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Best Practices for Exit Interviews

Skye Schooley
Skye Schooley

Learn how to conduct constructive exit interviews that give you frank insights into what employees think about your business and their reasons for leaving.

  • An exit interview is a departure meeting between an HR representative and an employee who has resigned.
  • Conduct a face-to-face exit interview in a private, semiformal setting, or create an online exit interview questionnaire for the employee to complete.
  • When performing an exit interview, tell the employee the purpose of the exit interview, how anything said within it will be used and the value of the employee's participation. 

Employees will leave your business at some point, whether it's due to a better opportunity elsewhere, relocation or another reason. Before they leave, you should conduct an exit interview with them. Exit interviews can be beneficial to your company, but it's important that both the interviewer and the departing employee understand the best practices for this type of meeting. 

What is an exit interview?

An exit interview is part of the offboarding process. In this meeting, the employee who resigned meets with an HR representative (or owner) from the company they are leaving. The purpose of an exit interview is to discuss the employee's experience with the company and their reasons for leaving. 

An exit interview is usually performed when an employee resigns, but it can also take place when an employee switches roles or departments within an organization. However, Roy Cohen, career coach and author of The Wall Street Professional's Survival Guide, said it is highly unlikely that an employer will want to conduct an exit interview if they have terminated an employee since it can expose them to potential litigation. 

"The discussion could force [the employer] to conduct an investigation if the [employee] complaints have merit – and companies rarely want to go there," Cohen told business.com. 

Why do companies perform exit interviews?

An exit interview can help a business owner identify problems and weak points within the company and specific departments. Constructive employee feedback can help the company mitigate any potential for lawsuits, improve internal business processes and increase employee retention

"Companies host exit interviews to try to develop a picture of why employees leave and also to get frank feedback that might otherwise not be forthcoming due to fear of reprisals, and which may flag issues within a certain department or the company as a whole that are compromising staff retention or causing even more systemic issues," said Jake Penney, head of human resources at English Blinds

If the employee is leaving due to an unrelated external matter, like moving to a different state for their family, an exit interview can be helpful as well. It can give the employer peace of mind knowing that the employee is not leaving due to a bad experience with the company. 

What are the benefits of exit interviews?

An exit interview can have multiple benefits for an employer. Penney said employers benefit by collating data on departing employees, measuring the mood and impression the company has on its workers, and gaining an in-depth view of various roles and workplace dynamics. It can help business owners identify problems within the organization that they may not have otherwise known about. It also gives the employee a chance to provide insider feedback about potential solutions, which might reduce employee turnover in the future. 

Although an exit interview is primarily for the benefit of the employer, employees can benefit from it too. If you are an employee resigning from a company, Cohen said you can use the exit interview to ensure that your previous boss will be a good reference in the future. 

Cohen advised departing employees to use the interview as an opportunity to convey their respect for the boss, explain that he or she was in no way the reason for the resignation, and stress that he or she was one of the reasons why leaving was a tough decision. If you approach an exit interview strategically, it can be a good way to score points with the boss and keep them as a friend and reference. 

How do you prepare for an exit interview?

It is important for both the employee and the organization representative (whether it's an HR representative or the company owner) to prepare for an exit interview to gain the most from it. 

Penney advised that the interviewer should assemble the following information about the employee prior to the meeting: 

  • The employee's role and department
  • How long the employee worked for the company
  • The employee's stated reasons for leaving (if any)
  • Any track record of disciplinaries, complaints or grievances against (or raised by) the employee
  • The employee's most recent performance review
  • A list of questions to ask the employee 

Read the employee's termination letter, if they provided one. Be prepared to ask questions, but let the employee lead the interview. 

How employees can prepare for an exit interview

If you are an employee leaving a company, you can follow a few guidelines so you are well prepared for an exit interview. For example, create a list of the information you are willing to share with the organization you are leaving. This can include why you are leaving, what organization you are switching to and how the company can improve.  

An exit interview is not the time to air personal grievances and point fingers. Create a calm, level-headed response as to why you are leaving, even if you are resigning because you detest the company or someone you work with. 

"Make sure to convey a reasonable explanation: e.g., more money, an increase in responsibility, a leadership position, a shorter commute or a more flexible schedule," said Cohen. "All are logical, harmless, and familiar reasons for a decision to move on and what most HR people would prefer to hear. An angry departure and finger-pointing serve no purpose." 

