An employee can leave at any time to take another job—that’s part of life. Direct reports bid farewell for many reasons, from dissatisfaction with the position to a desire for a change of scenery, and it’s the company's responsibility to discern the reasoning. Conducting exit interviews not only helps managers figure out why an employee is leaving but also highlights strategies to improve employee experience and retain top talent.
Effectively executed exit interviews provide a chance to learn what’s working and what’s not, maintain goodwill with company alumni, and hear more candid responses than current employees are comfortable giving.
How should you approach exit interviews? Which questions should you ask? Here are a few ideas to get you started:
Goals for employee exit interviews
Exit interviews are not just for goodbyes, paperwork, and politely asking about their future plans. You should ensure you ask the right questions so you can improve current employees’ experience and boost engagement, which are both closely tied to loyalty and retention.
- Uncover potential issues related to human resources and culture. Employees will sometimes leave if compensation and benefits don’t match what competing companies are offering. Do you offer inadequate sick days and vacation time? Other potential complaints could be a lack of opportunities for advancement, education/training, or mentorship. The problem could even be a nasty, unresolved coworker conflict. You won’t know without asking.
- Ask where the employee is going next. This question usually comes across as friendly and appropriate interest in the employee’s future. However, it can also help you find out if a certain organization or field is poaching all of your employees. What is that organization doing that your organization may be missing?
- Gauge work fulfillment. This is crucial. Employees who feel they have adequate work/life balance are often happier with their jobs, perform better, and suffer less from stress and burnout. Does the employee feel that work expectations were reasonable? Did they receive the support necessary to achieve required goals? Did they often feel overwhelmed or under pressure?
- Measure manager effectiveness. Good direct reports want to learn and improve. Find out if the employee received regular, helpful manager feedback. Was the manager involved and engaged? Did he or she play favorites? Did the management style feature micromanagement or macromanagement?
- Solicit general feedback. Be sure to ask several open-ended questions so the departing employee can share any advice or suggestions for improving team communication, culture, process, or anything else you didn’t already discuss in the exit interview.
- Build an alumni network. Always seek to stay on positive terms with every employee. You never know how the connection could help you, or the employee, later on. “You want [a departing employee] to leave as an ambassador and customer,” said one North American financial services executive, Everett Spain and Boris Groysberg write for Harvard Business Review. If you usually communicate via company email or phone, ask for an email and phone number by which you can reach the employee after he or she leaves the company.
Exit interview best practices
Your approach to exit interviews and the surrounding activities is just as important as the questions you ask during the conversation.
- Decide whom to interview: Depending on your company’s resources, you may choose to only interview top performers. If possible, it’s best to interview all departing employees.
- Establish a standard structural procedure: Whether the the exit interview will involve a face-to-face conversation, a phone call, or a questionnaire, keep it consistent. Ensuring this consistency will make results and trends easier to analyze.
- Decide on timing: Determine if the exit interview will take place on the employee’s last day, after he or she has left, or some other time. Be sure the employee has some notice. That way he or she will have time to think of feedback for the organization.
- Choose the right interviewer: While it may seem logical to have the person’s manager conduct the exit interview, the manager might be the reason the person is leaving. Additionally, if the two had a bad relationship, the direct report may not provide honest or helpful answers. Hiring an outside consultant may be ideal, but if that isn’t possible, have someone else in the company conduct the exit interview.
- Analyze and share the results: Most companies analyze the data from exit interviews, but “fewer than a third of those organizations regularly shared it with senior decision makers,” Spain and Groysberg write. “In other words, most companies ignore the strategic value of exit interviews.” Once you have analyzed the data, share the feedback with the appropriate stakeholders, so they know what they need to change and what they need to keep doing.
Exit interviews won’t serve as a replacement for retention efforts for current employees, but with clean data and a commitment to action, you can improve employee engagement and performance and maintain strong ties with your top talent even after they move on to the next step in their journey. Execute exit interviews correctly, and you’ll successfully ensure employees feel valued and contributory long after they walk out of the office for the last time as an official part of the organization.