Exit interviews can be incredibly powerful, providing leaders with the opportunity to gather sophisticated information and insights and ensure valued employees leave on good terms – if they’re done right.

Asking the right exit interview questions is where most leaders think to start. However, by creating a more strategic approach to these conversations, leaders can create a remarkable set of data and insights they can use to drive positive organisational change, stemming follow-on employee departures, increasing employee satisfaction, and – importantly – improving retention.

“Research has shown that high turnover predicts low performance and that an organization with turnover lower than its competitors can be at a considerable advantage—particularly if it retains its top performers,” note the writers of a Harvard Business Review article on employee exit interviews. “If people are leaving an organization in ever-increasing numbers, figuring out why is crucial.”

“If the employee was unhappy, then their reason for resigning needs to be explored and understood, so that the company learns, and action can be taken to embed the learning to avoid the situation recurring,” says Peter Quintana, of management consultancy HGKC. “If they have moved on to better themselves in another role, or pursue their purpose in another way, then they should be wished the very best in the next stage of their journey.”

This last point is an important one: by remaining on good terms with departing employees, companies can increase their pool of potential candidates.

“The potential for so-called ‘boomerang’ hires has become so great during Covid that some organisations have begun factoring it into their recruitment planning and strategies,” explains Jon Sleightholme, recruitment business partner at The Curve Group, in an article for People Management. “We’re increasingly seeing employers looking at having a boomerang attraction strategy. If someone leaves and they’ve done well, there’s a lot of potential – you want to be able to attract them back because they are trusted assets.”

So what do you do when a great employee gives you notice? Following is our advice for using exit interviews to turn an unfortunate situation to your maximum advantage.

Exit interview questions set the tone for employee offboarding

Exit interviews can be a boon to employers, if they’re structured intentionally, as part of an effort to understand how the organization can improve its retention of star employees. However, if they’re a tick-the-box formality performed by HR as part of routine off-boarding, and the resulting data isn’t routinely analysed, exit interviews are not likely to unearth the valuable insights about the business an experienced, high-performing employee, can provide.

This leads us to the next point: one reason why an organisation may find little value in the exit interviews they do conduct is the fact that they are aiming too low and instead focus narrowly on the employee’s decision to leave.

To see what we mean, put yourself in the shoes of an experienced high-performer who has been called into a meeting after tendering your resignation. Imagine the person across the desk asks you the following questions:

What factors did you consider when you decided to take another job? 

What factors contributed to your decision to resign?

What could we have done to prevent you from leaving?

What makes your new job more attractive than your current role?

How did you learn about the job opening for the new position you have accepted?

Why did you accept that job offer versus another?

How do you think you’d feel? Defensive? Frustrated that the concerns you raised previously clearly haven’t been heard? Really good about your decision to leave?

This is an important point. Inviting a departing employee to have a conversation focused on the reasons they’re leaving is very likely to result in the employee being less candid than they otherwise might be, and it’s unlikely to present the organisation with any new information. It’s unlikely an ambitious, high-performer is going to complain vociferously about their boss in an exit interview – they probably have an eye toward the future, and will avoid burning bridges so they can ask for references in the future.

On the other hand, a well-structured conversation can encourage candor, enable the organisation to gather information it can actually use, and help ensure the employee leaves on such good terms that they might consider referring candidates or potential customers to the business, or possibly returning themselves one day.

To that end, it’s useful for the organisation to develop an approach to exit interviews that focuses on getting high-quality feedback.

How to conduct exit interviews effectively 

High-performing employees are likely to understand the business and your organisation well, and an exit interview represents the last opportunity to gather their invaluable insights. Here are three elements of a successful exit interview programme:

  • Establish a policy for exit interviews: You don’t need to perform exit interviews with every departing employee, however, it is smart to establish a policy for performing exit interviews that communicates the programme goals, classifies which employees will be interviewed, and outlines how the resulting data will be used. Communicating broadly with your leaders about programme goals (e.g. gathering insights that will create positive change and help the organisation improve its ability to retain high-performers) and data use (e.g. aggregating the data to identify patterns, rather than using it for witch hunts) will create more buy-in from your leaders. Identifying which groups of employees should be interviewed (e.g. employees who have achieved a particular performance rating, are part of programmes for high potentials or developing leaders, etc.) will ensure the resulting data is more actionable.
  • Select the right interviewers: To capture the most detailed and useful insights, exit interviews should be conducted by a senior leader in the departing employees’ department, and not by their direct supervisor. A Harvard Business Review article on the topic of exit interview best practices reported that “… interviews conducted by second- or third-line managers are most likely to lead to action. Second-line managers (direct supervisors’ managers) typically receive more-honest feedback precisely because they’re one step removed from the employee,” and also noted that those leaders are best positioned to follow up on that feedback. Who shouldn’t conduct the interviews: the employee’s direct supervisor or HR.
  • Identify a consistent set of wide-ranging questions to foster a good conversation and gather high-quality information: Providing each interviewer with a consistent set of questions touching on a wide array of topics will accomplish several important things. First, it will ensure the organisation is gathering data in a structured way that enables useful analysis. Secondly, a robust set of questions will aid the conversation, and help your interviewers gather focused insights. Finally, having a set of questions to work from will help ensure the conversation isn’t just about compensation or another single issue.

