How to make the most of exit interviews (+ free interviewer template)

Exit interviews provide a rare and valuable opportunity for honest feedback.

Other types of feedback—employee surveys, ongoing 1:1s, year-end reviews—are essential, but they can often be tempered by the expectations or influence of coworkers, supervisors, and managers. Employees want to provide an honest accounting of their experiences and challenges, but competing priorities, like making a positive impression or maintaining workplace relationships, can influence the type of information they share.

Though employee exits are rarely happy occasions, they can at least be turned into valuable learning experiences. Take a structured, thoughtful approach to exit interviews and you can shape the future of your company for the better—both increasing employee retention, and improving the quality of life for current employees.

What is an exit interview?

When an employee departs your company, it's helpful to arrange a brief discussion between the departing employee and a member of your HR team.

These discussions—known as exit interviews—provide an opportunity to gather feedback from the departing employee, to understand their reasons for leaving, reflect on their experience working at the company, and identify opportunities to better retain employees in the future.

How to run a better exit interview

Exit interviews don’t need to be daunting, so we're sharing five simple strategies for making exit interviews as purposeful—and positive—as possible.

1. Share your reasons for arranging the interview

Exit interviews can, at first glance, come across as intimidating experiences. Certain working conditions may mean that a departing employee wants to move on as quickly and quietly as possible; having a face-to-face conversation with an HR representative is the last thing on the employee's mind.

Much of this stress can be alleviated by being clear about the meeting's objectives. Let the employee know that you aren't trying to assign blame; the goal is simply to understand their reasons for leaving, and, if possible, identify areas where the company can improve in the future.

2. Make it the last thing you do

If you run the interview a week before their departure, there's always a risk that a colleague's criticism will make its way around the office, making the remainder of the employee's tenure awkward and uncomfortable, or dissuading them from sharing honest feedback.

Effective exit interviews require honest feedback, and that's best encouraged by having a face-to-face interview on the employee's last day—minimizing any potential consequences of that feedback. Running the interview with a single, neutral person—like a Human Resources rep and not a manager directly involved with the employee's day-to-day work—will help keep personal relationships from biasing feedback.

3. Don't dispute their account of events

In some exit interviews, you may find yourself disagreeing with the employee's account of the events leading up to their exit. The employee may reflect on their excellent attendance and bemoan a lack of appreciation, while their manager might express frustration over poor attendance and work quality.

In these situations, it's necessary to avoid disputing the employee's account. You're not trying to determine who is right and who is wrong; the goal of the interview is simply to encourage the employee to open up about their experience working for your company.

4. Reflect on their reasons for joining

In addition to reflecting on the reasons they’re leaving, dig into why they initially joined your company. Exit interviews are a great chance to identify any disconnect between the expectations of a role—as described by your job description, advertising, or interview process—and the reality of its performance.

Did the employee expect a back-office role, only to find themselves inundated with customer meetings? Did they expect to progress at a rate that wasn't feasible with your current company structure? Identifying any disconnect allows you to reposition the role in the future—attracting better-suited employees in the process.

5. Aim for positive closure

Not every departure has to be permanent. Companies and career goals evolve over time, and it may be that the exiting employee would consider returning to the company in the future. Though you shouldn't try to dissuade an employee from leaving, it's often beneficial to leave the door open and explain that they'd be welcome to reapply down the road.

Even if returning to the company isn't right for all exiting employees, it's still important to offer positive closure on the experience: reflecting on the employee's achievements and helping them move into their next role on good terms.

20 exit interview questions

Exit interviews can be a emotional experience for everyone involved, and it can be helpful to have a bank of tried-and-true questions to keep the interview on track.

To help you get the most from your next exit interview, we're sharing 20 important questions, grouped into the four topics your interview should focus on: feedback on the employee's role; their reasons for leaving; general feedback on their working relationships; and their future plans.

Role Feedback

  • Why did you accept your current job?
  • How would you assess the quality of any training you received?
  • Were your expectations for the role met?
  • Did you feel adequately rewarded/recognized for your work?
  • Was there any aspect of your role that you struggled with?
  • Do you feel that your job description has changed since you were hired?
  • What do you feel good about accomplishing in your job and in your time here?

Reasons for Leaving

  • Why have you decided to leave the company?
  • How did you feel you were treated by your coworkers and manager?
  • What are your general feelings about working for this company?
  • Did you see opportunities for development or promotion within this business?
  • What might have been done to prevent you from leaving?

General Feedback

  • What do you like most about the work environment?
  • What do you like least about the work environment?
  • What do you think of the company's leadership?
  • What can we do better in the future?
  • Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Future Plans

  • What are your future plans?
  • What makes your new job more attractive than your present job?
  • Would you consider returning to this company if a position were available in the future?

Making the most of exit interviews

With the right preparation, exit interviews can be a valuable exercise for both the company and the exiting employee, providing a wealth of actionable employee feedback that's difficult to find through other channels.

That feedback can be applied to all areas of the business. You can evaluate the accuracy of your job descriptions and role requirements, identify common sources of workplace friction that need improvement, and—if you feel it's appropriate—you can even add a reminder to your applicant tracking system to follow-up with the departed employee in a few months.

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