As an employer, having an employee choose to leave your company is never an easy pill to swallow. With demand for talent everchanging, employers and recruiters not only need to learn what attracts great employees, but also what drives them out the door. Luckily, exit interviews allow employers to ask departing employees first-hand about their experience on the job and any immediate feedback for the company.
What Is an Exit Interview?
An exit interview refers to a meeting with a terminating employee prior to their departure from your company. An exit interview can be conducted as an in-person meeting, virtual meeting, conversation over the phone and/or through digital or hand-written surveys.
Conducting an exit interview is an important step in the offboarding process. It gives employees the chance to share their thoughts and give employers the opportunity to collect honest feedback and constructive criticism about their workplace.
Importance of Exit Interviews
Exit interviews provide employers with an opportunity to learn from — and about — their most valuable asset: their people. They allow employers to gain insight on the qualities that influence job seeker behavior such as time off, ability to advance, employee perks and salary — and what areas they could possibly improve upon. This process also helps companies learn how they stack up against industry competitors.
Exit interviews also reinforce a company’s core values, whether intentionally or not. Neglecting to make exit interviews a priority will signal to employees their input or contribution to your company is not valued. Conversely, asking each employee why they’re headed out the door and inquiring how you can improve as an employer will show that you appreciate the time they spent on your team, and that you want to make the office better for your remaining employees.
Additionally, employees who have a positive exit interview experience are more likely to become promoters of your employer brand. This can reinvigorate your employee referral program with new candidate references.
Research shows that employee turnover can be caused by several different factors like ineffective onboarding, company culture or management practices, so implement exit interviews to get to the bottom of your sources of turnover, keep your people and grow your business.
How to Conduct an Exit Interview
Use the following guidelines to implement a successful exit interview program and leverage your employee’s feedback. Keep in mind that every employer will require a unique protocol, so customize your program to your team. Additionally, tailor the interview to the employee, both in regards to format and topic of discussion.
Who Should Conduct Exit Interviews?
Exit interviews are typically conducted by an HR professional or trained third-party professional. Specifically, second-level or third-level managers — two or three managers up from the departing employee — tend to be a good choice. They are familiar with the employee’s role and team, but far enough removed that the employee does not regularly interact with them. This makes it so there are no biases or agenda from the interviewer, employees are more likely to speak candidly in this situation.
It’s usually not best to involve a direct manager in an exit interview, since management plays a large role in determining employee turnover. If a direct manager is part of the exit interview and the employee’s experience with them was negative, this can make an interviewee less comfortable sharing information about their time at the company, which affects the feedback given.
Who Should Receive Exit Interviews?
Exit interviews should be the expectation for all employees leaving the company. However, employees may choose not to participate.
At a minimum, try to speak with top performers and employees in high-demand roles who electively leave. Terminated employees don’t need an exit interview; the conversation surrounding their termination should adhere to a separate protocol.
Both top performers and in-demand employees have knowledge of market competition. Highly-sought after professionals can provide insight on what job seekers find appealing in the role and how your organization compares to other employers.
Where Should You Conduct an Exit Interview?
If and when possible, allow the employee to select the location of their exit interview. Not only does this suggest compassion and concern on your part, it also helps the interviewee open up in a setting they’re comfortable in.
When Should You Conduct an Exit Interview?
Some professionals recommend conducting exit interviews within the last week of employment, even the last day. Others say several months after employees leave is best. According to Harvard Business Review, the most productive time to conduct exit interviews is halfway between the announcement of resignation and the day of departure — the emotion of the resignation has passed and the terminating employee is still engaged in their role.
Consider the nature of the resignation when deciding when to schedule the exit interview. If the employee seems deeply upset or frustrated, allow some time to pass before reaching out about an exit interview. With peaceful transitions, you can conduct the exit interview during the last few weeks or days of employment.
How Long Should an Exit Interview Last?
In simple terms, as long as it takes.
However, you don’t want to press the employee to share beyond their comfort level. Use your best judgment to gauge whether or not the conversation is still productive. Try to get through all your questions and listen to everything the employee has to say. If warranted, schedule follow-up interviews to continue the conversation.
What’s the Best Exit Interview Format?
The format of an exit interview should depend on the employee and what they’re most comfortable with. Would they prefer to provide feedback via a survey after they’ve officially left your employment, or are they interested in a face-to-face conversation? Determine which formats you have the resources to conduct, then leave the choice to the employee.
