To improve your retention strategy, consider using exit interviews. This involves having a formal conversation with an employee who has resigned. In this meeting, the interviewer strives to understand why the employee has quit.

Typically, the conversation takes place face to face (or via Zoom). This allows for a more open and authentic conversation. 

Over 90% of Fortune 500 companies hold exit interviews. This telling fact suggests that more companies would benefit from conducting them.

Let’s take a closer look.

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1. When and Why to Hold Exit Interviews

2. How to Conduct Exit Interviews

3. Exit Interviews: 15 Great Questions

4. Avoiding Employee Exits

When and Why to Hold Exit Interviews

Let’s take a look at when to conduct exit interviews (and with whom). We’ll then explore the primary benefits they deliver.

Who should you hold exit interviews for

Conduct exit interviews with employees who are leaving voluntarily. And hold them with employees at every level and function. Don’t play favourites by interviewing only high-level people. If you do that, you’ll miss out on valuable data.

When should you conduct exit interviews

Conduct exit interviews about a week before the employee leaves. On their last couple of days, employees are likely to be too generous toward others, Stephen Taylor explains in Resourcing and Talent Management. They’re excited about leaving one position and taking the next step. Or, they’re eager to enjoy some time off.

But if you conduct the interview too early, the employee may not speak candidly. They may fear making their last two or three weeks uncomfortable. Instead, conduct exit interviews a week before the last day, says Taylor. Occasionally, companies conduct them after the employee has actually departed. 

Do exit interviews bring real benefits

Exit interviews are not just a formality; they indeed bring real benefits. Most importantly, they highlight issues that have gone unnoticed. Small companies often presume they know why employees are leaving. After all, everyone likely knows each other well. But often, they’re making assumptions, says SHRM.

Even in a close-knit firm, an exit interview can bring issues to light. By doing so, it can help companies boost retention. More employers of all sizes should therefore be using them routinely.

In some cases, the reason an employee is leaving may have little to do with the company. The employee may be pursuing a career in a different field, for instance. But in other cases, the departure may have been preventable. By learning the reason, you can work to correct the problem so it won’t cause other employees to leave.

Further, thoughtful interviews might turn former employees into company ambassadors

Through exit interviews, you might also learn how your company compares to others. Departing employees might share why they found their new offer attractive. And you may even learn what could bring the employee back in the future.

How to Conduct Exit Interviews

Middle aged professional reading about exit interviews
Credit: Cottonbro/Pexels

The exit interview typically takes the form of a face-to-face conversation. Sending a questionnaire to departing employees provides an alternative. You could offer this option if employees worry about anonymity. 

Have a neutral person conduct your exit interviews

Don’t have the employee’s direct supervisor conduct the interview. Too often, employees depart because of an issue with their manager. Having HR conduct the interview can help you identify the reason for departure. Or, enlist a neutral manager with whom the employee has a good rapport, says SHRM. You could also enlist a third party from outside the company.

In any case, choose an empathetic person to conduct exit interviews, urges SHRM. Make sure they’re well trained in active listening. Don’t choose someone who will take statements personally or respond emotionally.  

Ensure privacy during exit interviews

Hold the conversation in a private setting. Make sure you’re out of the earshot of coworkers and superiors. To the extent possible, guarantee confidentiality. And explain how the feedback will actually be used. Affirm that you won’t repeat the employee’s words directly to their boss or others. Instead, you’ll use the input to inform initiatives.

(One caveat: If the employee reports certain serious grievances, HR may be legally required to take action. This can compromise confidentiality, SHRM acknowledges.) In a larger organization, it could be easier to allow for anonymity. HR might synthesize data from multiple recently departed employees before presenting it.

Show appreciation for the employee’s time

Even if the answers are hard to hear, show gratitude. Participating in an exit interview is a selfless act on the part of the employee. As the BBC notes, the interview primarily benefits the employer. It could be cathartic for the employee, but it could also induce anxiety. The employee may wrestle with how honest to be. Speaking up about a problem takes courage, so be thankful!

Use a semi-structured format

Have a standard list of open-ended questions to ask in exit interviews. This consistency will help you identify trends, says HBR. However, don’t stay rigidly focused on this list. You may need to dive deeper into a particular topic with follow-up questions, as Taylor says. And employees may answer several at once.

Plus, you don’t want to sound like you’re just checking off boxes. Allow the conversation to flow naturally, and you’ll gain the most candid input possible. An interviewer with a knack for asking great questions on the fly will get best results.

Don’t discuss solutions during exit interviews

It can be tempting to try to “fix” problems in the moment. Or, you might feel tempted to voice existing efforts to solve them. Don’t! You can listen to employees’ proposed solutions, but don’t offer any. Likewise, don’t defend anyone. Maintain the role of an impartial observer, focusing on the employee’s feedback. 

Interpret the feedback

Don’t just pass along “raw” feedback to managers. Some comments may need to be worded more delicately in order to inspire change, as the BBC says. An experienced HR manager should distil the feedback into clear and actionable advice. 

Leverage the information appropriately

HR must then determine where the information could prove useful. For instance, it could provide valuable insights in the following areas:

  • Recruitment and onboarding
  • Performance management
  • Diversity and inclusion
  • Training of managers
  • Job design and responsibilities
  • Compensation and benefits
  • Workplace culture

HR may need to speak with individual managers about the findings. Employee insights could point to training needs for supervisors. But the insights could also point to organization-wide areas for growth. In that case, HR or senior leaders may need to leverage these findings.

This input could inform DEI initiatives or efforts to improve workplace culture, for instance. Analytics and reporting software can help you pinpoint trends and growth areas. You can also use such tools to compare employees’ assertions with other data. For example, say the employee reports that their manager has been detached.

You can then look at the frequency and quality of check-ins and feedback. Or, say the employee reports lack of clarity about goals. In that case, look at progress toward goals and OKRs.

Have an action team that’s prepared to act on the data, says Gallup. They should take ownership of it, making sure it gets used in appropriate ways. You might start a practice of discussing the data with leaders at least once per quarter.

Exit Interviews: 15 Great Questions

Black man and smiling woman discussing exit interviews
Credit: Gustavo Fring/Pexels

HR should prepare a thoughtful list of exit interview questions. Here are some important ones to ask.

  • Why are you leaving your position here?
  • What did you like most and least about your job?
  • How did you feel about the organization’s mission and vision? Did your work support it?
  • What type of relationship did you have with your coworkers? How did communication flow?
  • Describe your relationship with your boss. What type of support did you receive?
  • Did you have the training and resources to excel in your role here? 
  • To what extent did your role use your skillset?
  • How clear did you feel about your role and your goals?
  • How satisfied did you feel with the professional development you received?
  • What type of mentoring did you receive here? How effective was it?
  • Did you believe you had the potential to advance? What future prospects did you envision having here?
  • Describe the workplace culture and how you feel about it. 
  • Describe your team’s culture and your feelings about it.
  • How satisfied were you with your compensation and benefits package?
  • How can we make the employee experience better for others? What else would you like us to know? 

Again, employees may have more to say about certain topics than others. Allow the conversation to flow freely while making sure to cover the key bases.

Avoiding Employee Exits

In addition to exit interviews, conduct stay interviews. They focus on what will help keep current employees loyal to your company. Stay interviews highlight potential issues before they actually trigger a departure. Or, if an employee is considering leaving, they give you a chance to change their mind.

Getting good input via an exit interview is a bittersweet process. After all, you’re saying goodbye to a valued member of the team. However, the insights you gain can help prevent future departures. Stay optimistic, remembering that this feedback will help improve the employee experience.

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