You never want to see top talent leave your organization. But if you have a stellar employee on their way out, while it may be discouraging, it also presents an opportunity for you to get the information you need to prevent other great employees from leaving: the exit interview.
Exit interviews can give you the feedback you need to improve your organization and reduce turnover. But for them to provide insights you can use to enact positive change, exit interviews have to be more than just a rote process that departing employees dread. Here’s how to manage exit interviews in a way that delivers the feedback you need to reduce employee turnover and strengthen your organization in the process.
3 Best Practices for Conducting Effective Exit Interviews
1. Choose the right interviewer.
You can structure your exit interview perfectly, but if you don’t have the right person conducting it, you’re not going to get the right information. “The interviewer needs to be seen as someone [with whom] the exiting employee can candidly share their feedback,” said David Lewis, CEO of HR consulting firm OperationsInc.
That means the exit interview should be managed “by a person who doesn’t have direct authority over the employee…[like] a member of the HR team — not the employee’s manager,” advised executive coach and HR consultant ZJ Hadley.
Why not the manager? If the exiting employee’s manager is the one conducting the exit interview, the departing worker may not feel comfortable sharing their honest feedback about why they’re leaving — particularly if their manager has played a role in their departure. To get the best results and most helpful information from your exit interviews, make sure to pair exiting employees with a neutral third party like an HR rep for their interview, and not their direct manager or supervisor.
2. Ask the right questions.
During an exit interview, “you are trying to understand why this person decided to consider leaving — and then why they decided to leave,” Lewis said. The only way to gain that understanding and the insights you need to improve your organization and reduce turnover is by asking the right questions.
The exact questions to ask an employee during their exit interview depend on the individual’s role and the circumstances surrounding their departure. But there are some universal exit interview questions that will provide helpful insights regardless of the particular circumstances. Here are a few examples:
- Were there any management issues that contributed to your departure? There’s an old saying that people don’t leave jobs, they leave managers. And while that’s not always the case, you want to use the exit interview to determine if there were any issues with the exiting employee’s manager that contributed to their departure.
“Questions that get to the root of any management issues are particularly helpful [when attempting to reduce turnover],” said Hadley. If an employee is leaving because of something directly related to their manager, that’s information you need to know. That way, you can address those issues with that manager, and, importantly, take steps to prevent the same thing from happening again before more of their direct reports resign.
- What is your next opportunity — and what made that opportunity a better fit than your current role? Your exiting employees aren’t obligated to tell you what company they’re going to work for next, and some employees — for example, those who are leaving to go back to school — may not even be going to another company. But asking them where they’re headed, and what about the new opportunity appeals to them more than their current position, can help you “understand what changes can be put in place to increase employee satisfaction and improve retention,” Hadley said.
For instance, if you find out an employee is leaving your company for a competitor that’s offered them a higher salary, you might consider reviewing your compensation packages. If your organization requires employees to work in the office and your employee is leaving for a remote opportunity, you may consider offering your team more flexibility when it comes to remote and hybrid options.
This question will help you “identify the companies your employees are leaving for — and what those companies offer that you do not — and use the information to strategically plan your perks and benefits [to reduce turnover],” said Hadley.
- If you were in charge, what would you do differently? Pointed, specific questions about why an employee is leaving can yield important information during an exit interview. But so can more general open-ended questions — like, if the departing employee was in charge, what would they do differently?
“Asking them how they would run the company if given the role of CEO, and what changes they may institute in their first 90 days, is a great way at getting the answers to what they did not like about the culture, leadership, communication, [or other areas of the organization],” Lewis noted.
Framing a question this way can be an effective way to gather useful information without digging too deeply into an employee’s personal experience; some people may be more comfortable providing feedback in response to more general questions like this, versus sharing specific details from their personal experience.
Other Questions to Ask During Exit Interviews
The above questions will help you gather a lot of useful information, but they’re by no means an exhaustive list. Some other questions you may consider asking include:
- Is there anything we could have done to make you stay?
- Do you have any suggestions about how we can improve your role for the next person?
- If a relevant position opened up, would you consider rejoining our organization in the future?
3. Use feedback to drive change within your organization.
Exit interviews can help you gather information — but when it comes to reducing employee turnover, it’s what you do with that information after the exit interview that counts. To get tangible benefits from your exit interviews, you need to take the feedback you receive and use it to drive change within your organization.
Some of that change will be on a more individual level. For example, if you receive negative feedback from a departing employee about a particular supervisor’s management style, you might schedule a one-on-one with that manager to deliver the feedback, and develop a coaching plan to help them avoid similar issues with their other direct reports.
But “as the volume of exit interviews increases over time, so does the volume of feedback, usually resulting in common themes and trends,” Lewis said. Those themes and trends give you insights into what needs to change not just on an individual level, but at the organizational level, too. And that's the change that needs to be prioritized to really make an impact on employee turnover.
For instance, if you get feedback from one employee that your organization has communication issues, that might just be one employee’s experience. But if you get that feedback from 10 departing employees in a row, it’s clear that those communication issues exist on an organizational level, and need to be addressed if you want to keep top talent at your company.
Not only does identifying themes and trends from exit interviews help you determine what needs to change within your organization, it also helps strengthen your case when you bring those issues to leadership; being armed with concrete feedback and data can help you obtain executive buy-in — and the budget and resources you need to implement any necessary changes.
“Don’t keep your exit interviews in a vacuum,” Hadley advised. “Come back to them when reporting on other areas of the business to provide well-rounded insights. For example, when requesting your learning and development budget, reference how often people left [the organization] for new challenges or growth opportunities.”
Your organization is only as strong as its people, so if you want your business to thrive, keeping top talent within your company is a must. Exit interviews are an invaluable tool for helping identify why employees are leaving your company — which, in turn, can help you identify what needs to change to keep talent at your organization. With these expert tips, you can enter the next exit interview you conduct prepared to ask the right questions, get the right answers, and use those answers to positively impact your organization.