If you are uncomfortable providing an honest answer to a question, you can respond with a stock answer like "no comment." 

How should you conduct an exit interview?

An exit interview is not the time to grill an employee and make them feel bad for leaving the company. Instead, the interview should be approached in a way that makes the employee feel comfortable sharing their experience and insight about working for the organization. 

An employee does not legally have to participate in an exit interview, so limit it to a maximum of 30 minutes. The meeting should be a face-to-face interview conducted in a private, semiformal setting, or you can create an online exit interview questionnaire for the employee to complete and submit back to you. 

"The purpose of the exit interview, how anything said within it will be used, and the value of the employee's participation should be outlined to them, and they should be encouraged to speak freely without fear of reprisal (such as a poor or withheld reference)," said Penney. 

Provide the employee with constructive feedback and thank them for their time with the company. Instead of using the employee's statements against them, use the information to improve your company. 

"No one participating in an exit interview should ever be penalized for anything they say within it, and they should always be provided with a reference that is not impacted by anything they say in the interview, Penney said. 

What topics should be discussed in an exit interview?

There are several questions that should be asked during the exit interview. However, you cannot make the employee talk, so what is said is ultimately up to their discretion. The company representative and the departing employee should both be prepared to address information regarding the employee's resignation. 

Penney said the following topics should be addressed in an exit interview: 

  • Why is the employee leaving? (This is an important question to ask because it allows employers to better understand why employees are leaving and allows them to improve to boost retention in the future.)

  • What was the catalyst for the employee's decision to leave? (This is important as it allows the employer to better understand the "breaking point" that caused an employee to leave the company).

  • What (if anything) would have made the employee consider staying with the company? (This allows a company to understand if the issue was entirely their fault or if the employee was simply not satisfied with the company or their position).

  • What organization is the employee moving on to? (Asking this is a great way for employers to find out who their competitors are in terms of securing employees. Also, it gives them an opportunity to size up the competition and offer similar benefits to improve employee retention).

  • What did the employee like and dislike about their role? (This provides employers with the opportunity to hear what types of things make their company a less desirable place to work).

  • How does the employee feel about the company? (Asking this is important because it allows the company to better understand if the employee was dissatisfied with their position or the company as a whole).

  • Did the employee feel valued by the company and supported by their boss? (This helps employers to better understand if the employee is leaving because they no longer wanted the position or if the lack of effective management played a role in the decision.)

  • Did the employee think their pay and benefits were reasonable? (Asking this allows companies to understand whether they are leaving the company because they feel they weren't getting paid what they were worth or if they simply wanted to find a position that was a better fit for their skills and life goals.)

  • Did the employee think there was room for progression? (This allows companies to understand whether the employee was totally turned off by the experience or if they felt that the company could become better if some improvements were made).

Why you shouldn't do an exit interview

Although there are some benefits to completing an exit interview, according to Tough Nickel, some reasons to skip an exit interview are as follows:

  • Risk of being misunderstood. Given that exit interviews are often awkward and may even cause you to feel pressure, there is a large possibility that you will overshare or be taken the wrong way.

  • Risk of giving free help with no benefit. Depending on how you were treated and why you're leaving the company, doing an exit interview means that you are essentially helping the company improve for free. While this may be useful for the company or even future employees if you don't plan on returning to this company, completing an exit interview may be a waste of your time and energy.

  • Risk of non-confidentiality. No matter what you're being told, an exit interview is a company's attempt to extract useful information from you before you leave the company. While they may make you feel comfortable enough to vent, there is no way to guarantee that others will not find out what you said during the interview.

  • Risk of burning bridges. Lastly, although you will be encouraged to be as candid as possible, saying too much may burn a bridge. Therefore, if you need to use the company as a reference or want to return to the company later, you may be denied.

Although departing employees sometimes use exit interviews to air petty grievances that don't add much value to the organization, Penney said that you should always record everything to identify any potential themes or patterns from multiple exiting employees that require further exploration.

 

Skye Schooley
Skye Schooley,
business.com Writer
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Skye Schooley is an Arizona native, based in New York City. She received a business communication degree from Arizona State University and spent a few years traveling internationally, before finally settling down in the greater New York City area. She currently writes for business.com and Business News Daily, primarily contributing articles about business technology and the workplace, and reviewing categories such as remote PC access software, collection agencies, background check services, web hosting, reputation management services, cloud storage, and website design software and services.