Using this simple framework, you’ll set the stage for a valuable, high-level conversation that feels good to the departing employee, ensures their feedback is heard at a high level, and enables the organisation to capture important insights from a respected insider.

26 exit interview questions to help you capture the right information for your company

It’s useful to first think about what sort of useful insight can be gleaned from exit interviews with top people, as they have more to offer than simply commenting on the benefits package.

Categories of potential inquiry include the employee’s perceptions of:

  • Key stay factors, such as opportunities for growth and advancement, and their perceptions of their roles and the work itself,
  • Leadership effectiveness and how leadership decisions and strategy were viewed,
  • The health of the organisation’s culture, and alignment with purpose and values,
  • How the organisation stacks up against competitors for talent in terms of salary and benefits, to provide more timely information than an annual salary survey,
  • Opportunities for improvements or innovations
  • How the value proposition for employees can be improved.

Here are 26 exit interview questions you can use to draft your own organisation’s inquiries:

Stay factors: 

  1. What did your find most satisfying about your work?
  2. How interesting and challenging did you find your job?
  3. Were you happy with the opportunities you had to gain new experiences and skills?
  4. How well does the company support career growth and development?

Leadership effectiveness: 

  1. Who gave you the best advice or feedback you had while working here?
  2. To what degree would you say people here trust senior leadership?
  3. In what ways could leadership improve its transparency?
  4. How connected did you feel to the organisation’s strategy and future plans?
  5. What was your relationship with your manager like?

Culture, purpose, and values:

  1. How would you describe the company’s alignment with its stated values?
  2. Do you believe people here are all held accountable to the same standards?
  3. How connected did you feel your work was to our purpose?
  4. Did you feel a strong sense of belonging here at work?

Competitive benchmarking: 

  1. What are the most compelling offers, benefits, or job aspects you encountered during your job search?
  2. If you were an external candidate, knowing what you know, would you join our company?
  3. What is your new job offering that we are unable to match?

Improvements & innovations:

  1. Do we give good ideas due consideration?
  2. In what way would you improve how performance is measured here?
  3. If you had the time and resources, what changes would you make here / what innovation would you pursue?

Employee value proposition: 

  1. What made you start looking for a new job?
  2. What are the best aspects of working here?
  3. Did you feel that you and your work were valued and appreciated here?
  4. Would you recommend working here to a friend, and if so, why? (If the answer is no, the next question should be “What would need to change for you to recommend working here to others?)

Wrap up questions: 

  1. What else should we know?
  2. What advice would you offer your replacement?
  3. If you could change anything here, what would that be?

When selecting the questions to include in an exit interview, keep the organisation’s goals top of mind, and resist the temptation to create a lengthy list. You’ll want to be sure the people conducting the interviews have plenty of time to ask follow-up questions. In fact, by coaching the leaders doing the interviews to listen actively and probe for more information with prompts such as “tell me more about that experience,” or “can you expand on that thought?”

Take actions to get ahead of other employee departures

An ounce of prevention is worth several pounds of cure when it comes to employee retention, and it’s always better to find out about issues before they result in resignations. Here are some steps you can take to identify issues before they mushroom into real problems.
engagement multiplier engagement data

  • Assess your organisation and look for “hot spots.” One of the most important things you can do to improve employee retention is to take action to identify the issues or problem areas within the organisation that are contributing to increased turnover.
  • Build “stay interview questions” into one on one meetings, coaching sessions, and employee reviews. We wrote extensively about stay interviews recently and the factors that compel employees to stay. Don’t wait to begin having these conversations – have your leaders incorporate them into their regular conversations, and equally importantly, be sure to gather their accumulated insights.
  • Solicit feedback proactively from your employees. Asking a departing employee for their suggestions on how the company can improve can sound like too little, too late. However, asking the same question of your employees proactively can be incredibly powerful and positive. Your people will appreciate being asked, and chances are good you’ll get some excellent and actionable ideas.
  • Analyse and act upon the feedback you have received. As you gather and analyse feedback from your employees, look for trends and patterns – those often indicate areas where you have the opportunity to make a significant impact. Don’t forget to follow through, and take action upon the feedback and data you’re acquired. You’ll send an important message to your employees whether or not you take action, and that message is that you’re either listening to them or ignoring them!

Creating a workplace in which people thrive is a continuous process, and your employees can help you continually improve the work experience, resulting in improvements to both business performance and employee retention.