A departing employee represents a lot more than a job you’ll have to fill — they can be a rich resource for information on how to improve the employee experience at your organization. With a little bit of time, planning, and forethought, you can conduct an exit interview that makes the departing employee feel heard, appreciated, and willing to share frank feedback that can help your HR team bolster company culture, better communication at your organization, and ultimately, improve retention of your employees.
Here’s everything you need to know about preparing for and conducting an effective exit interview.
A Chance to Collect Frank Feedback
The best and most effective exit interviews are less like a formal interview and more like a free-flowing conversation. “The purpose is very simple,” said Debbie Nathanson, executive coach and HR strategic business partner and consultant. “You’re trying to collect data to improve the employee experience, to hear what’s working well and what’s not.”
The reasons workers leave jobs can be quite personal. Although the individual leaving won’t be employed at their current organization any longer, they may still be hesitant to share freely due to concerns about offending others or — in extreme cases — fear of retribution. But it’s exactly this honest feedback that helps HR develop initiatives and programming to make the company a better workplace for everyone.
How to Conduct an Exit Interview
The more comfortable you can make the employee feel, the more likely they’ll be to share openly. And the preparation you do in advance, combined with your ability to stay present and be attentive in the moment, will go a long way toward making exit interviews effective at your company. Here are the steps you need to take to make your exit interviews as successful as possible, for both the departing employees and your organization.
1. Consider who will be involved.
A member of the Human Resources team should be conducting the formal exit interview, but that doesn’t mean they’re the only ones who should be involved in the process. Direct supervisors usually aren’t viewed as a great choice because, as the old adage goes, “People don’t leave jobs, they leave managers.” Many professionals believe that an employee is unlikely to share openly with their soon-to-be-former manager because the manager may be part of the reason the employee is leaving in the first place.
Nathanson isn’t so convinced. “I think both [meeting with HR and with the employee’s direct supervisor] can work,” she said. Perhaps managers shouldn’t conduct a formal interview like that with HR, but they owe it to employees to have a casual chat. “I think managers — good managers, anyway — are beholden to their employees to see if they are willing to share anything,” she continued.
And Nathanson also questions the idea that an employee won’t be willing to share honest feedback with their manager. “Especially in some of these bigger organizations, a discussion with a trusted manager may shed light on some of the broader corporate [issues] that are at play in their decision to leave,” she noted.
For a well-rounded approach, have HR conduct the formal interview — but also encourage the manager to touch base with employees before they leave.
2. Send a survey in advance.
Providing a survey in addition to speaking with employees in person increases the odds that you’ll actually gather meaningful feedback. Although the employee is leaving your company, many people still want to make sure what they say in the context of an exit interview won’t be held against them, now or in the future. This can cause some individuals to feel hesitant to share as freely as they would with friends, family, or colleagues.
“A lot of people remain politically correct during this process because they don’t want to burn bridges,” said Matthew Burr, MBA, SPHR, SHRM-SC, an HR consultant and Assistant Professor of Business Administration at Elmira College. “But the only way the company can get better is through direct feedback.” Surveys, which lack the face-to-face component of an in-person or virtual meeting, may encourage employees to share more freely.
Surveys are also able to collect a wider range of information. For example, an employee who doesn’t want to share their actual reason for giving their notice may say they felt they weren’t paid enough. But a survey allows you to dig deeper and ask for the top five reasons they’re leaving, for instance.
“This will probably provide much more interesting information,” Nathanson said. “If you can get more than one answer, you can start to see trends. What are the second and third reasons people are leaving?” For instance, maybe you find that 95% of employees who leave before the one-year mark cite “lack of training” as their number two reason. Knowing this, HR can then work to develop more comprehensive onboarding and training programs.
3. Familiarize yourself with the employee.
Agreeing to an exit interview is a voluntary, generous gesture on the part of the employee who is leaving. The HR team member conducting the interview can show respect and appreciation by sufficiently briefing themself on the employee and their experience and history at the company before sitting down to speak with them.
To start, you’ll want to know the basics, like when they joined the company and in what position, as well as how their career trajectory has progressed. But don’t stop there: Be sure to look further to learn about any big wins, accomplishments, or notable successes and celebrate the employee for their achievements during the exit interview.
You’ll also want to learn the tough stuff, too: Were they considered for a promotion but ultimately passed over for another candidate? Has their department experienced a lot of turnover? These could be significant contributors as to why the employee is leaving, and HR professionals armed with the pertinent facts before the interview will be able to ask more pointed follow-up questions to better tease out useful data.
4. Be a good listener.
While you’ve prepped your questions and prepared to better understand the circumstances around why an employee is leaving, it’s important to remember that the interview is about the interviewee, not the interviewer. So pay attention and be a good listener. This means having body language that is open and attentive, like making eye contact and keeping your arms loose rather than tightly folded across your chest.
Sometimes a direct invitation to share openly is helpful, too. “Employees really appreciate being heard and feeling like what they have to say matters — especially if they felt underappreciated during their employment.,” said Jess Garrant, HR Manager at Massachusetts-based cannabis dispensary Solar Cannabis Co. “So tell them directly: ‘If there is something you’ve been wanting to say or share, I’m here to tell you that we’d really like to hear it.’”
If an employee is leaving the company because they felt continually overlooked, unheard, and undervalued, they may be expecting more of the same going into the exit interview as well. HR members have the opportunity to counter this by being an active and attentive listener.
“It’s important for the departing employee to share their experience, and a lot of employees want an exit interview for this reason,” said Nathanson. She also pointed out that many employees want to share their feedback because they care about their coworkers.