Consider using multiple exit interview formats depending on the situation of each employee, such as an in-person conversation and short questionnaire. Varying your approach can help identify and elucidate areas of discontent. For example, the removed nature of a questionnaire increases the likelihood of receiving the honest feedback employees may be nervous or scared to provide face-to-face.
What to Ask Employees in an Exit Interview
Work with your people team and HR department to develop a comprehensive list of questions to ask during exit interviews. The list should be carefully tailored to your team and address some of the common problems you face. Regardless of how your questionnaire takes shape, ensure the following three questions make the list.
1. Why Are You Leaving Your Current Position?
This question will jump start the conversation surrounding an employee’s unhappiness at your company or details of the more compelling offer they received.
Follow-up Questions to Ask
- What made you want to start looking for a new opportunity in the first place?
- What was the biggest factor in your decision to leave/accept a different offer?
2. What Did You Enjoy About Working Here?
Don’t assume that the employee only has negative things to say about their experience. Asking this question will help understand your value as an employer.
Follow-up Questions to Ask
- Which of your job responsibilities did you most enjoy?
- What first attracted you to our company?
3. What Would You Change About Our Company?
Now, dive into the feedback and gather employee suggestions — not solutions — for improvement.
Follow-up Questions to Ask
- Which of your job responsibilities did you least enjoy?
- What is the number one thing we could do to improve?
16 Exit Interview Tips
Use the following 16 tips to make the most of your exit interviews. Again, customize your approach to both your company and the individual employee.
1. Make Confidentiality a Priority
Remove any identifying information prior to sharing results with the HR department or executive team to protect the employee’s reputation. You may want to reconnect with former employees about a job or partnership opportunity, and they might reach out regarding a reference check, so don’t tarnish their relationship with your company. Additionally, maintaining the employee’s anonymity will make them feel more at ease and comfortable sharing their honest opinions.
2. Explain How Employee Responses Will Be Reported
In addition to assuring confidentiality, describe how you will communicate the employee’s feedback to management. Explaining that data is presented as aggregated responses or anonymously will further reassure departing employees and encourage them to provide honest feedback during their exit interview without fear of repercussions.
3. Ask Questions From a Predetermined List
Ask the same questions during every interview to ensure you collect consistent data. Create a list of general questions that can be used during every exit interview, regardless of the role or level of seniority. These can be questions like:
- How was your relationship with your manager?
- Did you feel supported by your team?
- What would you change about this company?
4. Ask Employee-Specific Questions, and Record Them
Then, ask additional questions that are tailored to the individual employee. If they’ve expressed difficulties or reported problems in the past, ask them about those situations in their exit interview. Chances are, if they occurred recently, they played a role in their departure. Make a note of every question you ask and answer you receive that is not on your predetermined exit interview questionnaire.
5. Actively Listen to Employee Responses
Pay close attention to the wording the employee uses. Rather than assume you know what they mean, ask clarifying questions. This is your chance to pinpoint your shortcomings as an employer and improve, ultimately boosting your employee retention rate. Making an assumption could cause you to focus on the wrong aspect of your workplace environment and unknowingly allow a problem to persist.
6. Take Detailed Notes
Keep a record of your exit interviews to ensure the feedback you collect is not forgotten. Taking notes will also show the employee you care about what they have to say, which may make them more inclined to open up. Ask for the employee’s permission to record the interview and transcribe notes after, and guarantee you will delete the recording after transcription. Alternatively, have a third, approved individual take notes during the conversation so you can be an active participant.
7. Ask What You’re Doing Right
Don’t assume that because something wasn’t mentioned in an exit interview it’s not a positive. Ask the employee what they enjoy about your workplace environment, whether that’s the company culture or compensation and benefits. Asking this question during every exit interview will help you identify what’s collectively valued about your workplace so you can emphasize these qualities as part of your employer branding strategy.
8. Prioritize the Employee’s Comfort
The more comfortable and relaxed the employee feels, the more inclined they’ll be to share honest, helpful feedback. As previously mentioned, ask the employee where they’d like to conduct the exit interview — whether that’s in their preferred conference room, at a local coffee shop or over a virtual meeting.
