Last updated March 15, 2024

by Dr Paul Symonds

With losing and having to replace an employee found to cost the equivalent of up to 2 times an employee’s annual salary, the value of conducting exit interviews to find out exactly why an employee wants to leave is extremely high. Furthermore, when you consider that 71% of employees discover job opportunities through referrals, it becomes apparent that by conducting effective exit interviews, you can gain insights that may help you improve your brand and attract talented individuals. In other words, exit interviews can be extremely worthwhile.

Exit interview tips and guide to what questions to ask and how to prepare

What Is an Exit Interview?

Also sometimes known as a final interview, departure interview, farewell interview, or offboarding interview, an exit interview is the meeting you have with an employee who is departing from your company.

The purpose of the Exit Interview (EI) is to chat with the employee who is leaving and to use this last chance to talk with them to gather extremely valuable information that benefits the company.

The interview, for example, can help you to understand anything that you might be doing wrong as a business (that led to the person leaving), what you are doing well and not doing well as a business, and what other opportunities there are as a company to provide a better employee experience.

Why Exit Interviews Are Important & What Are the Key Benefits

  • Invaluable insight into how the company is perceived – this type of interview is so incredibly useful because it can give you an insight into how the company is perceived by its employees internally, and by someone who is likely to be more open with their feedback (because they are leaving).
  • Employee leaves with a better impression whatever the employee’s experience and reason for leaving, if the employee feels that they at least had a voice when they left and a chance to offload anything they want to say (good or bad), they will feel more positive about the company and this helps the company branding in terms of how the company is talked about by ex-employees.
  • Employee experience & a chance for positive change – The feedback itself can be used to help shape how you provide onboarding of new employees, how you improve how you presently treat existing employees, and it can guide how you generally in managing the EX (employee experience) of your employees in general.
  • Succession planning – Exit Interviews can help to provide information that highlights skills gaps that can be filled and thus improve succession planning.
  • Benchmarking – By interviewing each employee when they leave, over time you will see clear patterns evolve with the feedback. If you act effectively on the information you gather from the interviews, you should, for example, see the percentage of staff turnover decrease and the reasons for leaving should become more positive.

One difference though between these interviews and traditional performance reviews is that these interviews are largely voluntary. In other words, the employee is leaving; so, they are under no pressure to perform or to provide feedback.

5 Benefits of Exit Interviews and offboarding

8 Key Tips for Managing an Exit Interview

1. Be Open, Friendly, and Polite

It is essential to remember that the employee who is leaving does not have to make an effort, given that they will soon be gone and have little reason to care anymore about your company.

So, make sure that you set the right tone for the meeting including through your choice of meeting venue and by creating a relaxed atmosphere.

Be friendly and always show respect to your participants.

2. Make It Clear That You Appreciate Their Feedback

Following on from the previous point, I recommend stating at the beginning of the interview that you genuinely value the feedback they are about to provide and that you will take all they have to say onboard.

Furthermore, it can be worth emphasizing at the start that there are no right or wrong answers and that they really should feel free to say whatever they wish, both good and bad.

3. Ask Open Questions and Limit Closed Questions

The majority of the questions you ask in the exit interview should be open questions so that the employee has the chance to answer in any way they wish.

Closed questions are those that require just a very short answer such as ‘yes’ and ‘no’ and these questions restrict feedback because the answers tend to be short.

In an offboarding interview, you want people to elaborate and open up. As such, you need to ask mainly open-ended questions so that they have the chance to talk about anything they wish to.

A question to start off such as “How has your overall experience been working for us?” is an open-ended question that works well.

Try and limit the number of yes and no questions that you ask.

Exit interview question asking techniques
Adapted from the Qualitative Research materials

4. Make Sure to Listen!

We are all guilty of it!

The temptation is always to spend time thinking about what we ourselves want to say next, i.e., what question we will ask next, rather than truly listening.

