Exit interviews are a valuable window into employee turnover. They help to uncover honest feedback about why employees are leaving, and highlight any developing trends.
Beyond that, they can also help you generate new ideas and point to policies that need revising if they are unclear or outdated. Or, you might discover a gap in your employee benefits, leading you to roll out some new retention initiatives.
In a previous role, I was responsible for conducting exit interviews for many years. While it might sound like a rather awkward task, it’s actually something I enjoyed doing. Why? Because I experienced the value of the exercise first hand.
As a direct result of the feedback my colleagues shared with me, my organization was able to make successful corporate adjustments for the greater good of our remaining employees.
In this article, I’ll walk you through the exit interview process step-by-step. I’ll explain why you should conduct exit interviews, and how to get the most out of the process.
What is an exit interview?
There are many reasons why employees decide to leave an organization. Exit interviews are the most effective tool HR teams have to find out why. Why ask why? Because the truth is valuable.
An exit interview is your last chance to ask for honest feedback from your outgoing employee. What they tell you will give you valuable insight into problems that may be developing, allowing you to improve your employee relations and employee retention in the long run.
Without asking why, you run the risk of losing more employees for the same reasons, again and again.
At the same time, exit interviews also help the departing employee gain a sense of closure on their transition. It’s an opportunity for them to voice their often unexpressed feelings and concerns, without any fear of retribution. By relieving them of this emotional burden, they’ll leave your organization on a more positive note than if you never asked for their feedback at all.
You may have heard the phrase “employees don’t leave jobs, they leave managers,” before? Well, that’s not entirely true. You could have a lovely manager, but still decide to leave your role for other valid reasons. The most common reasons behind employee turnover fall into two categories – professional and personal:
dissatisfaction in role
lack of support from management
interpersonal problems with colleagues
no opportunities for growth
low pay for your industry
better opportunities elsewhere
headhunted by a recruiter/former colleague
going back to school
pursuing a new career path
to regain work-life balance
moving to a new city
starting a family
other family responsibilities
Whatever the reason for their departure, you owe it to your company to find out why. If their reasons fall into the professional category, you’ll gain valuable insight into how to fix those problems for your current employees. And, even if they do fall into the personal category, it’s another opportunity for you to gauge the level of employee engagement and employee satisfaction at your company.
As you can imagine, conducting an exit interview is a delicate operation. It requires tact and emotional intelligence to connect with your departing employees in a meaningful way. Having a real connection will help you get the most value out of the exit interview process.
For that reason, the best practice is to have a designated HR leader or other HR department member conduct the session. Ideally, someone the employee already has a neutral relationship with.
To help standardize the exit interview data collection process, it’s best to have the same HR professional conduct the interviews, as much as possible. If your company has no HR team, an operations manager or other support person could host the meeting instead. Or, you could ask the employee to fill out the exit interview questionnaire independently.
A departing employee’s manager should never be asked or expected to take part in the exit interview. That would make things awkward for both participants, and reduce the effectiveness of the interview process.
Who should participate in the exit interview?
Requesting an exit interview is appropriate for most departing employees, but not all. As a best practice, I don’t recommend scheduling an interview with a terminated employee.
Even though they may feel they have valuable feedback to share, their experience will undoubtedly be clouded by the fact that they’ve been let go by the company. In that case, the likelihood of receiving constructive feedback is much lower.
I do recommend conducting exit interviews with all other departing employees. Even if you feel you already know the reason why they’re leaving, you never know what other nuggets of insight they’ll have to offer unless you ask.
Some HR managers feel it’s not necessary to conduct exit interviews with retiring staff. I tend to disagree with this idea though. Just because someone is retiring, that doesn’t mean their experience of your company culture or employee morale is invalid. In fact, if they are retiring after many years with your company, you may get more useful information out of their exit interview feedback than you’d expect.
Preparing for an exit interview
Once an employee has officially resigned, have your designated HR team member contact them to discuss setting up an exit interview.
Acknowledge the process
Explain to the employee what they can expect during the exit interview process. Let them know the following:
The purpose of the interview (i.e., to find out how we can avoid losing more valuable employees like you)
How long the interview will take (1 to 2 hours is common)
Who will have access to their feedback (typically just core members of your HR team and never the employee’s direct manager)
When the feedback will be shared (a best practice is to share the feedback only after the employee’s last day, to put them at ease)
Send them your list of exit interview questions in advance (this helps them mentally prepare for the meeting)
Assure them that all feedback will be kept strictly confidential.
Once you’ve settled on a date and time for the exit interview, be sure to reserve a private space for the meeting. If possible, book a meeting room in a low traffic area of your office, ideally with no internal-facing windows. Exit interviews can get emotional and you don’t want any spectators peeking in through the glass.
