Exit Interviews: Best Practices to Get Best Results For All

How Important Are Exit Interviews For Your Company?

Exit interviews have a questionable place in the departure of any employee from a company. Some find them as essential tasks before breaking official ties with a member of the team. Others question the usefulness of the experience when an employee is already moving on. Here we will tackle some key aspects of exit interviews.

Male employee holding box of things
It’s important to understand how to conduct an exit interview and how important they are in your company

What we hope to do with this article is to clearly explain the above. That way both companies and leavers will better appreciate the need for exit interviews. Also, we want to emphasise the importance for both parties. We want to make these the best possible exchanges of useful and productive information. Use this as a guide for best practices for exit interviews and what to avoid.

Exit Interview Meaning and Purpose

So, what do we mean by exit interviews? This is a formal activity an employer conducts with leavers before they officially depart. What else does that mean for companies? Manage it as part of the departure process. Utilise the time with the leaver to learn about their overall experience. And, utilise the information shared.

The main purpose of the exit interview is to discuss reasons why the employee is leaving. It is also an opportunity to find out from the employee what they enjoyed about working for the company. Another purpose of the interview is to get suggestions from leavers about areas of improvement.

Exit Interview Types

There are normally 2 types of exit interviews. Decide between face-to-face and survey style approaches. Let’s look at both approaches to see how they should work best.

Face-to-Face Exit Interviews

For face-to-face interviews, invite the outbound employee to sit with a senior member of the company. Use this is to discuss various, preassigned questions and discussion points. Some important points to consider for these face-to-face interviews to be effective.

Give advanced notice about the date and time for the interview. That way the leaver can prepare accordingly.

Let the leaver know what questions or topics will be discussed. Provide a copy of the interview questions and topics in advance. Alternatively, go through a quick in-person overview of the topics. Do this when setting the date and time for the interview with the employee.

Make sure the interview is conducted by someone from HR or a third-party role. Ideally, this should not be conducted from the leaver’s own department. This way the employee would hopefully be more open to answering the questions asked.

Create an atmosphere where they feel safe to share openly. Otherwise, you will receive answers that they know you just want to hear, not what might really help.

Survey Style Exit Interviews

In this case, the questions or selected topics are answered by the leaver alone, without interaction. This can happen either online or in printed form. Very often this offers the choice of both rated scores and comments sections. Keep language and technical know-how in mind for this to be completed effectively.

This style has both advantages and disadvantages. It allows the employee to feel comfortable to share openly rather than in an interview. Instead of having to tell someone their feedback, they simply write about it. They may have more time to think about their answers. The other side is that there is no chance for follow-up questions.

Also, there is no opportunity to clarify their feedback comments. Alternatively, some may just tick the boxes randomly. They might not even share comments, leaving the value of the form questionable. Choose carefully when using this as the only approach for these reasons.

Survey with 4 tickboxes with green pen
A survey style minimises interaction which has both pros and cons

Questions and Topics Exit Interviews Should Cover

So, now that we know what they are, what the purpose is, and what format they might take. Next, we need to consider what to ask. Consider what topics you want to focus on. Word questions carefully to get better responses. Highlight key operational and soft skills focus areas to ask about. Ask about the company as a whole as well as role-specific questions. Some effective questions to ask include the following.

Why Are You Leaving?

Use it as a starting place. Employees will have a variety of reasons for leaving. Start looking for reoccurring trends when analysing this first question’s answers. Use this to identify areas of improvement or development moving forward. It may be a company policy. Or you could see gaps in learning and development opportunities. However, you may even find that the trend points back to a particular leader where individual development may be needed. Start from here and it will help build the conversation. 

Is There Anything We Could Have Done Better?

Give the leaver the chance to directly point at areas of improvement. Also, this is where positives in your company can be highlighted. This section allows for real constructive points of interest for any company. Give the leaver every chance to share.

Do You Feel You Had the Tools and Resources to Do Your Job?

Ask about the actual job and resources. This question looks at the physical tools and equipment that might need investment moving forward. Also, it looks at information, development, and other resources that employees need to perform. Use this question to see practical improvements that can be made. Address shortages that may be present. Ask for specific examples within their role so you have more detailed information.

What Did You Like Best About Your Job?

Although you will get varying answers to this question, trends will start popping up. Perhaps it was the team. Maybe it was the work atmosphere. Whatever the answers, you will get an insight into the employee experiences that they enjoyed and that you should continue to promote. Utilise positive feedback to enhance strengths in the company. Share these points with senior management and in team quarterly meetings. Celebrate the achievements that employees recognise where possible.

Would You Recommend us as an Employer to Friends or Family?

This will let you know if they have any bad feelings about the company before their departure. If they answer “yes” then you know they still think well of the company. However, a negative response should be looked into further. Ask additional questions to get more details. Find the root cause for their answer. Allow them to share any hesitation they have. Acknowledge any gaps that might exist. Also, share any upcoming improvements that are planned.

