The Exit Interview Process: How to Get It Right Every Time

When an employee has decided to part ways with your company, they are simultaneously opening a window of opportunity for you, as the employer, to gain valuable insight into why they have decided to move on, what went wrong (if anything), and what can be done in the workplace to improve retention and company culture.

Considering the disappointing nature of employee termination, many employers fail to recognize this opportunity, and wave goodbye to their former employees without learning anything.

“Let’s just get it done with and move on” is a way of summarizing this attitude.

Furthermore, they fail to close the relationship on a positive note by showing the individual that they care about listening to their thoughts, and taking action to improve employee morale in the future.

This is a grave mistake, because not only are you missing valuable, actionable insights which will help you attract and retain top talent, but you are also leaving a trail of disappointed, perhaps bitter former employees that can damage your reputation amongst job seekers.

Not to mention, employee turnover is expensive, and failing to take preventative measures is nothing short of shooting yourself in the foot, financially as well as in terms of your brand reputation.

“Experts estimate that the cost of a lost employee is anywhere from tens of thousands of dollars to 1.5-2.0 times an employee’s annual salary. The bottom line for organizations: Turnover, if not systematically studied and understood, can impede achievement of organizational outcomes.”Jack Altman, How Much Does Employee Turnover Really Cost?

And so, conducting a structured exit interview with a departing employee is an incredibly important, often overlooked part of the offboarding process.

In this Process Street post, we’re going to be looking at:

  • What the purpose of an exit interview is, the best time to conduct one, choosing the right method, and important data points to gather
  • Examples of excellent exit interview questions
  • How to establish a process for flawless execution every time
  • How to effectively leverage exit interview data

Understanding what you can and cannot control

Before we get into it, I’d like to mention a thought that may already be ringing in your mind.

This thought is something along the lines of “but we already consistently conduct structured exit interviews and rarely extract any actionable insight from them due to the employee’s lack of interest in sharing information”.

That is a good point.

Some departing employees don’t see any reason to be open and honest about their feelings, and that you cannot control. But you can address this issue by going all the way back to evaluating your onboarding process, and taking action to engage in candid conversations with current employees to make them feel comfortable with sharing their honest feelings.

However, that is a complex, separate topic of discussion altogether.

“Too often EI programs fail to either improve retention or produce useful information. We’ve identified two reasons why. The first is data quality. The usefulness of an EI depends utterly on the honesty and forthrightness of the departing employee.The second reason is a lack of consensus on best practices. The goals, strategies, and execution of EI programs vary widely, and the findings and recommendations from empirical studies are often vague or conflicting. But in our view, the deepest problem is that many organizations use EI programs as an excuse not to have meaningful retention conversations with current employees.”Everett Spain, Making Exit Interviews Count

We’re going to be addressing the second reason why the HBR article claims exit interview programs fail to improve retention or produce useful information, by providing the tools to document and follow a structured, formal process for effective interviews that enable you to get it right, every time.

Focus on optimizing what you can control, and the unpredictable human element will be just that, rather than a reflection of the shortcomings of your company culture and offboarding process.

What is an exit interview?

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An exit interview (also known as termination or separation interview) is simply an interview conducted with an employee who is leaving a company.

The purpose of this interview is to learn. In other words, to gain insight into how you can go about reducing unwanted turnover by leveraging the information provided by the employee, while showing that you value their insight and intend on taking action to make improvements wherever necessary.

When is the best time to conduct one?

There is some debate around when is the best time to conduct an exit interview.

Many companies choose to conduct them as a routine part of the offboarding process during an employee’s last week on the job. Some employers do them several weeks or even months after the individual leaves, either by phone or online survey.

The most important point to consider regarding timing is how heated the departure was in terms of emotions and conflict with other members of the organization. If the exit was, shall we say, rough, then it might be a good idea to conduct the interview a few weeks after the employee has left, so the dust has settled and they can provide their feedback with a calm perspective.

If it was a smooth departure, then conducting the interview during the employee’s final week is suitable.

What is the best method to conduct an exit interview?

