Everything you need to know about exit interviews

Are you looking for a way to reduce employee turnover? In this guide, we’ll discuss everything you need to know about exit interviews, including how to conduct them, analyse the results, and manage the outcome.

The business case for exit interviews

There is a retention crisis at the moment – organisations are struggling to hold on to their talent. As such, employee retention is a growing challenge for many businesses. No longer is it just the most capable and ambitious people who are leaving , it is spreading to lots of different jobs across different sectors.

Exit interviews are one of the best three methods for gathering feedback from leavers. They are an essential tool that can help employers understand why employees choose to leave.

What are exit Interviews?

An exit interview is a conversation between the departing employee and a representative of their organisation, usually either their manager or someone from HR. Exit interviews are  typically used to gather feedback on why the employee is leaving and how the company can improve.

During an exit interview, departing employees are asked questions about their experiences and opinions about the organisation. The information gathered from these interviews helps employers to identify issues in areas such as recruitment, retention, team dynamics, and leadership style etc.

Why is conducting exit interviews important?

There are benefits and downsides to exit interviews, but they provide a great opportunity for employers to gain insights into the employee experience and reasons why they may be leaving an organisation.

Exit interviews provide an invaluable opportunity to gain insight into the employee experience. By eliciting honest feedback from departing employees, organisations can gather valuable data that can help inform decisions, policies and procedures to improve the employee journey for those already employed and those to come.

Exit interviews can also uncover patterns of dissatisfaction or recurring concerns among employees, allowing employers to make adjustments or undertake changes that could help retain people in the future.

Knowing what may be causing unwanted attrition is essential for making meaningful and effective changes in order to retain talent in the future.

What are the benefits of exit interviews?

Employee turnover is unavoidable in most organisations, very few people nowadays consider they have a job for life, and things change. However, employee turnover has some significant costs attached to it:

  • there is the cost of lost productivity, both from losing an experienced person and also from the time it takes to bring someone new up to speed.
  • there is the cost of replacing people. This includes the tangible costs associated with recruitment agencies etc., but also includes the hidden costs of the time it takes to manage the recruitment process.
  • there is the cost to customers or service users. Where employees have a relationship with customers, losing them can damage this relationship. In the healthcare and wider care sector (where we see lots of employee turnover) there can be a cost associated with a lack of continuity of care.
  • losing lots of people can damage the company’s brand or image. Organisations can develop a reputation for being ‘toxic’.

Understanding why people leave is one of the easiest ways to identify how to reduce the costs associated with employee turnover. In addition, it will help you add immediate value to the business by improving levels of retention and employee engagement in your business.

The major benefit of exit interviews is that they allow the organisation to capture information that can be used to prevent further people from leaving for the same reason. We see many examples of why people leave organisations ranging from people feeling they have been bullied by their manager to just not seeing a future career for themselves where they are.

What are the downsides of exit interviews?

However, there are some disadvantages to exit interviews:

  • They can be a little uncomfortable for the leaver. Imagine you have resigned because of your boss’s behaviour – it is going to be difficult to feed that back to the company. Especially if the company asks managers to carry out exit interviews! In our experience, many leavers tend to either turn down the opportunity of the exit interview, or they modify their feedback as most people don’t want to burn their bridges.
  • Exit interviews take up a lot of resource. There is the admin time involved in organising the interview, but most of all there is the physical time required to carry out the interview. It is usually too much to rely on one person to carry out all of the exit interviews so organisations either ask line managers to do it (see previous point) or the wider HR function, which creates another downside….
  • Exit interviews tend to be fairly unstructured in how they are carried out. Even where the interviewer has a defined set of exit interview questions to ask, the conversation is often dominated by what the interviewee wants to say. At the end of the day the key exit interview question is “why are you leaving?” and this is usually where the interviewee will spend most of their time and energy. This makes capturing exit interview data difficult as it is often made up of lots of qualitative comments. We also see organisations who have different exit interview formats – some exit interviews are captured by hand, others are recorded on a document or form. This leads to another downside….
  • Exit interview information is often difficult to analyse. Even where it is captured in a consistent format, it can be extremely time-consuming to collate the information and then make sense of it.

