Exit Interview Questions: Best Practices for Success (With Examples)

/ 14 min read
Jack Delaney

Constructive feedback is one of the most useful tools your organization can harness to identify its strengths and weaknesses. The problem is that it’s difficult to come by.

Asking current employees for feedback is like a woman asking her husband if her jeans are too tight–it’s in their best interests to bend the truth.

Departing employees are a far more reliable source of honest feedback. They don’t rely on your business for a pay cheque and they are right on your doorstep. Well, on their way out the door.

Determining why an employee is leaving is key to reducing turnover, increasing employee retention, and making long-term improvements to your organization.

Exit interviews help you gather this information. They are a final forum for departing employees to share their thoughts about your company culture, management, staff morale and the business as a whole.

This article will explore the exit interview process. After reading it you will not only be prepared to conduct exit interviews, you will be ready to use the data gathered to make real, lasting improvements to your business.

What Are Exit Interviews?

An exit interview is a meeting between the HR department and a departing employee. These meetings offer a rare chance for you to receive constructive feedback and gain valuable insight into what employees really think about your business.

Simply put: it is a chance for you to find out what your employees think you do well and what you need to improve.

Questions should be clear, consistent and easy for employees to understand. That way you can extract data effortlessly. Paperform’s exit interview template is full of pre-designed questions that you can use to get useful insights from employees and swiftly identify areas for improvement.

Many things that pop up will be individual and inconsequential. But if several employees highlight a particular manager or process as problematic, for example, then that’s an issue that you should investigate and resolve.

These interviews are valuable for the data they provide. You can use what departing employees tell you to guide future practices, improve recruitment and employee retention, and assist overall organisational development.

Exit interviews are about using feedback from outgoing employees to make your organization a better, happier workplace. Your business will reap the rewards for doing so.

The Importance of Exit Interviews

Exit interviews are important because they offer an in-depth look at your workplace culture, day-to-day processes, management solutions and employee morale. They help you find out what your organization is doing well and what needs to change.

They are a unique opportunity for you to receive frank feedback and harvest valuable information about the employee experience at your organization. And your business will be better for it.

When done well, exit interviews can reveal what does or doesn’t work inside your organisation, highlight hidden challenges and opportunities and help you discover what competitors may offer that you don’t. They promote engagement and enhance retention by showing employees that their views matter.

Effective exit interviews are also a key part of the off-boarding process. Valuing an exiting employee’s opinion and making sure they leave on a positive note can turn former employees into ambassadors for your business for years to come.

High turnover rates are expensive and bad for business. Holding on to your best employees is critical for building a competitive advantage. A strategic exit interview program is one of the most powerful tools in creating a positive employee experience and meeting your business’s full potential.

Who Should Conduct Exit Interviews?

In a study involving 188 executives and 32 senior leaders from 210 organizations across a diverse range of industries, Harvard Business Review found that 70.9% of companies had their human resources departments handle the exit interview process.

Of the remaining companies, “19% had the departing employees’ direct supervisors do it; 8.9% delegated the job to the direct supervisor’s manager; and 1% turned to external consultants.”

The findings show that human resources departments conduct exit interviews for most companies. HR looks after the interviews, merges the data, and only shares it with management when asked.

Harvard Business Review’s study suggests this is the wrong approach. It restricts processes and doesn’t take full advantage of the strategic value of exit interviews.

While it’s common for the HR department to look after exit interviews, the study found that interviews conducted by second- or third-line managers are the most likely to lead to effective action.

Managers close to employees also receive more honest feedback. As an added benefit, their participation shows that the company cares about the opinion of departing employees.

While exit interviews are most often the realm of management and human resources, the study found that who conducted the interview doesn’t matter as much as the method used.

The effectiveness of an exit interview program has to be measured by the positive change it generates. To do this, your business must have clear goals about what you hope to achieve from it.

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How To Run Successful Exit Interviews

Some companies interview everyone who leaves. Some only interview high potential employees and executives. Research suggests that you should make it mandatory for high-performing employees at the very least.

There are a few reasons: they are harder to replace, they are more knowledgeable about your company, and they may know more about your competitors because they are recruitment targets.

When it comes to the interview, you can conduct it in person, over the phone or through an online survey. Interactive methods or survey types are usually the most effective. That way the interviewer can respond in real-time and develop follow-up questions that generate more detailed feedback.

However, online surveys like Paperform’s encourage former employees to open up. They feel more comfortable answering questions in their own time and environment. Online forms are a useful tool to run remote interviews or use as a supplement to face-to-face meetings.

What strategy you choose depends on your work environment.

For example, with more companies adopting remote work in response to COVID-19, face-to-face interviews may not be possible. You may be better off conducting an exit interview with a video call or one of Paperform’s surveys.

So when should you conduct the interview? Do you drag the departing employee into your office the second they announce their resignation? Corner them on their last day?