Use active listening skills to really truly listen and take in exactly what the employee is saying.

5. Avoid Being Judgemental

I know you might get bored of me saying this (apologies) but if the employee opens up and speaks honestly, they might provide extremely useful information to you as a HR department or as a manager.

So, for this reason, it is essential that you try and put any personal thoughts aside and make a point to be non-judgemental, and focus on learning whatever you can. Suspend your personal judgments.

Also, avoid leading or judgmental questions!

6. Be Respectful of Time

If you know that your interviewee is short of time, keep to the agreed time and do not extend the interview.

If your interviewee has time, it is still good practice to ask them, after the first half an hour or hour, if they are okay to continue.

7. Open Body Language

Do not cross your arms, fidget with a pen, or put your hands in your pockets.

Open body language is important to establish trust.

8. Do not Be Afraid of Silence (Give Participants Time to Think)

Silence for a few seconds after a question is okay.

Sometimes your interviewee will need time to think before answering, so be patient.

20 Great Questions to Ask at an Exit Interview

Departure interview

Some of the questions below will become redundant if the employee already provides the answer when discussing another question, so not all of the questions will need to be asked.

Likewise, there won’t likely be time to ask all of these questions, so this list is more of a guide for you to pick and choose questions from:

  • Can you share some insights about your job and the reasons why you have decided to leave the company?
  • How has your overall experience been working for us?
  • How did your time with us help you with your career path and career growth?
  • Was your job interesting and challenging enough? If not, what could have made it more interesting?
  • What did you like and enjoy most about your job?
  • How would you describe the guidance and support you received from your manager/s?
  • As a company, what are some things you think we do well and what areas could we improve on?
  • What did or do we get wrong?
  • How do you evaluate our approach to wellness and well-being? Do you feel that we look after staff fairly?
  • How was communication in your team and company-wide in your view?
  • Were there any people in particular who really helped you or who you feel really deserve credit?
  • How did you find colleagues or team dynamics? Was there anything that you found challenging in that resepct?
  • Did you experience any instances of harassment, discrimination, or workplace issues during your time here?
  • How could we have improved your employee experience?
  • Were you aware of and did you utilize the company’s employee assistance programs or wellness initiatives?
  • How do you view the company’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion?
  • How satisfied were you with the onboarding and orientation process when you joined the company?
  • Were you aware of any ethical or moral concerns related to the company during your tenure?
  • What information would have been helpful for you to know prior to joining our company?
  • Anything at all you would like to say or comment on?

Planning and Setting Up the Interview

Departure interview planning

1. Communication

Make it clear ahead of time that the interview will take the form of an informal chat and that you are grateful for their willingness to do the interview.

Set a relaxed and positive tone even before the exit interview takes place.

2. Scheduling

You will want to ensure that there is enough time before the employee leaves to interview them, but also, in another sense, the later the better because after the interview they might have even less enthusiasm for their job.

I would suggest doing the interview at the start of the final week of their employment or 2 or 3 days before they are due to leave.

3. Venue

The location of the departure interview should be one where:

  • Privacy will exist – so that the employee feels comfortable speaking openly without fear of anyone else hearing what they say.
  • You have the chance to offer the employee a comfortable environment, i.e., a comfortable chair and relaxed environment – so that they feel relaxed and are more likely to be open with their input.
  • The employee does not have to make too much effort to get to the venue – make it easy for them to attend.

4. Being Ready

Make sure to have the list of open-ended questions printed and ready to ask and have pen and paper ready to take plenty of notes.

And don’t forget that active listening we talked about earlier.

4 Examples of How Offboarding Interviews Help a Company

Employee motivation for leaving a company

Below are four examples of how exit interviews have helped companies. Just to note though, you do not have to wait until you notice a problem before starting to provide exit interviews.

These interviews should always take place in order to pre-empt issues that otherwise can occur and cause employees to leave your company.

