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In a previous role, I was responsible for conducting exit interviews for many years. 

While it might sound like a rather awkward task, I actually enjoyed it. 

Why?

Because I experienced the value of the exercise firsthand. 

As a direct result of the feedback my colleagues shared with me and we collected using employee feedback software, my organization was able to make changes for the greater good of the remaining team members and the organization in general.

In this article, I’ll walk you through the exit interview process step-by-step and give guidance for gaining the most valuable feedback.

What Is An Exit Interview?

An exit interview is a meeting between a departing team member and someone from human resources (or sometimes a leader) to understand the reasons for an employee leaving.

They’re a crucial part of your overall offboarding process because what they tell you will give you valuable insights into any issues and help you improve the employee experience for those remaining.

For example, if someone is leaving because their role didn’t match what was in the job description then there’s clearly a mismatch there!

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.

Who should conduct an exit interview?

As you can imagine, conducting an exit interview is a delicate operation. It requires tact and emotional intelligence to connect with your departing employee 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 an 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, but I disagree.

Just because someone is retiring, that doesn't mean their experience of your organization is invalid.

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How To Conduct An Effective Exit Interview

As we’ve touched on, the point of this exercise is to gain as much honest feedback as possible to help improve the employee experience for the remaining team members.

With this in mind, here’s my step-by-step process with recommendations for making these conversations as fruitful as possible.

1. Prepare for the interview

Once a team member has officially resigned, have your designated HR person or leader contact them to discuss setting up an exit interview.

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 them)
  • 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 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? (open—you’ll get a lot more feedback this way)

Once your questions are settled, turn this document into a template that you can then send to employees in advance of their interview to help them prepare their thoughts. 

Or, in cases where it’s not possible to have an in-person interview, it can be filled 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.

2. Conduct the interview

To help you conduct a more effective exit interview, it's important to set the right 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
  • Reiterate that the purpose of the meeting is to understand their personal employee experience and the reasons why they’re 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 exiting 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 and follow up with 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. 

For example: 

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: 

  1. There was a general lack of support and feedback from their manager. 
  2. Their career development goals were not supported or acknowledged.
  3. 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. 

3. Post-interview review

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 the departing employee to fill out the questions 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?”

Exit Interview Best Practices

To help summarize what I’ve covered above, here are some best practices summarized:

  • An exit interview should never be conducted by the direct supervisor or manager of the departing team member.
  • Ask open-ended questions and delve deeper using the 5 whys technique
  • Create a list of questions to share with the interviewee before the interview
  • Give the departing employee the option of reviewing their feedback in writing afterward
  • Don't interview terminated employees.
  • If possible, always try to conduct the interview in person or, failing that, over a video call.

Exit Interviews as Part Of A Wider Employee Listening Strategy

Following the above process will help you collect valuable feedback that will feed into your hiring, retention, development, and employee engagement strategies.

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:

Get our exit interview template!

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But, while it’s important to get this type of feedback from your staff who are leaving, it’s also important to keep the lines of communication open with your current employees too.

Stay Interviews, surveys, regular one-on-ones, and employee resource groups are also useful mechanisms to gather employee feedback.

Some useful resources here:

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Kim Behnke
By Kim Behnke

Kim Behnke is an HR Tool Expert & Writer for People Managing People. She draws on her 9 years of human resources experience and her keen eye for systematic processes to support her analyses of the top HR tools on the market. She is passionate about maximizing efficiencies and streamlining workflows to ensure internal systems run smoothly. Kim's HR experience includes recruitment, onboarding, performance management, training and development, policy development and enforcement, and HR analytics. She also has degrees in psychology, writing, publishing, and technical communication, and recently completed a Certified Digital HR Specialist program through the Academy to Innovate HR. When away from her desk, she can usually be found outside tending to her ever-expanding garden.