“Maybe they want to highlight something great someone has done, or maybe they want to highlight something going wrong because they really care about their colleagues,” she said. Employees may hope that by drawing attention to a long-standing issue or frustrating oversight they may be able to help create a better workplace for the colleagues they’re leaving behind. Either way, it’s important to give the employee the time and opportunity to share and be heard.
5. Ask the right questions.
Prepare questions in advance but keep it conversational. “You’ll learn a lot more if the exit interview feels like a conversation than if it feels like a questionnaire,” said Garrant. Consider using a template for the framework of what you’ll ask but look for openings to ask follow-up questions to keep the conversation flowing.
Garrant said she likes to follow the same loose outline of questions for her exit interviews in general, but that the specific questions she asks change because she tailors them to what the departing employee is sharing.
To begin, Garrant starts by asking, “Why are you leaving us?” If the employee says that they have a new job, you can ask about the reasons that prompted them to begin looking. “Many people today are leaving their organizations for different opportunities that aren’t solely limited to a new or better job,” Garrant said. “You hear all the time people saying, ‘I want to go back to school,’ ‘I’d like to pursue a career in another field,’ or ‘I’m going to be a stay-at-home parent,’ so I think it’s important not to assume.”
After opening the exit interview by asking about why the employee has decided to leave, Garrant recommended progressing to management-related questions. At this point in the conversation, you can ask questions like:
- Do you feel your manager gave you the tools you needed to be successful? Why or why not?
- Do you feel your achievements were recognized? Why or why not?
- Do you feel you were offered growth and development opportunities? Why or why not?
Then, move on to role-specific questions. Some good questions to ask here are:
- Do you feel like your job matched the job description? Why or why not?
- Do you feel like your job changed over the course of your tenure with us? Why or why not?
Next, ask questions about the company. Be sure to ask:
- How do you feel about the company’s communication practices?
- Do you feel like the company offered competitive compensation? Why or why not?
- What do you think of the company’s benefits offerings?
The bigger questions about the company are important in their own right, but they can also be used as a tool to balance the potentially more difficult questions, like those about the interviewee's direct supervisor. “I think it’s important to ask some of those bigger questions around benefits, company communication, and the tools the company provided because those are easy answers that make the person feel relaxed,” Nathanson said.
Interview Question Best Practices
However you choose to organize the flow of the interview, be sure to touch on these points:
- Ask about their direct supervisor. Experts often say that it’s better to avoid asking about specific individuals, including managers, but the ones we spoke to disagreed. “I think you have to ask about their manager,” Nathanson said.
- Seek their feedback about succession planning. Two weeks is standard for giving notice but as any Human Resources professional knows, it’s not enough time to make serious headway on the search for a replacement. Especially if the departing employee is in a managerial position, HR team members should ask about a potential replacement. “It’s always a good idea to ask them if they think there is anyone on the team who would make a good successor,” Nathanson advised.
- Inquire about other flight risks. Colleagues often share more freely among themselves than they do with members of management or Human Resources. If an employee is leaving because of challenges with a manager or frustration over company-wide practices, it’s possible that other employees are contemplating an exit, too. “You may not receive an honest answer, but it’s worth asking,” Nathanson said. The best-case scenario is that the interviewee tips you off to someone else who may be unhappy and you have the chance to re-engage them before they choose to leave, she added.
- Ask about compensation. Nathanson, who spent much of her career heading up HR for big financial institutions, said you may not learn much, but you should still ask about salary. “I don’t think you can expect to get a very interesting answer because people who don’t want to disclose too much [as to why they’re leaving] will always say money,” she said. But perhaps that really is why the employee is leaving, and perhaps they’re open to sharing with the interviewer the details of their new compensation package. “Then you get a real chance to compare and contrast salary and benefits and ask honestly, ‘Are we paying people fairly?’” said Burr.
6. Promise confidentiality carefully.
To make employees feel comfortable sharing, it’s common practice for Human Resources to tell the interviewee that the information they share won’t be traced back to them. HR professionals should feel free to disclose this, but only if it’s actually true. Especially if you work for a smaller company where there are fewer people leaving, Human Resources team members need to be up front about how the data will be shared.
“At small companies, you can’t honestly look a departing employee in the eye and say, ‘No one will know this has come from you.’ That’s disingenuous,” Nathanson cautioned. Rather than promising confidentiality if it’s not a feasible possibility, opt for transparency instead: Explain to the employee exactly what will happen to the data from the interview and who will have access to it. This way, the employee can make an informed decision about how much they feel comfortable disclosing.
7. Use the data.
Exit interviews are ultimately about improving employee retention, but for that to happen HR has to effectively analyze and use the data. Unfortunately, it’s all too common to collect the data but fail to act on it. “A lot of times it’s like organizations just want to check the box and say it’s done,” Burr said — a lose-lose for all parties involved.
Rather than dismissing employee feedback or viewing exit interviews as a rote but required process, HR teams have the chance to look for trends and develop employee engagement strategies. But they need processes in place to do so. Pre-exit interview surveys and templates like this one from Lattice are helpful because they act as a consistent control across all exit interviews. Since you’re going to be getting answers to the same questions, it’ll be easier to spot trends over time.
Once you’ve collected exit interview data, be sure to store it in the same place and make sure the leadership team has access to it. Work with your HR team members to analyze the data and develop strategies to counter it. For example, if you have several employees leaving before the one-year mark who say they felt like they didn’t receive enough training, HR can work to develop better onboarding programs to ensure new hires have the tools and resources they need from day one.
When done right, exit interviews can be a powerful tool for organizations. They provide a unique window into the employee experience and are a necessary tool for any people-centric organization. Use the tips outlined here to support your HR team in conducting more effective exit interviews, from which you’ll glean rich insight and observation. With this data, HR teams have the opportunity to affect meaningful change across the company and improve the workplace for everyone.