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How to conduct an effective exit interview

Conducting an effective exit interview involves choosing the right format and interviewer, asking the right questions, and maintaining a positive atmosphere. It's a valuable opportunity to gain insights into the employee's experience, identify areas for improvement, and ultimately reduce employee turnover.

Christina Pavlou
Christina Pavlou

An experienced recruiter and HR professional who has transferred her expertise to insightful content to support others in HR.

Every time an employee gives their two weeks notice, a new hiring process begins. You focus on posting a job ad, evaluating candidates and choosing your next team member. But how much attention do you pay to the person who’s packing their stuff into a cardboard box?

Conducting exit interviews can generate positive changes within your organization. You get an insight into the reasons for your employees’ resignations. Then, by analyzing your findings after an effective exit interview, you can reduce your employee turnover rate.

For example, if a lot of your employees mention that their duties didn’t match their original expectations, you might want to consider changing your job descriptions and your onboarding sessions. Seeing top-performers leave feeling unmotivated is a sign you should adopt retention programs and offer your employees more opportunities to develop. Exit interviews can also give you a sneak peek of competition benchmarks. Employees who leave you for competitors could help you learn where you stand with salaries and other benefits.

Here are some tips on how to conduct an effective exit interview that offers you food for thought.

1. Choose your interview format

Giving your departing employees a questionnaire to fill out could be less time-consuming and help avoid some uncomfortable discussions. However, conducting a face-to-face exit interview has some benefits:

  • You show that you care about your employees’ opinions by dedicating time to listen to what they have to say.
  • You get the chance to have a less structured conversation that could result in unexpected feedback. (Feedback that a standardized questionnaire wouldn’t be able to provide.)
  • You can end things on a personal, positive note.

Keep in mind, though, that your exit interview won’t succeed if people feel forced to participate. Offer them an alternative like a questionnaire or a phone interview after they leave, if that makes them more comfortable.

There are many tools to help collect and analyze employee separation data. You can use tools like Culture Amp, E-exit interview, Beyond Feedback and Grapevine to customize your questions and spot trends.

2. Choose your interviewer

The person who’s most familiar with your employee’s work is their direct supervisor. But it’s best if someone else conducts the exit interview. If people are leaving because of their manager, they probably won’t say so if their manager does their exit interview. They may also keep quiet to get a good reference.

An HR team member usually is the best option, because they can focus on role-specific issues and complaints or suggestions for the organization as a whole. Some companies choose to have external consultants perform exit interviews. Former employees might feel more comfortable talking to an unbiased ‘outsider,’ but this tactic could also seem impersonal and cold.

3. Decide what to ask

Prepare your interview questions. Although you don’t want to make the exit interview look scripted, make sure you cover important topics before your employee leaves. Don’t forget to promise confidentiality and try to keep a casual and friendly tone to let the conversation flow.

Here are some effective exit interview questions to consider:

  • Please describe your general feelings about working here. If possible, please tell us what caused you to leave.
  • What did you enjoy most about working here?
  • If you could change three things, what would they be?
  • How do you feel you were treated by your supervisor and your coworkers?
  • How well do you believe your work was recognized and appreciated?
  • Do you feel you were given adequate training and assistance?
  • Are there things you wish you had known earlier?
  • Do you think your work was aligned with your personal goals?
  • What could be done to make this company a better place to work?

4. Decide what not to ask

Here are some tricky questions you should probably avoid.

Are you willing to reconsider and stay? Could we do anything to make you stay?

Exit interviews are not the time to ask your employee to reconsider their resignation. Your purpose is to learn about their perspective.

Why didn’t you like working here?

When employees quit, you may feel shocked, hurt, angry or relieved. However, for the sake of your employer brand, it’s not always appropriate to make them aware of these emotions.

More positive alternative questions are: “What things in particular would you change about this job?” or “What would your suggestions be to improve our workplace?”

What were the worst things you had to deal with?

Too much focus on the negative will ruin the atmosphere and might make your employee run to the exit door faster. Instead, ask some questions about good practices and positive things. They can show you what you’re doing right.

Do you think there’s someone else who should leave instead of you?

While you want to get feedback on management and employee relationships, you shouldn’t let things get too personal. If your former employees have bad experiences or grievances to disclose, give them space to mention them. But you don’t want to actively initiate a blame game. So, avoid questions targeted at specific people or issues.

How to avoid dishonesty during exit interviews

There are many reasons that could keep your former employees from being completely honest during exit interviews. Here are some guidelines for keeping everyone honest:

Keep things positive

There’s rarely a need for drama. Thank employees for their contribution, acknowledge their work and wish them luck.

Don’t waste time

Many employees would argue that there’s no point in having an exit interview since it’s too late and nothing is going to change. But showing that you actually listen to your departing employees could help your reputation.

Don’t offer too little too late

An exit interview shouldn’t be the first time employees are asked how they feel about working for you. If you want to make the exit interview process count, you should incorporate a constructive feedback culture among your employees from day one. Have frequent formal and informal discussions with your employees. That way, you’re more likely to get honest, constructive feedback when employees leave. Relying on exit interviews alone is like only reading the last page of a book; it simply doesn’t make any sense without the rest of the story.

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