Jacob Kaplan-Moss

Your last one-on-one: what to do instead of an exit interview

My friend Philip James writes:

I am mildly annoyed you had no feedback for managers about how to get useful feedback out of the last meeting with a report

Fair! I wrote my previous piece on exit interviews from the perspective of the person who is leaving. I’ve heard from quite a few managers that their final meetings with departing team members have been some of the most useful and productive sessions they’ve had.

So say you agree with me that exit interviews are dangerous for employees, but you’re a kind, empathetic manager who’s built a team with high trust. You’d never dream of retaliation, are open to feedback – even if it’s harsh. You don’t want to put your departing direct in an uncomfortable or threatening position, but you’d like to know what they have to say! What then?

Frame it in your mind: it’s your final 1:1, not an exit interview

My advice to managers is not “just don’t talk to your directs as they’re leaving”. You absolutely can (and should). If you’ve built trust, if you’ve demonstrated that you (and your employer) will treat criticism professionally, there’s a good chance that they’ll want to share their thoughts with you.

There is absolutely a fair, non-manipulative, and safe way to hold this kind of conversation. The critical first step is to frame this meeting in your mind: it’s not an “exit interview”, it’s your final one-on-one1. If you’ve built a solid relationship with this person, they’ll regularly be bringing problems and even criticism into your 1:1s. If you’ve demonstrated a track record of making it safe to do that, this final meeting can be quite similar. As with any 1:1, if they have things to share, you’re there to listen.

One way you can implicitly communicate the normality of this meeting is to just keep it at your normally-scheduled 1:1 time. Maybe block off your calendar immediately after so you can leave room in case the conversation spills over, but otherwise keep the routine.

Importantly, this isn’t the time for a diving save. If they’re leaving because of some problem (or some constellation of them), the time to fix those problems was at least 3-6 months ago. That’s when their frustration with the workplace finally overcame inertia enough for them to update their resume and start sending out feelers.

If you’re learning new information at this final meeting, something has gone wrong. It’s your responsibility as a manager to know what’s up with your people, if they’re happy or unhappy, and why. If they flipped the table three months ago and you didn’t know about it, it’s already far too late to fix it. The lesson for you is that you need to do a better job knowing your folks and finding out about problems in time to do something about them. If you did know, and you didn’t (or couldn’t) fix it, the lesson is: fix these problems or keep losing staff.

In terms of your relationship with this direct, the best you can hope for is to leave them with a better taste in their mouth. You can’t (and shouldn’t) try to push them for new information, or change their mind. You might be able to leave them with a more positive impression of your working relationship and your workplace. You might be able to leave them with some hope that conditions will improve for their colleagues. You might be able to keep a professional relationship with this person outside of work, and make them part of your extended professional network. (This has been huge for me: two of the people I turn to most often when I need advice at work are folks who used to report to me.)

Run interference with HR

If your company tries to do “standard” exit interviews with HR (or with your boss), you can do your direct a real kindness by running interference for them. Tell HR you’ll do the exit interview and report back, and then do what I’m suggesting instead. If HR insists, tell your direct they don’t have to go, and that you’ll back them up. Heck, send them a link to my previous article, if you like.

If your company likes to try to engage in unethical behavior around exit interviews – threatening to withhold references or final pay – trying to force people to sign outgoing non-competes or non-disparagement agreements, etc. – tell your direct that shit is unethical and probably illegal and they don’t have to agree to anything. And also if your company engages in abusive practices like that, maybe your direct has the right idea and you should be looking to get out, too.

Agenda for your last 1:1

With the groundwork laid, here’s how I suggest approaching that final 1:1:

Before the meeting: lay the groundwork

Ahead of time, offer to listen to anything they want to say, but also make it clear it’s optional. I’d say something like:

At our last 1:1, I’ll have a few logistical things to go over. After that, as with every 1:1, I’ll also make room for you to talk about whatever you want and share any reflections on your time here, if you want. Absolutely no obligation: if there’s nothing you’d like to discuss that’s fine, we can just do the logistics and call it a day.

You should also prepare for a final performance review. Some directs will ask for it, or less formally for any final feedback you have for them. (This is more likely to happen if you’ve done a good job giving feedback and providing useful, actionable performance reviews.) If this happens, you won’t want to extemporize.

By no means should you give them a performance review or any feedback if they don’t ask!

First: thank them, cover logistics, and talk about references

At the meeting itself, start with a few things:

Go over any final logistics. I don’t recommend trying to work through whatever offboarding checklist you’ve got, even if this meeting is also happening on their last day. You don’t want to be messing with removing AWS access and then try to pivot to talking about feelings. Save offboarding for dedicated offboarding time. But if there’s stuff you need ahead of offboarding, or lingering logistical questions, start with those and get them out of the way.

Thank them for their work. Do this even if you’re partially or even totally glad to see them go. They worked for you and contributed to your team. Thanking them for their effort and time is literally the least you can do.

If you’re willing to provide a good reference, tell them. Don’t leave them wondering if you’d be a positive reference or not; tell them you’d be happy to be a reference and that it’ll be a strong one. Share whatever personal contact information they’d need to provide to reference checkers.

I usually also make a more general offer to help them in the future if I can. I encourage them to reach out if there’s anything I could do to help them down the line. This offer has turned into ongoing coaching relationships with former directs, at least one investment opportunity, and a couple of really close friendships. Totally worth it!

If you can’t give a good reference, just don’t mention references at all. Saying “don’t use me as a reference”, unprompted, is just cruel. But if they ask, don’t lie: be honest that you couldn’t give a good reference and that they shouldn’t use you.

Then, open the door to feedback

This should all go fairly quickly, so the last step is to open the door to feedback. I’d recommend something super open-ended, like:

All right, that’s all I’ve got. Do you have anything for me?

Don’t ask for “final thoughts” or “feedback” or anything like that. Keep it very mild, open-ended, and non-pressuring. If the answer is “no”, you’re done. Thank them again, wish them good luck with whatever’s coming next, and wrap it up.

If they do start talking, however, the door’s open and you can have a conversation. Listen, ask clarification questions, etc. – like any other 1:1. Do keep it gentle: respect any boundaries they draw, give them plenty of room to stop talking at any time, and listen more than you talk. Try not to apply any pressure at all. Avoid changing the subject: if they only want to give feedback on technical direction, don’t try to pivot to feedback about your leadership ability. If they only want to talk about one colleague, don’t ask for impressions about others.

If you do hear new information, it’s reasonable to ask why they didn’t bring this to you earlier. You might discover something you’ve been doing wrong. You might also discover that they didn’t tell because they’re coming in with so much accumulated trauma from previous bad managers that they were never going to trust any manager. This is more common than you might expect. You may be able to do them a real favor by gently suggesting they may have managers they can trust to a greater degree, and that in the future bringing up problems early may have positive outcomes.

Wrapping up

I stand by my argument that exit interviews are a trap. Good managers know this and are careful not to put departing team members into uncomfortable situations. But good managers also have better tools than a manipulative exit interview; there are ways to have productive, meaningful conversations with departing directs without putting them into a tight spot. If you’re looking for feedback on your performance as a manager, you’ll get it not from the content of this conversation but from whether you have it at all. If your direct trusts you enough to open up here, even when you’ve made it clear they don’t have to, you’ve done a lot of things right!

  1. You are having weekly 1:1s with your staff, right? If not, uh, you’ll continue to be surprised by people leaving until you do. Start now. ↩︎