Exit interviews - tips for employees and employers, sample questions and answers
Exit interviews are interviews conducted with departing employees, just before they leave. From the employer's perspective, the primary aim of the exit interview is to learn reasons for the person's departure, on the basis that criticism is a helpful driver for organizational improvement. Exit interviews (and prior) are also an opportunity for the organization to enable transfer of knowledge and experience from the departing employee to a successor or replacement, or even to brief a team on current projects, issues and contacts. Good exit interviews should also yield useful information about the employer organization, to assess and improve all aspects of the working environment, culture, processes and systems, management and development, etc.; in fact anything that determines the quality of the organization, both in terms of its relationship with its staff, customers, suppliers, third-parties and the general public. Many employers ignore the opportunity that exit interviews offer, chiefly because exit interviews have not been practiced in the past, and starting them is a difficult initiative to undertake, given the potentially subjective and 'fuzzy' nature of the results; the time involved; and the unspoken corporate urge to avoid exposure to criticism. Exit interviews are nevertheless a unique chance to survey and analyze the opinions of departing employees, who generally are more forthcoming, constructive and objective than staff still in their jobs. In leaving an organization, departing employees are liberated, and as such provide a richer source of objective feedback than employed staff do when responding to normal staff attitude surveys.
As ever, corporate insecurity and defensiveness can be an obstacle to implementing exit interview processes, so if the organization finds it difficult to begin the practice as a matter of general policy, you can still undertake your own exit interviews locally with your own staff as and when they leave.
From the departing employee interviewee perspective, an exit interview is a chance to give some constructive feedback, and to leave on a positive note, with good relations and mutual respect. Recrimination, blame, revenge and spite are destructive feelings and behaviors, so resist any temptation you might have to go out all guns blazing. Be calm, fair, objective and as helpful as possible. In the future you may wish to return to the organization (situations and people change..), and you may cross the paths of your ex-colleagues, managers in the future. The adage about treating people well on your way up because you might meet them on the way down applies just as well on your way out. The exit interview is an opportunity to shake hands and leave friends, not enemies.
Exit Interviews Aims and Outcomes
Exit interviews are best conducted face-to-face because this enables better communication, understanding, interpretation etc., and it provides far better opportunity to probe and get to the root of sensitive or reluctant feelings. However, postal or electronic questionnaires are better than nothing, if face-to-face exit interviews are not possible for whatever reason (although I remain to be convinced that there is never a proper excuse for not sitting down for 30 minutes with any departing employee.....)
In some cases perhaps a particularly shy employee may prefer to give their feedback in a questionnaire form, in which case this is fine, but where possible, face-to-face is best.
In terms of managing the interview, listen rather than talk. Give the interviewee time and space to answer. Coax and reassure where appropriate, rather than pressurize. Interpret, reflect and understand (you can understand someone without necessarily agreeing). Keep calm, resist the urge to defend or argue - your aim is to elicit views, feedback, answers, not to lecture or admonish. Ask open 'what/how/why' questions, not 'closed' yes/no questions, unless you require specific confirmation about a point. 'When' and 'where' are also more specific qualifying questions, unless of course they are used in a general context rather than specific time or geographic sense. 'Who' should be used with care to avoid witch-hunts or defamatory risks (moreover many exit interviewees will be uncomfortable if asked to name people or allocate personal blame - exit interviews are not about 'blame', the allocation of which is not constructive and should be avoided for anything other than very serious complaints or accusations, which must then be suitably referred as follow-up would be beyond the normal exit interview remit.
Prepare your exit interview questions and topics that you'd like to explore, especially when you believe that the interviewee has good experience, appreciation and understanding.
Take notes and/or use a prepared questionnaire form.
Importantly, see also the job interviews page for interviews techniques, which relate to exit interviews too. Remember simple planning aspects such as arranging a suitable time and place, avoiding interruptions, taking notes, preparing questions, being aware of the body-language and feelings of the interviewee and adjusting your own approach accordingly, etc.
Obviously the style of exit interview is different for someone who is being asked to leave, retiring, being made redundant, dismissed, or leaving under a cloud, compared to an employee leaving whom the organization would prefer to retain. However everyone who leaves should be given the opportunity of an exit interview, and the organization can learn something from every situation. In certain situations (where appropriate) the exit interview also provides a last chance to change a person's mind, although this should not be the main aim of the exit interview situation.
When the interview is complete say thanks and wish the interviewee well. If there is some specific checking or follow-up to do then ensure you do it and report back accordingly.
After the interview look at the answers and think properly - detached and objective - about what their meaning and implications.
Take action as necessary, depending on your processes for analyzing and reporting exit interview feedback. If there's an urgent issue, or the person wants to stay and you want to keep them, then act immediately or the opportunity will be lost.Sample Exit Interview Questions
These questions can be used in face-to-face exit interviews, or to compile exit interview questionnaires or electronic feedback forms.
If using these questions to compile forms to be used for large scale analysis take care to format the questions into a format which can be analyzed numerically, as far as is reasonable (certain questions and answers will always be difficult to format in this way, for example the 'how do you feel about...?' and open-ended questions seeking ideas and suggestions - such questions and can only be analyzed and reported 'by exception' when something of particular note crops up, or of a particular recurring theme is spotted).
In face-to-face interviews particularly, use the word 'why' if you want to probe, especially if the first answer is vague or superficial. Questions beginning with 'what' and 'how' are better for getting people to think and convey to you properly and honestly about their views. Some of these questions samples are more suitable for management employees, although always give people at all levels the chance to comment on issues normally 'above' their remit - you'll be surprised at how informed and insightful people can be. These questions examples are not in a sequential process, although broadly there is a logic to the order of the types of questions. There are lots more questions here than you would normally ask in a typical exit interview. Pick the questions that are most relevant to the leaving circumstances, the interviewee and your organization situation.
As ever, you will derive most for the organization, and be able to give most help to the departing employee, by being positive, constructive, understanding and helpful, prior to and during the exit interview process. Treat people with integrity and decency, and generally they will respond in kind.
© alan chapman 1995-2009