What’s the best way to gather exit interview data?

This post assumes that you are planning to carry out face to face interviews with your leavers. However, face to face interviews are just one of three methods for gathering leaver data. The other two approaches are to carry out telephone interviews and to use an online exit survey. All three have pros and cons so you should be open minded to which approach will suit your organisation best.

What are the key things to consider when designing your exit interview process?

The end goal for your exit interview process is to use the feedback gathered from leavers to make positive improvements to the employee experience within your organisation in order to reduce employee turnover or attrition. As such, we advise that you define your process in advance and then ensure that it is implemented consistently. We have seen organisations where different parts of the business have their own exit interview process that is carried out by different people, asking different questions, in different formats. This makes compiling and analysing the data virtually impossible.

The challenge you will face s that leavers are already partially disengaged from the organisation, which means their willingness to participate in a process that gives feedback may be quite low.

How to invite leavers to take part in the exit interview process?

Most of us are likely to invite leavers to the exit interview via email. Leavers may be unsure around the purpose of the email and the exit interview so it can help to highlight how the employee’s feedback can positively influence other employees’ experiences.

Additionally, topics such as confidentiality and anonymity should be included to demonstrate your commitment to a safe space for open communication.

Offering incentives like gift cards or vouchers may be something you want to consider as this might help encourage more leavers to participate.

When to invite leavers to take part?

Our advice is to invite leavers to take part in an exit interview as soon as they give notice of their intention to leave. Our experience shows that leavers are much more likely to take part in an exit interview if it happens before they actually leave the company. As soon as people have left the company they feel significantly less psychological obligation to provide the company with feedback – they tend to ‘move on’.

This is one of the reasons why telephone interviews that are conducted after people have left tend to have lower participation rates than interviews that are conducted before people leave.  

What about data protection and privacy?

One of the biggest challenges with exit interviews is getting people to open up and engage with the process. Most people are likely to fear that what they say could be held against them so they won’t want to burn their bridges. This is actually one of the main reasons why face to face or telephone exit interviews tend to be less effective than an online exit survey. If leavers are unsure or hesitant about the process they may tend to water down their feedback or be overly positive in their feedback.

As such, we strongly recommend that exit interview data should be kept anonymous. This is difficult to do when the person conducting the interview knows the name of the interviewee so the only thing that can be done is to ensure that the interviewee’s name is not recorded anywhere.

You should also ensure that any feedback gathered from a leaver is NEVER used in a way that could harm them. Managers should be instructed not to challenge any feedback that they perceive to be negative or critical. Employee references should also not be impacted by any negative feedback.

Remember that data protection law is likely to provide leavers with the right to see what information you hold about them and this will include anything you recorded at their exit interview.

Keep your exit interviews short

The main benefit of an interview is that the interviewer can delve deeper into leavers’ responses. However, it is best to avoid asking too many questions. At the end of the day, the purpose of the exit interview is to find out why people are leaving and what the company can do to prevent that happening again in the future.

Standardise your exit interview questions

Good research (and interview) practice involves asking each interviewee the same things. If your process is not standardised it becomes nigh on impossible to draw conclusions from your data. Wherever possible, ask all interviewees the same questions.

What types of questions should you include in your exit interview?

If you want to get the most out of an exit interview, it’s important to ask the right questions. Asking the right exit interview questions can provide valuable insights into what aspects of the employee experience your organisation might need improvement. Knowing this information can help you make more informed decisions that benefit your business in the long run.

The design of your exit interview will have a major impact on the quality of information you can get out of the process. In our experience there are three main types of employee experience question that will help you most efficiently make sense of your exit interview data.

Demographic questions enable you to collecting information about things such as age, gender, job role, which part of the business people left from etc.

