November 24, 2020
How to Get the Most Out of Exit Interviews + 12 Interview Questions

There are some sad instances in which stellar employees leave the nest for new opportunities. And then, there are times when certain employees leave and it feels like a weight off the employer’s chest. In either scenario, an exit interview can play an important role in helping organizations improve their workplace culture and environment.

Does your company conduct exit interviews? If not, it’s time you implement a program. You may not be able to change the mind of the employee who is leaving, but you can find out what you can do to hold onto current talent.

Harvard Business Review cites research that shows that a company with a turnover rate lower than its competitors’ can be at a considerable advantage, especially if it retains top performers. An organization facing an increase in turnover must figure out why—and exit interviews are an essential tool for doing just that.

An exit interview program is only beneficial if it is handled properly and the information is put to use afterward. If your organization is new to this important human resources process, don’t worry! We’re going to get you started with:

  • An explanation of exit interviews
  • How they benefit companies
  • Best practices and tips
  • 12 questions for exit interviews plus a free downloadable template!

What are exit interviews?

Simply put, an exit interview is a meeting between an organization and an employee before their departure from the company.

An exit interview gives your organization an opportunity to gather feedback about an employee’s experience, which can help you identify areas for improvement and increase employee retention.

Benefits of Exit Interviews

Exit interviews—when conducted—properly offer many benefits in the world of HR management.

Gather valuable feedback.

The exit interview is a chance for your leadership team to gain data and insight regarding the company culture, management, HR issues, and the employee’s job. While salary and benefits are important factors you should ask about, there are often other HR-related concerns that influence an employee’s decision to leave.

Ask the departing employee what they think and feel about their work. This includes job responsibilities, working conditions, culture, and peers. You can use this information to get ideas on how to improve employee motivation, productivity, and engagement. Individuals who are leaving likely feel more comfortable being candid about their experiences and concerns with the company.

Exit interviews are also a great way to gain insight into your managers’ performances and styles. Are they effective leaders who provide the right amount of guidance to their teams? Do they help create a positive culture and promote collaboration? Are there managers who tend to micromanage and forget to show appreciation? An exit interview could show you who is managing successfully and who might need more training.

Increase employee retention.

Although it’s not always a shock, every time an employee leaves it impacts your organization. This is particularly true of high-performing employees. It’s also why you need to use exit interviews to learn what you can do to keep the rest of your star players.

Ask the departing worker for their opinions on areas of the company outside their direct responsibilities and department. This might include company strategy, marketing, operations, systems, and competition. Ask them an open-ended question to help you identify gaps and areas for improvement. When the feedback is applicable and feasible, develop a plan to implement those changes and improve the workplace environment for current employees. 

Get intel on the competition.

Your organization needs to stay competitive in the job market, and exit interviews are the perfect time to do a little research on who is drawing away your people and how. Find out what your competitors are offering in terms of salary as well as benefits like PTO, advancement opportunities, and unique employee perks and benefits.

Maintain positive relationships with past employees.

During the exit interview, management should offer the employee an opportunity to ask questions and voice concerns. This might include basic questions about the logistics of their leaving (e.g.: insurance questions or final paycheck). Or, it could lead to questions regarding their position and place in the company. Sometimes, the exiting staff member simply needs to vent—and it’s better they do it with you than later on a public channel.

Either way, showing them respect and giving them a chance to be heard will help you part ways on a positive note.

Exit Interview Best Practices

Who should conduct the exit interview?

In a 2013 survey, Harvard Business Review found that second-line managers (i.e., direct supervisors’ managers) are more likely to receive more honest feedback during an exit interview. They are also in a better position to follow up and take action based on the feedback they receive. Plus, the involvement of upper management shows exiting employees that your organization cares about their opinions.

If your company holds second exit interviews post-departure, consider hiring an HR consultant for the job. As a neutral party, they will be more likely to gather reliable data.

Who should be interviewed?

Which employees should be interviewed depends on your company. Some organizations interview all employees who leave, while others interview only professional employees, executives, or high potential employees.

The Harvard Business Review discovered that organizations with the most progressive programs prioritized high potentials over others. These employees are the hardest to replace, typically very knowledgeable about the company, and more likely to know about competitors because they are recruitment targets. You will certainly receive valuable feedback from these top performers.

When should an exit interview take place?

Aim to schedule the first exit interview halfway between the employee’s resignation announcement and their final day. Ideally, you’re shooting for a time after their initial emotional reaction, but before they’re mentally checked out.

Another option is to wait until after the employee has left, which gives everyone time to cool down and reflect. Many respondents in the Harvard Business Review survey said that they hold exit interviews long after an employee has left. 

As for interview length, typically 30 minutes to an hour is sufficient. You can always give leeway to continue the conversation if the employee feels inclined. Many experts recommend letting the departing employee choose the timing of their exit interview. It’s also helpful to send them an agenda of what you’ll be discussing, which shows them that you take the process seriously and gives them a chance to organize their thoughts.

How many exit interviews should you hold?

