10 essential steps to leading an exit interview

Owain Simpson, Content Writer · 17 Oct

If you're looking to get some genuine feedback on what it's like to work at your company, who do you ask? Current employees might not be entirely honest, and past employees may simply be out of reach. Your best bet? An exit interview.

Whatever the reason for an employee leaving, it's a great opportunity for you to get feedback for your company.

For starters, you get to have a frank and open discussion about why your company 'failed' to keep the employee. On another note, though, this can also be a good way to find out the positives of working for your company. Just because someone is resigning doesn't mean they didn't enjoy their post.

By helping you find out both the negatives and the positives of being hired at your organisation, an exit interview can determine more ways for increasing future staff retention, and can improve your organisation's efficiency by improving motivation and morale. 

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1. Try to avoid employees exiting

This might not seem too helpful if you're reading this after your employee has resigned, but in actual fact, this is precisely why exit interviews are so important. By understanding why the employee decided to leave, you can comprehend what potentially didn't work for them at your company, knowledge which can be used as a preventative measure in the future. 

You may have missed an opportunity to gather feedback from employees that could have prevented the current exit interviewee from ever... well, exiting.

The first piece of advice is therefore that you communicate with your employees about their satisfaction within the company, whilst they are still employed! This could take the form of satisfaction surveys, anonymous feedback systems, department meetings, and potentially even ‘stay interviews’.

2. Conduct the interview person-to-(right)-person

Depending on the scale of your business, the achievability of this will vary. Basically, you want to make the interviewee feel that they can be as open and honest as possible. One way of doing this is with paper interviews. By writing down their responses in private, without the pressure of being faced with their employer, the employee may feel they can be more open.

That said, the exit interview can be more efficient as questions can be adapted more easily depending on the employee, rather than just having a stock list of 'exit-interview' questions on a form. 

The interview needs to be with the ‘right’ person. If the interviewee is being interviewed by the line manager from the job they are leaving, then the responses will be biased and probably of no use.

The interviewer may also adversely affect the quality of the findings. You need a person that is removed from the exit interviewee’s role at your organisation. This might be an HR department member, or multiple interviewers if you have the resources.

For smaller companies who find it harder to find someone removed from the situation, the employer should keep in mind the possibility of outsourcing. This way, you can find someone external to the company who specialises in exit interviews, or other areas of HR. 

3. Ask the right questions

The most important aspect of the interview is, unsurprisingly, the questions. The interviewer must consider which questions to ask, what order to pose them in, and any emotional factors too. 

If the interviewee is not at ease or feels anxious, they may be dishonest or insincere in their responses. For instance, the interviewer should probably avoid asking questions about the most contentious points first. It is best to build up to questioning areas of unease slowly. This can help the interviewer get a good idea of the actual events that led up to employee leaving the organisation too.

Any exit interview structure or strategy that you develop must be catered to each case. You need to study the specific interviewee and avoid falling into the trap of focusing too much on any areas you think are more important.

Leave room for plenty of open questions. It is better to allow the conversation to wander and the interviewee to guide you. This can help uncover the deciding factor of their departure as a matter of course, rather than of force. 

With this in mind, we have concocted a list questions which might be useful when leading an exit interview. Using these questions, you may find useful examples and advice which can be used for improving your organisation. 

4. Why did you decide to look for a new job?

This is a key question and probably the best question to ask as an opener. Asking this will show you if the interviewee is leaving for practical reasons, such as a promotion opportunity elsewhere, needing to be closer to home, or other reasons that are unrelated to your organisation.

If the reason is based on internal problems, such as their role or the way the company is being run, this can actually be a good opportunity to improve your organisation.  If this is the case, you will need to explore this in more depth with follow-up questions. Ask for specific information from your interviewee to find the root of the problem. 

5. What was the decision-making process behind accepting your future position?

This question is especially important if the interviewee responded that they are leaving due to external factors. It gives you an insight into what your competitors are offering. Perhaps your compensation structure needs to be reviewed or you need to work on developing your organisation’s culture.

If they are leaving for internal reasons, this will offer another opportunity to delve into the problems they had. However, it is important to avoid being impersonal here. You must process what they are telling you without being too biased about your company. Remember, criticism is valuable information for future improvements. 

6. What is your opinion on the workplace culture at this organisation?

This question can offer a breadth of insight into the evolution of your company. Tracking the changes in employees’ responses as they leave can let you know if you need to be concerned with your company culture.

This is obviously subjective. Individuals will perceive your organisation differently, so don’t jump on any revolutionary actions based on single interviews. That said, be aware of how the people in your organisation might be changing the way they see themselves and your place in the sector. This is a big issue for organisations and well worth paying attention to.

7. What was the best and the worst thing about your job with us?

This will hopefully allow the interviewee to be honest. It’s advantageous to allow them to couple both a negative opinion and positive opinion in their feedback. If someone has said something nice first, they might feel less hesitant to revealing some truthful negatives too.

While it is important to find out what the problem is, positive aspects are useful too. They are worth noting down to help your organisation develop what is working and motivating your employees.

8. Do you feel you were supported and able to fulfil your role with us to the best of your ability?

This question is the key to finding out if the role itself needs changing - this is especially useful when refilling the role. It might be the case that the interviewee felt undertrained or under-supported. When you are looking for a replacement, you may need to get someone with more experience or, alternatively, invest in better induction and training programmes.

9. What could have been done to keep you at this organisation?

A question on how to remedy a potentially failing position might generate very useful suggestions for improvement. Remember the purpose of the interview is to improve employment in your company in terms of both retention and motivation. Gaining an insight into how to solve the problem, from the very person who experienced it most, could be invaluable.

10. Be pragmatic with the feedback you receive

The exit interview is likely to offer feedback that is more honest than any current employee would be willing to give you. However, it is worth remembering that there are issues that you won’t be able to remedy. Some dissatisfaction may have taken a long time to develop with the employee who is leaving. It may have stemmed from something that was quite small and resolvable at the time, for instance.

You need to approach their responses with a critical eye before you go back to your team and try to fix problems that may have been specific to the individual who has left.

Any information you gain from an exit interview should become a focus for your organisation. If you conduct the interview with ‘spheres of influence’ in mind, the exit interview can be an excellent tool for improving your company wherever possible. However, it's your interpretation of the responses that will make these interviews worth your time in the long term.  

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