Did You Feel Valued During Your Time at the Company?

Use this question to understand how the employee was made to feel. Feeling valued is an important point for any employee. This is regardless of their role, level, or job function. Answers will reflect how the employee’s contribution was appreciated or recognised over time. Alternatively, it will tell how they weren’t. It can be a key reason for people moving on to other job opportunities. Acknowledge the lack of recognition and appreciation when it is shared. Apologise for this if it feels appropriate.

In addition to the above questions, ask about how they feel about the company culture. Do this only if you have clearly communicated the mission, vision, beliefs, and values. Another focus can be about team spirit and dynamic. This can be within the department or company. Ask about company activities and events. Look for training and development feedback. Focus on what has been shared with the employee. Avoid vague references to company guidelines they may be unaware of.

I have seen questions about senior management or direct reports. Caution is suggested here. When asking this, be ready for both positive and negative responses. Not everyone likes their boss. Also, as they are leaving, they may not care about badmouthing someone now. This can become very personal and should be reviewed carefully. Perhaps the feedback is exaggerated to try to cause trouble from a disgruntled employee.

On the other hand, it might be a very serious accusation that might need further action. In either case, the feedback should not be ignored. Keep an open mind. Listen to the feedback. Ask for specific examples of actions or behaviours.

Benefits of Exit Interviews

Once we have started the process of exit interviews, the exercise can be very rewarding. It takes time, especially if the turnover at your company is high. However, you can have invaluable information at your fingertips. Nobody knows your company better than your own employees. Use the exit interview process to better understand what is happening in the company.

The word benefit spelt out in scrabble tiles
There are many benefits of an exit interview both for the company and the employee

Giving a Voice to the Departing Employee

Everyone likes for their views to be heard. This is just as much true for a departing employee as it is for one that is staying put. This activity, when handled effectively, gives the exiting employee that chance. Perhaps they have only great things to say about the company so knowing why they want to leave is important.

Alternatively, if improvements are really needed, here is your chance to hear about them. Departing employees tend to be more honest, as they do not fear repercussions. Use that to your advantage. Be ready to listen open-mindedly. Ask probing questions where necessary. Invite feedback openly and confidently.

Data for Analysis and Review

If your exit interview format has rated questions, these can be easily analysed to see what is trending high or low. In addition to these questions, the comments can easily show repetitive trends in commonly mentioned responses. If in 6 months, 10 employees mention the changing room as a negative, a review of the area is worth looking into. Monitor the trends that are occurring. Use the information effectively to make positive change. Address any lingering gaps that can be fixed.

Actionable Points of Improvement

Once you have analysed the responses you have received over a period, you can identify the areas of improvement. Look for key focus areas that need looking into. Create action plans for short and long-term plans with departmental and inter-departmental projects developed. Identify any investment that might be needed.

Barriers to Effective Exit Interviews

There are several barriers we need to be aware of for the exit interview process to be effective. These barriers can include the below-mentioned warnings.

The Feedback isn’t Helpful

Many leaving employees fear speaking up at exit interviews because they worry their reference could be affected. Also, they don’t feel their comments will hold any weight or make any difference. Fear and indifference are 2 of the main barriers to getting anything useful from the process. Often the feedback is vague and simply unactionable. Try to get more accurate details where possible.

The Feedback isn’t Truthful

Linking back to the first point, a lot of feedback given in exit interviews is less than truthful. Very often, leavers simply answer how they think we want them to. They give high or average scores where lower scores are more reflective of their real feelings. The most common reason I have personally seen on exit interview forms for leaving is “personal reasons”. Not very informative and very often not true.

But easier to answer than “management” or “salary and benefits”. Ask the question and try to find the root cause. Delve deeper into hints about possible other reasons. Make every effort to get the real reason. Otherwise, lingering problems for people leaving may never be addressed.

The Person Interviewing isn’t Right for the Role

If we select the wrong person to conduct or explain the exit interview, the whole experience can be a negative one. As mentioned earlier, it’s best not to have the direct report of the leaver conducting the interview. Also, if you use a team member without the soft skills for interviewing, the experience can be a challenging one.

Remember also that if it’s a survey-style process, someone still needs to properly explain the purpose and format. If this is not done correctly the form will probably not hold very valuable insights. Assign the right person. Train them where needed. Ensure the person running the interview is ready. Check that anyone explaining the survey process understands it themselves.

Businesswoman interviewing male business person
The interview needs to be picked carefully or the exit interview may not be productive

Lack of Confidentiality

This is a personal favourite. It comes up when talking about staff satisfaction and engagement surveys as well. Very often exit interviews are not fruitful because the leavers know their answers and comments cannot remain confidential. So they don’t speak openly or honestly. Make every effort to maintain confidentiality.