You may not have considered conducting more than one exit interview, but many companies have found success with multiple interactions (e.g.: an initial interview and a follow-up survey or phone call). Experts recommend one interview before leaving and another a few months later.

Exit interviews have been examined for their importance and effectiveness for decades. A 1969 study found that 59% of former employees who answered a questionnaire sent several months after their exit gave reasons for leaving that differed from those they’d offered during their initial exit interviews.

The consensus of many company managers is that three to six months is an optimal time between the initial interview and follow-up. Thanks to digital survey tools, this can be a quick and painless process for both parties.

How should an exit interview be formatted?

Face-to-face meetings are ideal as they typically allow you to get the most out the exit interview, particularly with high potential employees. Meeting in person can help the conversation flow more naturally and avoid any miscommunications or misunderstandings.

Phone interviews may be preferable for some individuals and situations. They can save you time and offer convenience. If your process includes more than one interview, start with a face-to-face meeting and follow up with a phone interview and/or electronic survey.

Prior to the exit interview, determine how structured you want the meeting to be. Prepare your questions beforehand, rather than winging it and risking a shaky, unproductive conversation.

A structured interview with set questions can help management spot trends. The downside is that they don’t usually provide new and surprising information and can even come off as rushed and impersonal. An unstructured meeting can garner unexpected and valuable responses, but can make consolidating the information more difficult. Opt for a combination approach that includes some meaningful, open-ended questions and leaves room for a bit of free-flowing conversation.

How should the interviewer manage the conversation?

Rule #1: Listen more than you speak. The manager leading the exit interview should speak only as needed to steer the conversation toward important topics.

Keep the tone and topics positive. Avoid getting defensive when the interviewee provides feedback. Remember, your organization wants that feedback, which could prove to be valuable. Even if it’s unwarranted, the exit interview is not the place to argue employee criticisms. Focus on navigating the conversation and asking questions that can help generate ideas to make positive changes.

We’ve said it a few times here, but it’s important to ask open-ended questions. You want to keep the conversation going and get the interviewee’s genuine input and perspective, so ask them thoughtful questions that allow them to expand on their experiences and opinions. 

Avoid questions and topics around:

  • Specific people or team members
  • Office gossip
  • Oversharing what you may have heard from others
  • Trying to change their mind about leaving the company

Assure them the conversation will remain confidential. Although they are leaving, employees typically don’t want to burn any bridges. They may request a recommendation or work with past colleagues in the future. Departing individuals will feel more comfortable being open with you if they are confident you won’t jeopardize their relationships with the rest of their colleagues down the road.

Wrap up the interview by expressing your happiness and support for their new opportunity. It’s often bittersweet when great employees leave, but it’s important to tell them that you appreciate the value they’ve provided to your company and are excited about their new adventure.

How will you share and act on the information?

Researchers for the Harvard Business Review study asked executives of companies with exit interview programs to name a specific action taken as the result of one. Not even a third could cite an example—meaning two-thirds of existing programs seem to be mostly talk with little productive follow-up.

The last thing you should do after an exit interview is to just sit on any information or data you receive. The interviewing manager should analyze and share the data with the executive team. When you observe patterns or large issues, work together to create an action plan. 

The rest of your staff will see that upper management listens to employees and is serious about constantly improving.

A Comprehensive Approach to Employee Retention & Exit Interviews

Don’t look at exit interviews as an inconvenience or indication of failure within your business. Treat them as a valuable learning experience and a way to maintain a positive relationship with your former employees.

Although exit interviews can be a great tool for improving employee retention, the efforts and conversations should start well before that point. Ask your workers regularly how they are doing in their role, why they choose to stay with the company, and why they might consider leaving. 

Processes like regular performance reviews help answer these hard-hitting questions, show employees you value them, and improve retention rates.

12 Questions for Exit Interviews

Despite even the best efforts and intentions, employees will come and go. Arm your management staff with these impactful exit interview questions to get the most out of the process every time.

  1. What prompted you to seek alternative employment?
  2. Before making your decision to leave, did you investigate other options that would enable you to stay?
  3. How did you feel about your salary and the employee benefits offered?
  4. Are there any other benefits you feel should have been offered? If yes, please explain.
  5. How frequently did you get performance feedback? 
  6. What were your feelings about the performance review process?
  7. How frequently did you have discussions with your manager about your career goals?
  8. What did you like most about your job and/or this company?
  9. What does your new job offer that your job with this company does not?
  10. Why is the new job/company better?
  11. Do you have any suggestions for improvement? Have you raised them in the past?
  12. Do you have any additional comments, questions, or concerns about your job and/or the company?

Does your organization need help with putting an employee exit interview process in place? BlueLion will be happy to help you create a program or even conduct exit interviews for you. We’ll ensure you maximize the experience and gain beneficial feedback when individuals leave the organization. Contact us to learn more at 603-818-4131 or info@bluelionllc.com today!

The information on this website, including its newsletters, is not, nor is it intended to be legal advice. You should contact an attorney or HR specialist for advice on your individual situation.