Case Study 1: Improving Employee Retention

Scenario:

A large marketing company noticed a trend of employees leaving the company within their first year. They decided to implement exit interviews to understand why.

Outcome:

Through exit interviews, they identified that the main issue was the lack of clear onboarding processes. They revamped their onboarding program based on the feedback, resulting in a significant decrease in turnover among new hires.

Case Study 2: Addressing Workplace Harassment

Scenario:

A hospital faced allegations of workplace harassment and a toxic work environment. They conducted exit interviews with departing employees to uncover the root causes.

Outcome:

Exit interviews revealed several instances of harassment and bullying. The company promptly addressed the issues, implemented anti-harassment training, and created a more transparent reporting system.

The company has seen impressive results since, with incidents of harassment significantly lower and with employee morale improved.

Case Study 3: Enhancing Leadership Development

Scenario:
A large consulting firm noticed that several experienced consultants were leaving. The company decided to start doing offboarding interviews for any staff who were leaving to find and work out what the issue was.

Outcome:
The offboarding interviews revealed that many departing consultants felt undervalued and overlooked for promotions. The firm used this feedback to revamp their leadership development programs and improve internal communication. As a result, they retained more senior talent and saw increased employee engagement.

Furthermore, the company also learned about a couple of employees whose names were always mentioned as motivating forces within the company. These three employees were also promoted not long afterward as a direct result.

Case Study 4: Enhancing Benefits Packages

Scenario:
A large retail store conducted exit interviews as part of a comprehensive review of their employee benefits offerings. They had heard murmurings that staff were complaining and thinking about leaving and several staff had already left in the last year.

Outcome:
Exit interviews highlighted that employees were seeking better health and wellness benefits. The company responded by enhancing its healthcare packages and introducing wellness initiatives. This resulted in higher employee satisfaction and improved recruitment efforts.

Type of Exit Interviews

Ideally, the Exit Interview will take place face-to-face, i.e., be an in-person interview.

1. In-Person

Doing the interview in person will give you a much easier way to develop rapport and it will be easier for you to read the body language of the employee and to react accordingly.

For example, if you notice the employee using quite defensive body language at the start of the exit interview, you can comfort them by just re-iterating that this is confidential and that you are grateful for their input and perhaps explain that as a company you care and want to improve in how you look after employees.

2. Online

If the employee leaving is based far away, i.e., if they work online from another country remotely, doing the interview online (i.e., on Skype, MS Teams, or Google Meet) is still a great option.

In this academic paper that Valeria (wife) and I wrote about using online interviews and research methods, we found in our research that you just need to be more aware when doing these interviews online to ensure for example that:

  • You still make sure the interview is confidential (the employee should not, for example, be in a coffee shop or other public space).
  • It is harder to read the body language and build rapport so just be aware of this and ensure you create a positive and friendly tone.
  • Sometimes the person being interviewed might even be more relaxed than normal because they get to do the interview from the comfort of their own home.

3. Other Methods

Methods one or two above are really the best options but, if it is really the only option, then a feedback form or survey can be emailed to the employee. Try, where possible, doing the departure interview in one of the first two ways though if at all possible.

Final Interview FAQs

1. Are Exit Interviews Confidential

If you are running this type of interview then it is important that yes, it is confidential.

If the departing employee is not promised confidentiality, they are far less likely to speak openly and this will partly defeat the purpose of the interview.

Furthermore, in such interviews, it is ethical to provide confidentiality, particularly given that other employees, i.e., managers might be discussed.

2. Who Should Do the Interview?

Ideally, your HR department will do the interview and this, according to Harvard Business Review, is what 70.9% of companies tend to do for EI (Exit Interviews).

If you, as a supervisor or manager, undertake the interview, this eliminates the opportunity for the employee who is leaving to be as open about any issues they may have had with their direct management. Likewise, they might actually use the interview to give great credit to their manager.

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Dr Valeria Lo Iacono
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