Better exit interviews

Why bother making a good exit interview? The employee is leaving, surely it’s best to cut your losses? Contrary to what your emotions might be telling you, it can be really worth your time to deeply understand why someone is leaving your team – and they’re often in a great position to be really honest with you too, so don’t waste the opportunity to get feedback from someone walking out the door.

One common misconception about exit interviews is that you can learn from leaving employees how to improve, but on closer inspection, this makes little sense. Think about it more like a design interview – you wouldn’t ask your users how to design your product, so why ask your employees how to run your company? Instead focus on learning more about their experience working with you and adjust your processes moving forward. Remember, you might not want to employ someone similar to this in the future, so their recommendations need to be held lightly.

Almost all “surprise” exits happen because of a broken feedback loop – either you weren’t asking enough (too trusting) or they weren’t telling enough (not trusting enough). Ideally you want to avoid this in the future.

How to exit interview

  • Definitely construct your exit survey with a bunch of standard questions but consider using some of these slightly spicier ones as well.
  • If possible, get someone impartial (like HR) to run this interview face to face/on video chat. You’ll get a better sense of their emotional temperature and they may open up more knowing that it isn’t recorded/will be intermediated by the interviewer.
  • If you are going to run a survey, try to keep it to under 10 questions and make sure to keep the phrasing open (and use textareas not inputs to encourage more time).
  • Try to run/send this on the last day, which gives your employee a chance to be a bit blunt and honest with you without fear of repercussions.
  • Assure your exiting employee that you are asking these questions with the goal of improving and encourage them to be as candid as possible. If necessary, reassure them that no matter what they say, you’ll give them a good reference for their next position and no feelings will be hurt (similar to design research).
  • Keep any interviews under an hour (they can be emotionally taxing).

Were they unhappy for long?

This line of questioning is useful for you as a manager as it helps you triangulate possible changes in behaviour and better recognise these signs in the future.
  • When did you start thinking about leaving?
  • What prompted you to start looking for another job?
  • Did you speak to anyone about changes that might have made it more appealing to stay?
  • If not, what prevented you from trying?
  • Did you find it easy to give feedback?
  • Did you receive enough feedback?

Were they a bad fit for you?

Sometimes people leave because they were never a good fit. Sometimes you’ve changed, or they’ve changed. In these cases, you might not fight to keep someone – and them leaving might be a blessing in disguise. Even though these questions are framed in a way that asks for their opinion about what to improve, you want to interpret them as evidence of their own belief system and take what is relevant for you only.
  • What did you find challenging about working here?
  • What was the most rewarding part of working here?
  • What advice would you give to management/leadership here?
  • Would you recommend working here to a friend? Why/why not?

Did you promise things that didn’t end up being true?

Sometimes the way a role or company is sold in hiring doesn’t match reality – either on purpose or by accident. Your EVP (employee value proposition) should sell the opportunity truthfully, and if it’s not doing that job, you want to change it before you advertise for your next role if possible.
  • Did working here meet, exceed or fall short of your expectations?
  • What turned out to be different to what you expected?
  • Is there anything you wish you’d known before you joined?
  • Were there any positives that you discovered while working here that surprised you?
  • How would you describe the company culture here?

Has the role or company changed significantly since they started?

If your organisation is growing there’s a good chance that this role has evolved in the time between when they started and now, but if the feedback loop has broken down you might not be aware exactly by how much. If someone feels their role has changed significantly but they haven’t been compensated by it, they may leave rather than negotiate.
  • Do you think your role has changed significantly since you started? If so, how?
  • Has the company changed significantly since you started? For better or worse?
  • What direction do you think the company is going in?
  • Does your position description accurately describe what you do day to day?
  • Do you feel like your seniority and experience was reflected in your compensation and title?
  • Did you add any new tools or processes while you were here that you were managing on your own?

Anything they wish they could have told you earlier but didn’t?

It’s always good to leave a bit of time for some open questions that allow your exiting employee to tell you how they really feel. If they’ve been bottling things up, given them a chance to be honest and raw with you and thank them for their candour. This works best when the exit interview is done on their last day or to an “objective” intermediary, either a survey or an HR person. You’ll get a good insight into their emotional state with these questions and they can help you sensitively handle the rest of their offboarding.
  • Is there any other feedback (constructive or positive) you’d like to share with your manager or anyone else in the business?
  • Is there any feedback you would have liked to share with us earlier but didn’t feel comfortable doing so?
  • Are you hoping to stay in touch or go for a clean break?