspective, new ideas, new talents. That’s right. You know, good things can come from this if you are open to it and, and if you’re listening during this exit interview. Maybe it gives you some information to help you make that next hire more effective. Make a better pick. Structure the role better. Change your processes, whatever it is.

Gini Dietrich: And, and teach them why you’re asking for timesheets so they don’t think you’re micromanaging.

Chip Griffin: And just remember, an exit interview is an exit from their current role. It’s not the exit to the relationship.

Gini Dietrich: Ah, that’s, look at that. That was the best place to end. That was smart.

Chip Griffin: So that will draw to an end this episode of the Agency Leadership Podcast.I’m Chip Griffin.

Gini Dietrich: I’m Gini Dietrich.

Chip Griffin: And it depends.

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The Hosts

Chip Griffin is the founder of the Small Agency Growth Alliance (SAGA) where he helps PR & marketing agency owners build the businesses that they want to own. He brings more than two decades of experience as an agency executive and entrepreneur to share the wisdom of his success and lessons of his failures. Follow him on Twitter at @ChipGriffin.


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, the lead blogger at Spin Sucks, and the host of Spin Sucks the podcast. She also is co-author of Marketing in the Round and co-host of Inside PR. Follow her on Twitter at @GiniDietrich.

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