Qualitative questions are open questions. Open questions are the basis of good interview technique as they are designed to elicit richer information than closed questions. However, we advise that you remember to keep your questions simple and straightforward. Complex questions that require long answers will make identifying trends and patterns more difficult.

Quantitative questions use a Likert rating scale. Likert scales ask people to rate how they feel about something on a multi-point rating scale. These types of questions are likely to be similar to the questions you use in your employee engagement surveys.

In fact we would recommend that you do try to align your exit interview questions with your engagement survey questions to enable you to compare how leavers feel compared to all you other employees. When designing exit processes for clients we often start with our own employee engagement model as the basis for these questions.

The specific questions you might want to ask will depend on your type of organisation and what you want to achieve with your exit interview process. We recommend tailoring the questions so they suit you rather than just copying what other people do. However, these are our top 20 exit interview questions to ask that will be useful for all organisations.  

Preparing for the exit interview

As with any interview it makes sense to ensure the interviewer is prepared for the conversation before the interview.

Having the exit interview questions to hand will ensure that you capture all of the essential information during the exit interview. Be aware that the interviewee may also have questions of their own. For example, they may want to know what happens next, what to do with company owned equipment, what will happen to their last pay etc.

You should also dedicate enough time for the interview. Leavers will feel short changed if they do not feel they have had enough time to fully express their views and feedback.

How to make the most out of the exit interview

How the interview is conducted can have a big impact on the process. It is important to remember that the leaver may be quite anxious, even a little angry and frustrated with the company if they have had a negative experience. As such, it will help for the interviewer to stay professional throughout the entire process and not take any criticism personally.

To make the most out of an employee exit interview, it’s important to create a safe and respectful work environment for leavers to open up about their experience. As with all interviews, the interviewer should use the key skills of asking open questions and listening to what the leaver says. Make sure you ask them questions that allow you to understand how their time in the company has been from their perspective. Additionally, focus your conversation on each unique individual, rather than generalising across all employees. Doing this will demonstrate that you are invested in understanding their opinions as well as hearing any constructive criticism they may have.

Leavers are likely to be concerned about how their feedback will be used, they will be especially concerned about whether or not there could be any comeback to them based on what they say.

Analysing your exit interview data

The ultimate purpose of your exit interview is to gather data to enable you to make changes in your organisation that will improve the experience of all employees. If you can’t make sense of the data you gather during your exit interviews then you will not be able to do this.

We have a more detailed post on how to analyse your survey data, but these are the key things to consider.

What are the main reasons people give for leaving?

Simply tabulating how often leavers give certain reasons for leaving can give you a big clue as to where to focus your efforts. For example, we find that in the retail sector, leavers may leave to go to another job purely because they can earn slightly more money per hour than the job they are currently doing. Other reasons might include a sense that there are no career prospects with your organisation, there may be consistent issues around management style etc.

Everything you need to know about exit interviews

How do different groups of employees feel?

It is quite likely that different groups of employees leave for different reasons so cross-tabulating your data to explore differences based on your demographic questions will help with this. For example, you may find that more leavers in one part of the organisation cite management style as the reason for leaving than in other parts of the organisation indicating that you may have an issue with one or two managers. In our experience, leavers with around two year’s service tend to leave because they are seeking career progression.

Everything you need to know about exit interviews

What are the main themes around how leavers rate the employee experience?

If you have used quantitative questions in your exit interview you will be able to calculate average ratings or scores based on how leavers respond. This will enable you to take a high level view of how people feel about the different aspects of the employee experience.

Everything you need to know about exit interviews

It will then enable you to identify specific questions that score higher or lower than others.

Everything you need to know about exit interviews

In conclusion

Exit interviews are an essential tool when it comes to identifying why people leave. A well designed and implemented exit interview will enable you to identify what actions you can take to improve the employee experience, improve retention and reduce employee turnover in your organisation.