Experts believe that the best time for an employee exit interview is between the announcement of an intention to leave and their departure. Another approach is to wait until after the employee has left the company.

“We typically do the exit interview about a month later, and it’s much more relaxed,” one leader in the auto industry told Harvard Business Review. “They normally tell us very honestly why, and often we respond with programs to work on the problems.”

Whatever kind of meeting you hold, it’s important to establish a comfortable environment. Honest feedback won’t happen if your employees don’t trust you - would a Stormtrooper share his opinion with Darth Vader? No way.

Exit interviews are most effective when organizations already have a culture in place where existing employees share ideas openly and criticise processes without being punished for their thoughts.

Outgoing employees worry about burning bridges or leaving with a poor impression. This is the enemy of a good exit interview.

To allay fears, assure them feedback will be anonymous. Also, explain that you will aggregate the information they offer before anyone else sees it. This helps relax the employee and encourages them to be honest without fearing repercussions.

Above all, its integral you pay attention to what they are saying. These interviews will improve your hiring process, refine job descriptions, keep critical employees and overhaul your workplace practices.

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15 Must-Ask Exit Interview Questions

Exit interviews should include a combination of structured and unstructured questions.

Structured questions make it easier to spot trends. However, they rarely deliver surprises and can come across as routine - signalling to employees you don’t really care. In contrast, unstructured interviews lead to unexpected and helpful answers but make gathering data more difficult.

Combining these two approaches allows you to probe areas of discontent while leaving room for natural conversation to flow.

Avoid yes/no questions at all costs. They limit your potential to gain insights and don’t give you actionable data. Instead, use open-ended questions to encourage exiting employees to elaborate and speak their mind.

Ask a lot of questions and listen to what they are (or aren’t) saying. Actively listen and record the responses. Not only is this good practice for interpreting data later, but it also shows the employee you care about what they are saying.

Remember that it’s not your role to challenge the employee’s decision. Just hear them out. Once the interview is over, you can determine whether their concerns are valid and what requires action.

Here are some questions to ask at every exit interview.

1. Why did you start looking for a new job?

Most employees tell you their reason for leaving when they hand in their resignation. Sometimes it’ll be personal issues unrelated to the company - even if this is the case exit interviews are still important.

Regardless of the reason behind their departure, outgoing employees can still offer insights and suggestions they might not have mentioned when you were employing them.

Some employees will say “it wasn’t a good fit”. Don’t be disheartened. It’s the job equivalent of the “it’s not you it’s me” line. Delve deeper and show your interest. There is always a reason. People don’t just quit for fun.

2. When did you first consider moving on?

Sometimes, an exiting employee has been looking for months and finally landed a new position. Understanding when they began their search is a critical piece of data for your business.

You may notice patterns emerge. For example, what if employees think about leaving after six months? Why? Is it a problem with employee engagement? Or is support after onboarding lacking?

Looking at what happens around this time would be critical to correct the issue. That way you can improve employee retention and make sure the next hire makes it past this tough time.

3. Was there a specific person or incident that led to your resignation?

This can be a tough question. If the departing employee had a problem with team members or a manager, they might be reluctant to report it. When something has happened in the workplace, they may feel the same way.

Staff always worry about how speaking out may impact them. Remind them that the interview is anonymous and they are in a safe environment.

But tread carefully. You aren’t there to interrogate anyone. If you sense they are uncomfortable, or they tell you they don’t want to answer, you can be fairly sure there’s an issue you need to follow up.

4. Was there something we could have done to keep you here?

Sometimes employees leave for financial reasons - they simply got a better offer. It’s the way of the world.

You might not want to go into a bidding war with another business, but if the wage difference is minimal, and that’s all there is standing in the way, it might be worth your time to match the offer. What’s the worst that can happen?

Another common reason for leaving is workplace conditions. If this is the case you will want to get as many specific details as possible. This valuable information and you should try to get as much data as you can.

5. Did your position meet the initial job description?

A survey by recruiting firm Jobvite found that most employees who quit within their first year did so because the role they were hired for didn’t match the actual role. This happens too often.

If you deliberately misrepresented the position, it’ll be clear why the employee is leaving. But it’s more common that this happens by accident - through outdated job descriptions, shifts in workload and simple miscommunication.

Ask what, if anything, differed from what they told to expect. Then you can work to fix the job description or adjust the workload so the next hire will be better aligned to the role.

6. What led you to accept the new position?

This question allows you to contrast your company with another organisation. You might find they offer perks you don’t - it can be anything from free Coco Pops for breakfast to more career progression.

For example, if several employees have left for higher pay, it could mean your compensation package is lacking.

You may learn that what you offer is on par with other organizations, or get ideas for how you can improve your offering. Either way, it’s important to analyse what other companies are doing and reflect on whether you meet the same standards.

