How to Conduct an Exit Interview the Right Way

Do you wish you knew what you could have done to keep a departing employee?

Really effective exit interviews can give you that insight. They can teach you ways to repeat good experiences (e.g., “I could be very honest with my manager”) and avoid bad ones (e.g, “I didn’t feel challenged”).

For employees, exit interviews are one of the last deep conversational interactions they have with your company. It should be their chance to give a review of their experience, an opportunity that affirms the contributions they’ve made to your organization.

When both parties focus on these learning and knowledge-sharing goals, exit interviews can help working relationships end on a good note. Many times the feedback employees provide is positive, and when it’s not, it gives you valuable insight on how to fix it for your existing employees.

Plan the meeting

It’s a smart idea to meet face-to-face for an exit interview. Your employees will appreciate the gesture, and it will generally result in more productive conversations.

Another option is to give employees a written exit survey first, and then follow up with an in-person meeting. Some employees may prefer the chance to gather their thoughts in advance. But, keep in mind, the responses may be a little less candid in this case.

Schedule the interview at the very end of an employee’s time with your company – during the last two days of employment.

Plan to explain why you’re doing the exit interview, and prepare your questions.

What to ask

While you never want the conversation to appear scripted, there are key questions you want to touch on when you conduct exit interviews. You should also ask some of the same questions across the board in every exit interview. This way you can compare answers and look for common responses.

Open the interview by telling the employee he or she doesn’t have to answer all or any of your questions. Also, ask for permission to share the answers with management. If the employee doesn’t want you to share anything, when you get important feedback throughout the interview, paraphrase the remark and ask again if you could share just that portion of the interview.

Here are some important questions to ask:

1. Why are you leaving?

2. What is the company doing right? Moderately right? Poorly? Very Poorly?

3. How could conditions be improved?

4. What would you do to improve the situation that is causing you to leave?

5. How do other employees feel about the situation? The company in general?

6. What isn’t the company currently doing, that if it started to do, would improve things?

7. Please describe your general feelings about working here. If possible, please tell us why you are leaving.

8. What were three things you enjoyed most about working here?

9. If you could change three things, what would they be?

10. Are there ideas that you have that you wish you could have implemented while you were here?

11. Please describe the three best things about working with your supervisor.

12. What would you change about our new employee orientation program? In other words, are there things that you wish you had known before or during the beginning part of your employment with our company?

13. Who are the three people who have made the most positive impact on you and your career here at the company?

14. What advice do you have for the next person in your position?

What not to ask

While it’s important to be on alert for harassment or discrimination complaints or just bad management that your exiting employee may point out, you don’t want to fuel the fire. (Of course, if the employee mentions hostility or harassment issues during an exit interview, you need follow your standard HR investigation procedures and address it as you normally would address any complaint.)

Exit Interviews should focus on the company, and the information you gather should be helpful, constructive feedback that you can use to move the company, employees and processes forward.

These conversations also give employees an opportunity to provide their opinions and share what led to their decision to leave. However, you need to be careful not to encourage negativity in any of the following ways:

1. Don’t ask targeted questions about specific people or issues. While it’s OK to ask for general feedback about a supervisor, you should not insert your opinions into the conversation.

2. Don’t feed office gossip. It’s never constructive and won’t be reliable information.

3. Don’t say anything that could be construed as slander. The conversation should focus on the employee’s experience. Although he or she may have negative things to say about certain people, you should listen without agreeing or disagreeing with his or her point.

4. Don’t lay the groundwork that could look like you are setting someone up for termination. Any employee’s performance and status within the company should not be shared – especially with a departing employee.

5. Don’t get into personal issues. Keep the conversation professional and work-related.

6. Don’t try to convince the employee to change stay with your company. (In my opinion, if you really want an employee to stay, this conversation should have happened at the time of the resignation.)

Processing employee feedback

Nearly every exit interview should help you identify opportunities for improvement within the company. Share key points from the meeting with an employee’s supervisor or to the next level up when the feedback is relevant.

Look for patterns in feedback from outgoing employees to identify possible organizational issues. It may be helpful to put your notes into a spreadsheet so you can quickly scan the information and find similar comments. If you do notice a trend, take it to the leadership team and suggest some actions that can be taken to avoid losing additional employees.

For example, if you start hearing that many employees have left because the job was not what they expected to do when hired, it may be an indicator that you need to audit your job descriptions and/or hiring practices.

Discover how to create a workplace your employees won’t want to give up. Download our free e-book, How to Develop a Top-notch Workforce That Will Accelerate Your Business.