There is a range of different ways to collect the information necessary for a good exit interview, as listed below:

  • Face-to-face discussion
  • Short questionnaire
  • Long questionnaire with customized, open-ended questions
  • Telephone interview
  • Online video interview
  • Online survey

You can also use a combination of methods. For example, an online survey can be used to complement a face-to-face interview. Also, a short questionnaire sent to the employee prior to a face-to-face discussion can clarify talking points and the general direction of the meeting so that in-person time can be used more effectively.

What are the most important data points to gather?

The first thing to acknowledge before beginning the exit interview process is that it’s not just about understanding why the individual is leaving. There’s a lot more that goes into it if you want to do it right.

These are some of the important data points you should gather:

  • The employee’s overall experience of working at the company (role, team dynamics, relationship with manager/supervisor, advancement and development opportunities etc.)
  • Their opinion of the company culture, if and why they feel distanced from the work environment
  • Whether or not the job training/onboarding process was sufficient
  • Reasons for joining the company in the first place, as well as reasons they considered leaving and then chose to follow through
  • What they liked most and least about the job
  • Professional goals (aspirations, what excites and motivates them to work)
  • Perceptions of the workplace that the employee is joining (if applicable)
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Examples of good exit interview questions

The foundation of any interview is, of course, the questions.

Always bear in mind that when formulating questions for an exit interview, the purpose is to understand how and why the employee feels the way they do, not merely to extract business-valuable information in the most efficient way possible.

“The benefits of conducting exit interviews depend on asking the right questions. Exit interviewing may seem like something anyone can do, but survey design is easy to bias unintentionally. Questions need to be refined to minimize bias and to probe to uncover rich insights.” – Camille Patrick, The Real Value of Getting an Exit Interview Right

Below is a list of 10 tried and tested questions that you should consider integrating into your interview process. Some of them only apply if the employee is transitioning to a new job.

  1. How would you describe the relationship with your manager?
  2. How would you describe our organizational culture?
  3. What did you like most about your job? What did you like the least?
  4. Do you think management adequately recognized employee contributions? If not, how do you think recognition could be improved?
  5. Do you feel you had the resources and support necessary to accomplish your job? If not, what was missing?
  6. What circumstances led you to start looking elsewhere for work?
  7. What was the biggest factor that led you to accept this new job?
  8. What could have been done for you to remain employed here?
  9. What would you recommend to help us create a better workplace?
  10. Do you have any concerns about the company you’d like to share?

I mentioned that the purpose is to understand how and why the employee feels the way they do. This statement is directly linked to the importance of listening.

You are conducting the interview to learn, and without listening you cannot learn anything. As obvious as that may sound, many interviewers push their agenda, sometimes without even realizing, and therefore significantly limit the insight they gain.

Be sure to give the employee plenty of time to consider each question. Do not rush them or breeze through the questions in a way that makes them feel like your more focused on other tasks you need to address following the meeting.

Establishing an exit interview process for flawless execution

We’ve gone over the basic components of an exit interview, now we’re going to focus on how to apply them in practice.

Executing the interview flawlessly every time begins with establishing a formal, structured process to manage the termination end-to-end, in other words, from the moment the employee notifies you that they will be leaving the organization to hosting a farewell party!

Process Street has put together a template that will enable you to do just that.

The Employment Termination Checklist will guide you through each and every step and can be integrated into your processes for free. Just sign up for a free Process Street account and add the checklist to your library.

Once you’ve added the checklist, you can customize it however you want to suit your existing processes.

We also encourage you to integrate the checklist with your HR tools through our integration with Zapier, which connects Process Street to over 1000 applications. That way you can automate various tasks such as requesting a letter of resignation from the employee and scheduling the exit interview.

As you can see, the exit interview section starts at task 23 and contains 3 tasks. This is a very basic framework that is intended to be built out by your HR team.

For example, you can add a file upload form field to task 24 to upload the meeting’s agenda, a list of questions and other important documents.