Find ways to have employees participate without having to give their name or employee number. Keep the details for submitting the feedback vague. Share the information only with those who need it. Do not discuss the interviews you have conducted with colleagues over coffee, for example.

There may be additional barriers to the effectiveness of the actual exit interview. However, these are immediate considerations every company should look at when reviewing its process. Review your own system to see if these barriers exist. Look at how you can reduce these barriers if they are present. Adjust your process where needed to get better results.

Best Approach by the Company

So, what approach should the company take when conducting exit interviews? It is important that this process is well established throughout the company. There should be clear and concise documentation. This should outline the correct steps to be taken. Also, there should be a standard format for everyone to follow. First, set a timeline for all exit interviews to be carried out.

Next, have an agreed set of questions and topics to create consistency, as mentioned above. Finally, have dedicated interviewers for these interviews. Very often, HR holds this role in many companies. Here are some additional considerations for companies to keep in mind.

Create a Comfortable Environment

When conducting any interview, it is the role of the interviewer to create the right atmosphere. Here, your role is to ensure that the leaver is comfortable and ready to share. By taking the lead, the interviewer should make every effort to create an environment where the interviewee is at ease.

Select a location that is private, yet comfortable. Make arrangements that the interview should not be interrupted. Minimise possible noise or distractions. Give your full attention to the interviewee at that time. Offer a refreshment if possible.

Be Ready to Listen

The main point of the exit interview is to hear the feedback being given by the leaver. Therefore, the main role of the interviewer is to be ready to keep an open mind. By asking the preassigned questions, the interviewer can then concentrate on the answers being given. Take notes during the interview, word for word where possible. Note scores for the rated questions.

Encourage the leaver to share comments rather than leaving the sections blank. Avoid putting words or ideas into their answers. Allow them to answer for themselves.

Remain Objective

Remember, the exit interview should be a two-way conversation. However, this does not mean that answers should be overly challenged. Everyone is entitled to their opinion or point of view. Also, you may not be aware of the real-life experience each person has had in the role. Ask for further details on feedback given. However, it’s not your place to dismiss what is being shared.

Remain neutral when receiving the feedback. Do not judge the person or the answers they share. Avoid becoming defensive if you are unhappy about any feedback that is given.

Update All Relevant Notes

Once the actual interview has finished, the next priority is to document the notes taken. Set a format for the company including scores for rated questions asked. Be consistent in recording the responses. Only then can further action be taken. Keep track of all interviews conducted. Note any interviews that were not and a reason why, for example, termination.

Look at trends for missed interviews especially if they all happen in one particular area/department. Update the feedback as it was given without adding to or taking from the person’s actual words. Make sure the interview notes are kept in password controlled files or systems.

Man writing important notes
Keeping notes updated is key to keeping track of past employees and relevant feedback

Best Approach by the Leaver

So, you are moving on to your next role. One final task you may be asked to complete is an exit interview as part of the departure experience. There are some important points to keep in mind though.

Know What You Want to Share

Plan what you would like to share during your exit interview. Remember to be ready to share the positive as well as the constructive. Think about what you have enjoyed. Also, consider what could be improved moving forward within the company. This might be in terms of processes or policies. Also, it might be in terms of resources or tools and equipment to do the job. Additionally, share about learning and development opportunities and growth within the company.

Offer Constructive Feedback

While it might be tempting to vent away, criticising everything, that’s not actually the best approach. Instead, have some useful constructive feedback to share during the interview. This way the feedback is both helpful and yet highlights areas of improvement.

Criticism alone doesn’t do anyone any good and offers no way of moving forward. It simply gives off negativity. Offer actual constructive feedback, in a helpful way. Then you can help your former employer become better even after you go.

Don’t Make it too Personal

While we want leavers to be honest in their feedback, we don’t want personal attacks on others in the company. Again, the venting option only reflects badly on the leaver. This approach shows them as disgruntled employees pointing the finger. The feedback received loses its value. Make the feedback specific but always respectful. Honesty is always appreciated however it should be in a fair, balanced way.

Don’t Make it too General

Avoid words like “always”, “never”, “everyone”, etc. By generalising in these ways, the feedback devalues in terms of its impact. Instead, use specific examples of incidents that happened, what occurred and what the outcome was. Give feedback that is positive and constructive yet specific.

Using Exit Interview Information Moving Forward

While the interview is important, what you do with the information is more so. This step is very often lost in the process and little or nothing is done with the feedback received. This is a big mistake. A prime objective after exit interviews are conducted is that the information is recorded and used effectively. Start by analysing trends, reviewing scores, and looking for patterns. These can all show a company where they are performing well.

Also what areas need improving. Acknowledge the gaps and strengths equally. Without this obvious step, the exit interviews are in fact pointless. Meaning they are simply a waste of time for everyone involved. Be sure not to make this mistake, as many other companies do.

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