10 essential steps to leading an exit interview

Owain Simpson, Content Writer ·

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 will never give a truly honest answer and past employees are far out with your reach. There is a sweet spot however and it is the exit interview.

Whatever the reason for an employee leaving it is a powerful opportunity for you to gain feedback for your organisation. You get to have a frank and open discussion about what you as an employer couldn’t offer the person to keep them at the organisation. You should also generally find many positives that the member of staff can also pass on. You need to be open and take everything in. This is how you will improve. It’s not only good for increasing future staff retention but hopefully you can improve your organisation's efficiency by improving motivation and morale.


1. Try to avoid employees exiting

This is maybe not too helpful if you are reading this for advice in the here and now, but if you are gathering feedback from an exit interview then you are likely to have slipped up in some way before this point. Most probably you missed an opportunity to gather feedback from employees that could have prevented the current exit interviewee from ever exiting. The first piece of advice would be that you need to make sure that you are gathering as much information about how to maintain employee satisfaction whilst your employees are 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. Paper interviews can be good for this by their feeling of anonymity but in general you cannot access and properly understand the problems an employee has had without a process of investigation that is only possible by conversation. So in general the interview is best if it is person-to-person.

However, the interview needs to be the ‘right’ person to make the interview of any use. 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 if you have the resources but if you are a small business it might be harder to find someone who is removed enough. If this is the situation for you then you should bear in mind the possibility of outsourcing to companies that specialise in exit interviews and HR work.

3. Ask the right questions

The most important aspect of the interview is that you ask the right questions and also make sure they are in the right order. There may be emotions and even anxiety and complexities that you need to consider. For instance it is best to build up to the areas that you expect are the greatest areas of contention so that you can best get an idea of the actual events that have led to this person leaving your organisation. A structure and strategy that you develop will need to be catered specifically to each case. You need to study the specific interviewee but also don’t fall into the trap of focussing on the areas that you think are most important. Leave plenty of open questions as well, and allow the conversation to wander and the interviewee to guide you to where the crucial problems or reasons for their departure might lie.

With this in mind we have a number of questions that we might consider crucial when leading an exit interview. In all of the below cases you should push for examples and pursue with further questions areas that appear to you to offer the most scope for making changes to improve your organisation.

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

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

However, it may also draw to attention the opportunity for you to improve your organisation. This is a positive way of saying there is a problem that is internal to the company or the role that the person was in. If this is the case, you will need to explore this in more depth with follow-up questions and asking for specific information from your interviewee. You should remain flexible and adapt your questions to keep them relevant to previous responses.

5. What was the decision 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 and may draw to your attention the fact that your compensation structure needs to be reviewed or that 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, you may not wish to ask this question depending on where your further questions from 4. led you, you don’t want to appear impersonal or as if you aren’t processing what they are telling you.

6. Give me 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 peoples’ responses as they leave you can let you know if you need to be concerned with the culture in your company. This is obviously a subjective issue and individuals will perceive your organisation differently so don’t jump on any revolutionary actions based on single interviews but 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. Please tell me the best and the worst thing about your job with us?

This will hopefully allow the interviewee to be honest and get some stuff off their chest. It’s advantageous to allow them to couple a particularly negative and potentially useful bit of feedback for change, with something positive so they feel like they are coming across more balanced. If someone has said something nice first they might feel like they can be more truthful with the negative. That said the positive aspect can be very useful as well and is 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 key for finding out how best to fill the role that is being left as well as possible. It might be the case the interviewee felt undertrained and under-supported and that when you are looking for a replacement you need to get someone with more experience or invest in better induction and training programmes. Whatever the answer, this question is really useful if you can get an honest response. A very useful part of exit interviews is the information you can get to find the best person to fill the newly empty position.

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

This question largely offers insight into the problem or reason that the employee is leaving. This may have already been answered but by turning the question from finding the reason into a question of how to remedy it might generate very useful suggestions. 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 and may have stemmed from something that was quite small and resolvable at the time.

It is common for exit interviewees to bring up communication as a sticking point. But it is hard to pinpoint where in communications the fault might have been. There’s no need to blame or argue with the interviewee at this point. However, 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.

The things you pick up on as key-issues from the exit interview need to become a focus for your organisation. Conduct the interview with ‘spheres of influence’ in mind. The exit interview is an excellent tool and should be used to improve your company wherever possible. However, it's your interpretation of the responses that will make these interviews a worthwhile use of time. 

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