Exit interview questions: developing your template
Prior to your first exit interview, I’d advise developing a list of questions you want to ask. Make sure to ask open-ended questions as these will naturally elicit the most useful responses. For example:
Did you have performance reviews? (a closed question – you are expecting a yes or no)
What was your experience of the performance review process like? (opened – you’ll get a lot more feedback this way)
Once your questions are settled, turn this document into a template. You can then send this to employees in advance of their exit interviews to help them prepare their thoughts. Or, in cases where it’s not possible to have an in-person exit interview, employees can fill out the template independently instead.
If you’re new to the exit interview process, you may need a little help figuring out what to ask. Here’s a list of powerful exit interview questions (and a template) to help you build this process into your employee separation routine.
During the exit interview
To help you conduct an effective exit interview, it’s helpful to also set the tone before you dive into the questions. I recommend touching on the following:
Thank them for agreeing to meet with you.
Remind them that your company values feedback from departing employees.
Reiterate that the purpose of the meeting is to understand their personal employee experience and the reasons why they are leaving.
Reassure them again that all feedback will be kept confidential and not shared with their manager (from my experience, this is a #1 concern).
Digging deeper and the 5 whys
Once the exit interview has begun, stick with the questions in your template. This standardizes the interview process and makes the data more comparable than asking questions ad hoc.
However, don’t be afraid to ask for more details if someone drops a bombshell. If an employee tells you they’re leaving because they felt discriminated against, don’t just write it down and move on. Ask them to help you understand why they felt that way. This is your last chance to get their honest feedback so it’s okay to dig a little deeper.
Sometimes departing employees are tight-lipped with their feedback, and you may feel like you’re only scratching the surface of their issues. In those cases, one helpful strategy you can use is the 5 Whys Technique.
Ask the person an initial open-ended question and see what they say. Once they answer, rephrase what they’ve said as another why question. This will automatically cause them to reflect a little deeper. Once they respond to that, repeat the process and ask them why again, until you’ve completed the cycle 5 times.
Q1: Why have you decided to leave the company? A1: Because I have no opportunities to grow here.
Q2: Why do you feel you have no opportunities to grow here? A2: Because I’ve been at the same level for 3 years now.
Q3: Why do you think you’ve stayed at the same level that long? A3: Because my supervisor doesn’t think I can take on more advanced responsibilities.
Q4: Why do you think your supervisor thinks that? A4: Because we never discuss my professional goals or ambitions.
Q5: Why don’t you discuss your goals and ambitions with your supervisor? A5: ‘Cause they never make time for me, and don’t seem to care. I also haven’t had a performance review in two years.
By asking those additional why questions, we uncovered a lot more information. In this case, we can see the reason the employee is leaving is three-fold:
There was a general lack of support and feedback from their manager.
Their career development goals were not supported or acknowledged.
They did not have a performance review in two years.
If you find yourself sitting across from an outgoing employee giving you very little information, use this technique to dig a little deeper into their answers.
Don’t overuse it on every question though. Your role is to uncover useful information, not to grill the departing employee on every little thing they say.
Once you’ve concluded your session, thank the employee again for providing their feedback. Give them the option of reviewing their feedback in writing, before it becomes part of their employee file.
This is a useful opportunity for employees to reflect on what they’ve said, especially if the meeting uncovered a lot of negative issues. After all, you’re in a professional setting, so it’s important that their feedback is framed professionally too.
The exit interview is an opportunity to uncover any workplace problems from the worker’s perspective. However, as facilitators, it’s important to ensure the feedback is well-received on the other end too.
Just because an employee is leaving, that doesn’t mean they want to burn their bridge with the company forever.
Other things to consider
While it’s generally best to conduct an exit interview in-person (or via a video or phone call), there are times when it won’t be possible or make sense to do so.
In those cases, you can ask departing employees to fill out the exit interview survey themselves and send it to you for review. The feedback you receive may not go as deeply into their issues, but it’s still better to ask for their thoughts than receive nothing at all.
If time allows, you can also use the 5 whys technique above to ask them for a little more detail in some of their answers. Go through their feedback and if anything screams out for more detail, flag it in a comment and say “can you explain this a little more?” or simply ask “why?”
Wondering where to go from here? Take a look at our Exit Interview Questions to help you put what you’ve learned into action. You can also download our customizable exit interview questionnaire template (scroll down for the link).
Stay Interviews are another great way to check in with your staff on a semi-regular basis to find out what’s going well and what could be improved. And just because things didn’t work out this time around doesn’t mean it can’t in the future. Keep a record of everyone you’ve worked with because you’ll never know how huge a help they can be one day.