In an interview with SHRM several years ago, one employee described her experience of leaving a job after five years:
“Our HR rep had gotten the impression I was leaving because I was tired of the commute, but there was much more to it. Over the years my department and the firm itself had deteriorated to a point where I found I could no longer work there. So when he said, with a big smile on his face, ‘I hear you’re leaving because you found a job close to your house,’ well, I took a deep breath and let him have it. I went on for about 20 minutes about what was wrong with the firm, the department, the management, the morale, the lighting, everything.”
While negative feedback can be hard to take, employees who are willing to share their genuine thoughts like in the example above can be invaluable resources for improving your organization. After all, the core purpose of an exit interview is to gather honest feedback that your organization can then use to make changes and improve the employee experience.
Unfortunately, poor exit interview questions and strategies often get in the way of this honest exchange happening. As a result, organizations are losing out on the opportunity to improve the employee experience and boost retention. But with the right questions and the proper approach to the conversation, you can find gems of useful feedback within an employee’s answers.
Asking the Right Exit Interview Questions
The questions you ask during an exit interview should encourage honest, in-depth responses from the employee. Ask them with an open mind, regardless of the circumstances surrounding the employee’s departure, and don’t be afraid to ask follow-up questions for clarification. Below are some of what we’ve found to be the most effective questions to ask during exit interviews.
Reasons for Leaving
- Why did you begin looking for another job?
- If you could change anything about the organization, what would you choose?
- Did you voice your concerns to anyone else at the company?
- Did you think your work goals and responsibilities were clear?
- Did you feel you had all the resources you needed to do your best work here?
- What did you think of the way you were managed?
- Did you receive frequent, constructive feedback from your manager and peers?
- What benefits or programs did you feel were missing from the organization?
- How would you describe the culture of our company?
- What did you appreciate most about working here?
- Is there anything we could have done to make you want to stay?
- What are the biggest risks for our company that you see?
- What advice would you like to give to your team? To the executive team?
- What would make this a better place to work?
- Would you ever consider working here again? Would you recommend others apply for a position here?
How to Conduct the Interview
Whether you decide to ask all or only some of these questions, it’s vital to approach exit interviews with the right mentality and a defined plan of action. According to Harvard Business Review, exit interviews depend upon two elements to be effective: first, the honesty and forthrightness of a departing employee; and second, an organization’s willingness to make changes and seek additional input from current employees.
Let’s discuss honesty first. Employees who leave your organization may not express their true thoughts for a variety of reasons. If employees leave on negative terms, they may be unwilling to offer their feedback because they have a “good riddance” attitude. Others may be worried about burning bridges with former managers. In that same HBR article, an HR professional at a European mining company explained, “Are they really going to tell you they’re leaving because they don’t like their boss? Probably not, because they want references.”
One of the upper managers here at BambooHR shared with me some of his best tips for conducting such interviews:
- Make the experience as positive as possible.
- The interviewee should feel like you have their best interests in mind—personal development above company interests.
- Help the interviewee feel completely free and encouraged to give candid input without repercussion.
- Be grateful for the perspective and for the relationship. Even though this is an exit interview, it’s not an exit interview for the professional relationship. You never know who you’ll end up working with again.
- Treat them, for the moment, like an expert on your business. Listen authentically.
Once you’ve set the right tone and encouraged honest employee feedback, it’s up to you and your organization to do something about it. HBR’s research revealed that, when asked for examples of a specific action taken as the result of an exit interview, fewer than one-third of executives could identify one. That means about “two-thirds of existing programs appear to be mostly talk with little productive follow-up.”
While it might not matter to former employees what actions your organization did or did not take based on their feedback, it certainly matters to the employees who are with your organization right now. If an employee leaves your organization because of a specific pain point (toxic culture, lack of learning and development opportunities, non-challenging work, etc.) it’s likely that another employee who’s still with your company is also dissatisfied. Unless you address these pain points, it’s only a matter of time before that employee leaves as well—after explaining their reasons to their coworkers. If your organization earns an uncaring reputation, you can get stuck in a cycle of turnover.
To break out of the cycle and boost retention, listen carefully during exit interviews, analyze the results, and look for trends. Have several people complained about the same thing? Make a note of it and follow up with your current employees to learn how to improve their experience.
Exit interviews were designed to be a valuable tool to help organizations improve. By asking strategic questions and approaching employees with the right attitude, you can discover the true value of an effective interview once more. Try some of these questions next time to get the most out of your exit interview.