How to conduct employee exit interviews [+10 questions to ask]

Phil Kendall

Jan 2018 ⋅ 5 min read

Cartoon of two business people at a desk with an open door marked 'exit' behind them

Picture the scene: it's a Monday morning and you've just made a start on your emails when a member of staff sheepishly approaches with an envelope in hand.

There's never a good time to have to lose a member of your team. Even if you saw their departure coming, replacing an employee can be costly, not to mention time-consuming and morale-sapping.

Before you let them go, however, it's important that you meet privately with your departing employee and conduct a proper exit interview. You probably won't be able to convince them to stay, but this is a golden opportunity to glean some genuinely useful feedback about your business and to find out how you can reduce turnover further down the line.

But how exactly do exit interviews work? And what sort of questions should you be asking?

Today on the RotaCloud Small Business Success Blog, we're discussing just that, beginning with what you stand to gain by interviewing your employee prior to their departure.

Jump to: Tips for exit interviews | Exit interview questions

Why conduct exit interviews?

balloon floating in sky

You might be losing a member of staff, but there are still plenty of positives to be gained from this situation.

After all, if someone is leaving because something isn't quite right at your company, then setting aside some time for a full and frank discussion about it could prevent the loss of dozens more staff in the months to come.

With this in mind, exit interviews should be approached as business health checks of sorts — a rare opportunity to gain feedback on your business from someone who, unlike those still under your employ, has little to lose by being totally upfront.

On the flip-side, if your soon-to-be-ex employee has nothing but good things to say about their manager or your company as a whole, then you can probably take that as a sign that you're on the right track.

Here's how to prepare for, and conduct, an exit interview:

Tips for effective exit interviews

Photo of a meeting room with a wooden table and white chairs around it

At some companies, exit interviews are held on the departing employee's final day at work. While this makes sense on paper — they're exiting, after all — we'd advise against doing this, as your employee will likely be busy tying up loose ends during their last few days, and in some cases emotions will be running high.

A far better time to conduct an exit interview is at the very start of your employee's final week. This will ensure that you have adequate time to talk, but also afford you the opportunity to schedule a followup meeting in the event that any particularly concerning issues come to the surface during the interview.

Exit interviews should always be conducted on a one-to-one basis and ideally run by your HR manager. Failing that, it's OK for a senior member of staff to take the lead so long as they're not the employee's immediate supervisor, as this might affect their willingness to provide honest answers to your questions.

You should also take care to stress the confidential nature of the meeting, and hold it in a location where you can speak candidly without interruption.

During the interview proper, it's vital that the interviewer remains impartial throughout the entire process. Don't be tempted to enter into a debate even if your employee begins listing the company's faults — your goal here is to gather information and ascertain the cause of any problems, not to defend the company's honour.

Finally, steps should be taken to conduct every exit interview in exactly the same way, regardless of the employee's status, years of service, or your relationship with them. Phrase your questions the same way and in the same order for every exit interview you conduct, and resist the temptation to make assumptions when interviewing someone you've worked with for a while.

But what sort of questions should you ask?

Questions to ask during an exit interview

You'll probably have a few questions specific to your interviewee that you'll want to ask, but it's a good idea to prepare a list of questions that you'll ask every exiting employee so that you can compare their responses and look out for trends.

The following example questions should give you a solid framework to start from:

Download these questions as a printable checklist [PDF]

1. Why have you decided to leave?

Your employee likely stated their reason for leaving when they handed in their notice, but it's important to hear it from their own mouth and within the confines of a private meeting room.

2. What prompted you to look for another job?

Was there a particular catalyst that prompted your employee to look for work elsewhere? Were they approached by a recruiter?

3. What led you to accept the new position?

It's one thing to casually browse a few job sites, but actually applying for and accepting a new position requires a lot more effort. You need to know what, exactly, their new employer was offering that you aren't.

4. What have you enjoyed about working here?

It's nice to give your employees a chance to reflect on the good times they've had with you, but you should also try to pay attention to what they don't say — if all they can muster is 'I'll really miss the team' then they probably didn't engage much with the work they were doing.

5. What have you disliked about working here?

The million-dollar question. You might need to do a little bit of digging here to find the truth, but it helps to remind your interviewee that their responses will be kept private.

6. Was your job what you expected it to be?

This is a great way to ascertain how effective your recruitment and employee onboarding practices are. Are people joining your team expecting one thing but ending up doing another? Are you overselling the role at interview?

7. Do you feel that you had enough training and support to do your job?

Did your employee end up feeling overwhelmed in their role? Were they given increasing levels of responsibility without receiving additional training? Conversely, were they given opportunities to grow, or did they stagnate in the same role and go in search of something new?

8. How would you describe your relationship with your manager?

It's rare for staff to speak up about their manager unless something is seriously amiss. When one of your employees is exiting the company, however, they'll usually have no qualms about sharing their thoughts on how they were managed, so be sure not to miss this opportunity.

9. What advice would you give to your successor?

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. By asking your departing employee what advice they'd give to the person who fills their role, you're effectively asking them what they wish they'd known before they joined your team. Listen closely as their answer may reveal all kinds of things about your business and give you helpful advice for recruiting their successor.

10. If you could change one thing about the company, what would it be?

You'd be surprised at some of the creative ideas that your soon-to-be-ex employees can fire at you when they're not concerned about how their honesty could affect their position at the company.

In closing

You might avoid holding exit interviews just to avoid awkwardness on both sides, but if you ask the right questions in the right way, exit interviews can be an incredibly valuable business tool.

Use the feedback from exit interviews to improve your approach to recruitment, employee engagement, and management — and crucially, boost employee retention in the long term.

Read more: The Ultimate Employee Retention Guide