Here’s an example of how you could structure the tasks with form field recommendations:

  • Determine method of the interview (multi-choice form field to select a combination)
    • Face-to-face discussion
    • Short questionnaire
    • Long questionnaire with customized, open-ended questions
    • Telephone interview
    • Online video interview
    • Online survey
  • Schedule the interview (date form field & email widget to instantly contact the employee)
  • Clarify important data points to gather (long text form field or sub-checklist with pre-written options)
    • The employee’s overall experience of working at the company
    • Their opinion of the company culture
    • Whether or not the job training/onboarding process was sufficient
    • Reasons for joining the company in the first place, and reason(s) for leaving
    • Recommendations for improving the work environment
  • Prepare the list of questions (file upload or long text form field)
    • How would you describe the relationship with your manager?
    • How would you describe our organizational culture?
    • What did you like most about your job? What did you like the least?
    • Do you think management adequately recognized employee contributions?
    • Do you feel you had the resources and support necessary to accomplish your job?
    • What could have been done for you to remain employed here?
  • Hold the interview (sub-checklist form field)
    • All questions were asked
    • All data points have been gathered
  • Record responses (long text form fields)
  • Evaluate data to create action items (long text form fields)
  • Share insight and recommendations with senior management (sub-checklist form field)
    • Discussed all feedback
    • Presented suggestions/action items
    • Scheduled follow-up meeting to monitor progress

Beyond employee termination, we have a selection of other HR-related templates for onboarding and a range of other processes.

How to effectively leverage exit interview data

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Fantastic! You’ve nailed the process for conducting exit interviews. Now it’s all about leveraging the information you collect to continuously improve employee morale and the work culture in general.

Here are 3 key ways to leverage exit interview data:

1. Act on reasons for departure and monitor progress

Following the interview, spend some time evaluating the information you’ve gathered to identify the root cause of the employee’s departure and list a few ways that they could be addressed.

For example, perhaps they felt that the training was inadequate, or they were not given enough opportunity to collaborate and contribute to projects they were interested in but lied outside their scope of work.

Such insight can enable you to discuss ways to improve certain aspects of the job with managers and senior management, so action can be taken and progress monitored.

2. Create a targeted employee retention program

According to Workable, there are a number of components that go into creating an employee retention program.

The first is accurately measuring your turnover rate so you have a good understanding of where you stand compared to industry benchmarks.

Then develop an employee compensation strategy based on the value of each employee. Make sure you are rewarding the right employees to build loyalty. Offering stock options can be an effective way to do this, or simply providing extra benefits like discounts and tickets when the employee exceeds expectations.

A third, and arguably the most important component, is the working environment.

“Although compensation is a factor, ultimately, people stay in jobs they enjoy. You should, therefore, make sure that your work environment attracts, retains and nourishes great people. Casual dress codes or free lunches, snacks and gym memberships are great perks that don’t cost much.”Christina Pavlou, How to Create an Employee Retention Program

Also, consider employees work-life balance. Listen to employees needs and offer flexible work schedules to ensure they are not being overworked.

Other components of an employee retention program include relationship with managers, personal development, and recognition. You can read more about them here.

3. Share information with executives

You want to make sure that exit interview data reaches key decision-makers in your organization who can implement changes as effectively as possible.

“It’s helpful if HR leaders maintain a consistent schedule for periodically sharing exit interview data and important trends with executives. Quarterly updates work well for many organizations. Time these updates to be in sync with an annual board meeting or other important dates in corporate decision-making. Most importantly, don’t let any valuable data go to waste.”Deb Muller, Exit Interview Data Analysis Strategies & Best Practices

Sometimes executives are skeptical about how honest departing employees were in their statements, so it’s essential that you prepare by carefully evaluating all of the data and anticipating objections from decision-makers prior to presenting them with the information and your suggestions.

The bottom line

The primary purpose of the exit interview process is to gain valuable insight that enables you to continuously improve employee morale, productivity, and the work environment as a whole.

The secondary purpose, which I would argue is equally as important, is clearly showing departing employees that you value the contributions they have made during their employment and the ideas/feedback they have to offer.

Never overlook the importance of listening. Only by giving the employee the space to process their thoughts and express themselves honestly will you gain the insight you are looking for.

Finally, always document action items, share them with decision-makers, and monitor their progress to get the most out of the interview.

I hope you found this article helpful! If you have any thoughts on why exit interviews are important to your business or have ideas on refining the process, let me know in the comments below!

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Alex Gallia

Alex is a content writer at Process Street who enjoys traveling, reading, meditating, and is almost always listening to jazz or techno. You can find him on LinkedIn here


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