Losing employees is never fun—especially when they’re top performers and valued members of your team. But just because an employee leaves, it’s not always a total loss. There’s a learning opportunity to be had for organizations—if you’re smart, that learning opportunity can be seized by inviting the former teammate to an exit interview.
Exit interviews are a chance for businesses to learn more about the reasons for and context around why an employee leaves. This information can be used for a lot of things, but chief among them is to learn what could be done to prevent other employees from departing in the future. And that has a big impact for the organization, considering that the estimated cost of replacing an employee can range from one-half to two times their annual salary.
This article will share everything you need to know about exit interviews, and provide a list of questions to ask departing employees.
What is an exit interview?
An exit interview is a final interview or conversation with a departing employee, often conducted by a manager or HR representative, that aims to learn more about why they’re leaving and their impressions and feedback about the company.
The goal is to learn as much as possible about what led the employee to resign, and what could be done better to improve life for existing employees.
Exit interviews are the final step in the employee lifecycle. This typically encapsulates everything from when they first apply for a role to when they walk out the door for the last time. It’s a learning opportunity for the organization, but it’s also a chance to leave a positive final impression.
What’s the purpose of an exit interview?
As mentioned, exit interviews are designed to gather information about the employee’s experience with and perception of the company. It’s a valuable exercise that allows the company to learn about all of the good, bad, and ugly things going on in their business that may impact its employees.
Generally, the goal is to uncover:
- Why departing employees are leaving and sought new jobs
- Why they didn’t decide to stay
- What makes their new position better than their current what
- What, if anything, could the company fix to prevent future departures
Individual employee exit interviews offer this information somewhat of a vacuum. But, at scale, they can uncover trends that may point to specific systemic issues that need to be addressed in the company.
Depending on what those trends are, actions can then be taken to improve:
- Company culture
- Talent acquisition and employee onboarding
- Talent and performance management
- Manager training
- Compensation and total rewards
- And any other factor that contributes to attrition
The goal with these actions is to improve the overall quality of life and engagement of existing and future employees, thereby stemming historical reasons for why employees choose to leave the company voluntarily.
3 benefits of employee exit interviews
Information and understanding are the two primary benefits of conducting employee exit interviews. Together, those lead to three key outcomes that ultimately improve the business.
- Uncover systemic, structural, and cultural issues. First, exit interviews shine a light on the ugly within an organization. They help to identify problems areas that might be leading to a drain on productivity, morale, and ultimately, voluntary departures.
- Build and maintain a positive employer brand. Employees and alumni talk—especially if they’ve had a negative or unfair experience at a company. That sentiment can easily get around, either through online reviews or word of mouth. Exit interviews are a chance to both make a good final impression with departing employees, but also to show that the company still values their opinion and is open to feedback. This goes a long way to fostering positive sentiment amongst alumni, making them ambassadors for the company’s employee brand, and more likely to recommend them to friends and colleagues.
- Improve the experience for existing employees. As mentioned, the goal of exit interviews is to help the company move forward. They help to identify and solve issues that may be harming employee satisfaction and engagement. And, according to Gallup, companies with highly engaged employees can see 21% higher profitability than those without.
Now that we’ve hammered home the benefits, let’s talk about exit interview best practices.
How to conduct an exit interview: best practices
Exit interviews are a delicate tactic. Afterall, they require someone to interview an employee who’s leaving the company. To get the most out exit interviews, try the following best practices:
- Have a qualified team member conduct the interview. Preferably, this is an experienced HR staff member who understands how exit interviews work and what the goals are. If it’s a small business, then the owner or direct manager will suffice, as long as they follow these best practices.
- Ask if they’re willing to participate. Participating should be optional; emphasize that the goal is to understand what the company can do better.
- Create a list of questions to be used for all exit interviews. These questions should be designed to uncover specific information about various parts of the interview. Use the same questions for each interview so that the feedback is consistent, and it’s easier to uncover trends.
- Be friendly, approachable, and open to feedback. Exit interviews shouldn’t be standoffish or defensive of the company. The goal is to receive honest and candid feedback, not to change the mind of the departing employee. To accomplish that, interviewers must be open to feedback and curious about what the employee has to say.