And if all you need is a few boxes of Coco Pops, you can duck down to the shops and grab some.

7. Were you equipped with the training and tools to do your job well?

This is a direct way to understand how the employee felt about their role within the company. Did they feel supported? Was their purpose within the company clear?

Be prepared to hear about crappy internet speeds and unreliable hardware. Or there’s a chance the employee wasn’t happy with the amount of training they received for their role.

It’s a great way to learn how comfortable the employee was fulfilling their job. You will also get ideas about how to improve training, resources, and general workplace practices in the future.

8. How could you describe the company culture?

Culture matters. Data from Randstad found that 58% of employees quit because of toxic workplace cultures.

With this question, you’re not looking for a specific answer. You’re looking for an overall trend. Over time, the terms outgoing employees suggest will give you an idea of what your company culture truly is.

For example, if fifty employees say your company culture is ‘transparent’ and ‘nurturing’ and ten say something else, that gives you a fair idea that you’re on the right track.

But if your company creed describes your organization as ‘progressive’ and most departing employees say it’s ‘regressive’, there is a disconnect between your perception and reality.

9. If you could change anything about your job or the company, what would it be?

This question focuses the employee on the biggest problem they have with their role and the business. Essentially, it’s a non-confrontational way to discover what they didn’t like.

Framing the question in this way changes their answer from a complaint to a suggestion, which most people are more comfortable providing. By doing so, it encourages constructive feedback and gives a better chance of providing useful, actionable insights.

10. Were you satisfied with the way you were managed?

A recent Gallup report found that half of all people searching for a new job left because of a poor manager. To say a manager is important is an understatement.

The strongest workplaces have managers who are unbiased and dedicated to leading the team towards a common goal. Good managers mean a better culture and a more productive company.

Identifying issues with management is critical. It will help you take preventative measures to improve performance, retain talent and boost staff morale.

11. Did you have clear goals and objectives on a daily basis?

Employees don’t like to turn up to work and having nothing to do. They want a purpose - to feel their work matters and contributes to larger corporate goals.

If the answer is yes, then pat yourself on the back. If the answer is no, make goal-setting a priority. Employees will thank you, productivity will skyrocket and your employee retention will improve out of sight.

12. How do you think our company can improve training and development programs?

Lack of support and resources can result in a frustrating work environment and lead an employee to seek a new job.

If employees feel they were not given appropriate training or support by their managers, investigate how support was lacking. This way you’ll know what you need to provide to the next hire to ensure employees feel supported.

Remember - higher engagement leads to higher employee retention. It’s in your best interests to keep employees busy learning and maximise development opportunities.

13. Would you consider coming back to work here? If not, what would need to change?

If your business is in good shape, then hopefully the employee is leaving on good terms and the answer is yes.

If the answer is no, then you must make sure you’ve asked enough questions to understand why that’s the case.

Remember that departing employees can become promoters for your company. For that reason, you want to maintain goodwill through the off-boarding process. View this as a chance to improve retention and keep key positions filled.

14. Is there anything else you would like us to know about your time here?

This is a good open-ended question to use towards the end of the interview. It’s a catch-all that gives the employee a chance to talk about anything that might not have come up yet.

Whether they’re showering you with praise or venting about the time someone stole their lunch from the staff fridge, let them talk.

Actively listen to their comments - the chances are you’ll find a bunch of actionable ideas you can use to make a better hire on the next occasion.

15. What was your experience of team members’ morale and motivation within the company?

The employee might be halfway out the door, but until recently they’ve been in the trenches with the troops. Now is the perfect time to get the inside scoop on what’s happening with current employees.

How’s their workload? Do they feel supported and confident in what they are doing? This is your chance to find out the opinion of someone familiar with the everyday activity of your company.

How To Extract Insights From Exit Interviews

Once you have completed the interviews, the next step is to analyse and interpret the data. The information you are after should be clear from the questions you ask. Look for patterns in the suggestions made, like what employees tend to like about the company and their jobs and their reasons for leaving.

As you conduct exit interviews with multiple employees, patterns will emerge. Maybe a specific reason for leaving continues to pop up, or employees have similar ideas about how to change the company culture.

The patterns you uncover will tell you what solutions you need. It may be job training, mentoring programs, corporate policy changes or better hiring practices. Or maybe you really need to put Mars Bars in the break room.

Listen to what the data is telling you. This is where most companies quit. They have the data but do nothing with it. Don’t be like these companies.

When implemented properly exit interviews will help your business achieve long-term organisational improvement and set you away from the pack.

So don’t let your hard work go to waste. Listen to what your employees have to offer and use the data to spark new ideas, fix old problems and catapult your business into a new era.

About the author
Jack Delaney
Content Manager
Jack is Paperform's Content Manager, based in Sydney, Australia. He loves hard-boiled crime fiction, Michael Mann movies and coffee as black as midnight on a moonless night.

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