9. Refrain From Pushing Back
In order to prevent additional employees from leaving, you need candid feedback about what’s gone wrong. Avoid pushing back on what employees say during exit interviews. Most of the time, it’s out of concern for their soon-to-be former colleagues rather than malice. And, if an employee leaves your company on a sour note, they can be a huge deterrence to your ability to attract job seekers, which will consequently deplete your talent community.
10. Minimize Venting
Departing employees may use the time to point blame or complain about working at your company. Don’t be dismissive of what the employee has to say or their desire to vent — it’s all useful information. However, it is important to get each question on your exit interview form answered to log consistent data. Carefully and respectfully guide the conversation back toward your questions.
If at the end of the allotted time you’ve only asked a fraction of the questions you need to, thank the employee for their honesty and politely explain that you’ll need to schedule a follow-up conversation. Ideally, they’ll have gotten everything off their chest and the second exit interview will be more productive and informative.
11. Avoid Problem Solving
The goal of an exit interview is to identify problems, not develop solutions. You can certainly ask a terminating employee how they recommend solving a problem they bring up, but leave it there. Keep in mind that what the employee has to say might not be a “you problem”; their grievance with your company could be a result of their poor reaction to a situation, so don’t spend valuable exit interview time solving problems you’re not confident exist yet.
Please note, if an employee mentions an illegal event — assault, abuse or discrimination — you absolutely must pursue the problem and get to the bottom of it. Follow your HR protocol and take legal action when necessary.
12. Refrain From Making a Counter Offer
At this point, the employee has resigned and is being offboarded from your team. The exit interview is not the time to make a plea for them to stay. Use the exit interview to collect feedback on your company, such as your type of organizational culture, work-from-home policy and your diversity and inclusion initiatives.
However, if you learn during the exit interview that the employee felt undervalued and you see an opportunity to provide additional value through a counter offer, go ahead. Any counter offer you do make should happen shortly after the employee announces their resignation. Know that what you see as additional value may only be a temporary fix to what the employee feels is a persistent problem.
13. Analyze and Act on the Feedback
One of the biggest mistakes companies make is not truly implementing feedback and follow-up plans after exit interviews. Aggregating exit interview responses can provide you with extremely useful data to improve your employer brand, reduce turnover and boost your employee retention rate.
However, you need to analyze the data first. From there, engage your people, HR and executive teams to strategize improvements. Failing to utilize your employee’s feedback makes exit interviews a time-sucking formality, not an important opportunity to learn from your people. Not only that, but you’ll likely continue to lose great employees and fail to attract new talent.
14. Don’t Force Exit Interviews
Exit interviews are not required by law, and an employee may elect to opt out. Rather than force them into a conversation they’re not interested in, respect their wishes to avoid inciting another complaint.
The employee may be open to sharing feedback at a later point in time — perhaps via an online survey a few months down the line — but that is, again, their prerogative. It’s better to lose an employee on a positive note than to collect feedback from and upset a departing employee.
To prevent additional departures, implement frequent employee engagement surveys. Doing so will help to monitor employee satisfaction and morale, as well as spot recurring weaknesses before they become repeat problems.
15. Pair Exit Interviews With Stay Interviews
It’s helpful to pair your exit interview process with stay interviews, which are interviews with current employees to find out why they continue to stay in your employment. Together, this will give you the tools to uncover not only the root of turnover, but your keys to retention. Asking questions like, “What keeps you coming back every day?” can provide valuable insight regarding your employer branding strategy and employee value proposition.
16. Wish Employees Well
Certain employee departures will have a significant impact on your team. It’s perfectly natural to be upset and disappointed, but don’t make that the focus of your exit interview. With every end comes a new beginning, so wish the employee well on their next adventure. This will show that you value them as an individual, not just a top performer, and help end the exit interview on a positive note.
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Frequently Asked Questions
What is an exit interview?
An exit interview is a meeting held with an employee who is scheduled to leave a company. They are held prior to the employee's departure, and are usually conducted by an HR professional or trained third-party professional.
Exit interviews are used as an opportunity for leaving employees to provide feedback about the company, and for employers to learn about reasons for employee departure.
Are exit interviews mandatory?
Exit interviews are not mandatory or required by law to be held.
Whether an exit interview occurs depends on the company and the choice of the departing employee to participate.
Is an exit interview good or bad?
Exit interviews are not necessarily good or bad, and can stand as a neutral experience for a departing employee to communicate feedback to their employer.