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An all-in guide to exit interviews

You might consider an exit interview as just another part of the leaving process—one more job to tick off a checklist—but stop right there. It’s far more than that. What is the real exit interview purpose? 

Well, it’s one of the best opportunities you have to gather objective data into how your business operates.

The exit interview benefits are many, and when delivered correctly, should provide information rarely available from other opportunities.

To get the best from an exit interview, you need to know what you’re doing, what you want to achieve, and how to avoid the hidden traps and pitfalls.

What happens at an exit interview?

The exit interview process includes a conversation between someone from the HR department, the manager or supervisor, and the parting employee. It should happen at the end of the employment period, ideally within the last day or two, and is an opportunity for employers to find out where they aren’t performing as well as they’d like.

Considering such sensitive areas, the key concerns most employees want to determine are is an exit interview mandatory and is an exit interview confidential?

The interviewer should guarantee it to place the employee in the most relaxed, comfortable, and open temperament where confidentiality is a concern. 

And mandatory? Not at all. It’s completely voluntary, but it’s an opportunity that shouldn’t be sidestepped lightly with much to gain for both parties.

How to conduct an exit interview

Whichever side of the table you’re on, the following suggestions should guide you towards some beneficial exit interview best practices—that’s if you haven’t created your guide already.

As the interviewer

Plan thoroughly. Having a detailed plan translates into fewer missed opportunities. When it comes to compiling and asking questions, the correct planning won’t just mean you’re ready to ask the right questions; it means that you’ll be able to cross-reference answers from previous sources. 

This is your opportunity to look for patterns in what still needs improvement or highlighting further failings.

Don’t worry about the right questions, though; we’ve got that covered a little further in the article.

Interview or questionnaire? Some businesses choose to hand out a questionnaire instead of holding an interview, but we stand on our decision that face-to-face is always the best option.

A written questionnaire can seem somewhat cold and structured, so it stands to reason that your answers will reflect that. To achieve honest, open answers to your questions, hold a relaxed interview. You get to set the tone that will drive how your interviewee responds.

One advantage of a questionnaire is that you’ll receive all of your answers in a written format, ideal for future reference. In an oral interview, it’s up to you to record those answers. 

You could employ another staff member to make a complete set of notes, allowing you to concentrate on the interview more thoroughly.

Stay professional at all times. The next piece of advice stands for both interviewer and interviewee: be positive, polite, never get drawn into an argument, and at all times remain professional

You can be open and honest, even with some of the more delicate topics that would be hard to approach in your usual setting. But this is no ordinary day at the office. It’s a chance to make change.

Choose which member of the team is the best to perform the interview. If the parting employee has had issues with a manager or supervisor, it would be a terrible idea to have them deliver the interview. It would only bring up more bad blood. Chatting those matters over with a neutral party could help get to the bottom of damaging situations and prevent further occurrences in the future.

Listen. This is your biggest job. Yes, asking the right questions and following up on the answers you receive is important, but understanding what’s behind your employee’s choices is vital. If you don’t truly recognize the issues, you won’t determine the best methods to resolve them.

As an employee

When you’re leaving a job with an air of dissatisfaction, you might think that your exit interview is a great opportunity to get all of your frustration and anger off your chest.

Not so. If you’re smart, you’ll see it as an opportunity to leave the door open and to improve your chance of receiving far stronger references.

Make sure to stay positive and helpful, and you’ll earn respect for your honesty. The best way to do that is to provide polite, non-emotional feedback. Remember the mantra: facts, not feelings, and you won’t go far wrong.

Oh, and as we said earlier, never get drawn into an argument. Ever.

Our other golden rules are specific with the positives, general with the negatives, and be grateful for the opportunities the role provided.

When it comes to praise, specific examples of where your employers are getting things right will add a level of gratitude to your answers. By being general with the negatives, you’ll avoid looking spiteful or malicious; yet still highlighting an area for your employer to work on.

Your employer will appreciate hearing that you’re grateful for the opportunity of working together, even though matters didn’t work out as you both hoped. They’ll be far more likely to consider your return anywhere down the line if appropriate and to provide those amicable references you’re going to need in the future.

How to summarize exit interview results

Recording the information you glean from this process is vital to where you go next. How to analyze exit interview data varies from business to business, but you must record the information you gather, one way or another.

The opportunity to cross-reference your findings with those of others who’ve already left the company is a must. Whether it’s a page of structured notes, a spreadsheet, or applied into the relevant area of your recruiting program or specialist exit interview software—recording the data is a must.

There are plenty of suggestions on tracking exit interview data and the best ways to record the information. The most important action, though, is what you do with it. 

If you just drop it into the employee’s leaving file, the whole process has done you no good. Use the information to draw attention to your business’s failings and low performing areas. 

We suggest keeping copies of all the exit interview data in the same folder or spreadsheet to make direct comparisons. The strongest systems will reveal patterns in the finest details, and they can be as damaging as the most obvious flaws in your system.

Exit interview questions template

With a little common sense, you’ll be able to see how these questions can help you improve your operation and processes. If you can’t, then perhaps you’re not cut out for a role in HR or management, after all.

Try not to overwhelm your employee with too many follow-up questions, or they could be exhausted before you get to the end of your list.

And remember, the following questions for an exit interview are a guide. You may have much more detailed alternatives for more specific roles and situations.

Questions about the job:

  • What made you think about looking for another job?
  • Did you have everything you needed—technology, team, or training—to do the job well?
  • How was your relationship with your manager?
  • What was the main factor to tip the scales in favor of your new job?
  • What were the best parts of your job?
  • What were the worst parts of your job?
  • What was your proudest moment or biggest accomplishment?
  • What should we be looking for in your replacement—the ideal skills and qualifications?

Questions about the company:

  • What do we do right, or well?
  • Which conditions and areas need work?
  • Would you recommend us to anyone seeking employment?
  • Did we adequately support your career goals?
  • What were the most important things you were looking for from a new employer?
  • How would you improve the areas that brought you to the decision to leave?
  • How do you think other employees feel about the company in general?
  • Are there areas where our onboarding, training, and monitoring processes are lacking?

Relevant: Check out our exit interview questions article for more examples!

What not to ask

If you follow a few simple rules (you work in HR—use your common sense and experience), you shouldn’t go far wrong. And remember, stay professional at all times. It’s far better to say nothing during those awkward moments and move on to the next question than to throw petrol on what should be dying embers.

Facts, not feelings. Be professional. Listen.

  • Never aim questions towards specific people.
  • Don’t feed into gossip.
  • Avoid anything that could be misconstrued as harassment, discrimination, or 
  • Don’t try and convince the employee to stay.
  • Keep everything professional—stay clear of any personal issues or arguments.

Conclusion

There are so many opportunities to gain from an exit interview. A wise and self-aware manager should use these to understand the weaknesses in their business—and to put them straight. Every cloud has a silver lining, as they say, and this is a silver lining—around a grey cloud you’d rather not see again anytime soon—you can’t afford to ignore.

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