- Reassure the employee that their comments are anonymous. Most departing employees are concerned about burning bridges if they talk negatively during an exit interview. This can muddy the results and leave potential issues unmentioned. To help put the employee at ease, reassure them that their answers will only be used for statistical purposes, and won’t be shared widely with former colleagues.
- Have a strategy to address feedback and action change. Exit interviews can open a Pandora’s box of potential issues that need to be addressed. And there’s no point in holding these sessions if there’s no intention to address them. If exit interviews are part of the employee lifecycle, ensure that processes are in place to record and store interview feedback, track and analyze trends over time, meet and discuss potential solutions to those trends, and action those solutions.
Specific and individual feedback
Occasionally, exit interviews may include particularly noteworthy feedback or accusations about specific teams, managers, or staff members. In these cases, it’s critical that the company has policies in place for how to deal with those issues immediately. If they don’t, there could be legal ramifications for the organization, on top of ongoing cultural issues for remaining staff.
10 employee exit interview questions to ask
The questions asked during an exit interview should be deliberate, well-structured, and aligned with a specific area of the business. This ensures that all answers provide valuable insights. It also makes it easier to target their answers and transform them into action.
Here are 10 sample employee exit interview questions, sectioned by theme and business area.
Reasons for leaving
- Why did you decide to leave the company?
If the employee is leaving voluntarily, the answer can provide specific reasons for why they’ve chosen to move on.
- Why did you decide to re-enter the job market?
This gives the interviewer a baseline understanding of why the employee started shopping around for a new role, and helps them spot trends into why people decide to look elsewhere.
- What’s your general impression of our company?
This gives the employee a chance to elaborate on how they see the organization and their unique point-of-view.
- Is there anything we could have done to prevent you from leaving?
This is an opportunity for the employee to offer honest feedback, including shortcomings in talent management, their direct supervisor, the company culture, and any other area of the business they see as needing improvement.
- Was your decision to leave motivated by money or total compensation?
This gives the interviewed a simple yes or no answer (with possible elaboration) that lets them record whether compensation was a factor. Over time, this question can point to trends associated with displeasure or satisfaction with the comp structure.
- What do you think of your manager and department heads?
The goal here is to collect specific feedback about the employee’s manager and other leaders in their orbit. Leadership has a major impact on employee morale and productivity. When you identify shortcomings, it’s a major opportunity—and priority—for organizations.
- Did you have regular conversations with your manager about your development, performance, and future with the company?
The answer to this question can provide insights into how effective, or ineffective, the company’s talent management and strategy was for this employee. If your employee shares that they received little to no feedback or guidance on future career growth, then this is a red flag that needs to be addressed.
- Do you think the expectations and responsibilities in your role were clear?
This offers insights into how the position was advertised and sold to the employee, plus, how effectively their job was communicated to them once onboard. Unclear expectations can be a sign of poor communication during recruitment, or a sign of an issue with management.
- Did you feel that you had the resources you needed to do your work?
The answer to this question will offer insights into resourcing and support systems for individual employees and departments. If support and resourcing just isn’t there, take it as a signal to think about more investment.
- What advice would you share for how we can improve? What would make this a better place to work?
This is an open-ended question that invites the departing employee to provide open and honest feedback about the good, bad, and ugly in the company. Pay close attention to this feedback, as there may be nuggets of information that can have a big impact on morale for remaining employees.
Employee exit interview FAQs
How does an exit interview help with employee retention efforts?
Exit interviews help with employee retention efforts by uncovering common themes and trends into why employees leave an organization. Often, these trends point to specific, addressable issues that, if reversed, can have a positive impact on engagement and morale. This leads to less turnover and stronger retention.
Should you use the same exit interview questions each time?
Yes, you should use the same exit interview questions every time. The goal of an exit interview program is to identify common themes and trends over time. Asking the same set of questions will help to standardize the information gathering process, thereby creating a pool of information that can be accurately analyzed.