Designing Exit Interviews

Whether used to enhance retention efforts, or to part amicably with employees, exit interviews are one way employers can get information about their organizations. Done right, exit interviews can help employers:

  • Prevent legal action.
  • Identify problems that contribute to turnover.
  • Gauge the effectiveness of current employment and business practices.
  • Find out what other employers are offering candidates.
  • Provide a positive last experience for departing employees.

Considerations When Designing Exit Interviews 

Employers should first ask themselves, "What are the key purpose and goals of our exit interview process?" Answers may range from “show employees we value their input” to “test our theory about recruitment and retention problems.” The point is to identify the desired outcome and design an exit interview process to achieve that outcome. With the purpose and goals in mind, employers should answer the following questions. 

How formal should our process be?

At a minimum you should capture and document information. While casual exit interviews can yield useful information, structured processes provide:

  • Better protection against lawsuits.
  • Higher quality information that is easier to analyze.
  • Greater employee participation and cooperation.

Formal exit interview processes are typically documented in a policy that details:

  • The purpose and goals of the exit interview.
  • How, when, and by whom interviews are conducted.
  • Who is eligible to be interviewed.
  • The use of standard questions.
  • Provisions to maintain confidentiality.
  • The process for handling claims of discrimination or illegal workplace activity.
  • How the information obtained in the interviews will be collected, analyzed, and used.

Who should conduct the interview?

Over the last few years, the use of third-party vendors to conduct exit interviews has increased sharply. Vendors are professionals, and employees may be more candid with independent interviewers. However, you may have valid reasons for keeping the exit interview process in-house. In this case, someone who is outside of the employee’s line of authority is a good choice, such as a human resource professional, a neutral manager, or a mentor of the employee.

To get the most out of your exit interviews, choose interviewers who are:

  • Perceived by the departing employee as someone with integrity who will take the employee’s input seriously and maintain confidentiality.
  • Properly trained and skilled in building rapport, asking probing questions while keeping the employee at ease, and handling negative or emotional employees.

Who should be interviewed?

All voluntarily separating employees should be offered an exit interview. Depending on your purpose and goals, you may also consider interviewing employees who are transferring between departments or locations, retiring, or ending a nonpermanent job.

Involuntarily separated employees present unique challenges. By offering an interview, you open communication and could discover issues such as discrimination. However, the responses may skew your data if combined with responses from voluntarily separated employees. 

When is the best time to conduct the interview?

Many organizations conduct the exit interview a day or two before the employee’s separation, but others interview employees a few weeks after they leave. Ask yourself:

  • Are employees more likely to participate before or after they’ve left?
  • How will employees’ emotions differ before and after leaving?
  • When are employees likely to provide the most candid and useful feedback?
  • Do we want to combine the interview with other activities, such as completing forms, collecting property, and clarifying benefits coverage and leave balances?

Should we use a survey?

Based on your size and resources, you may use a survey in addition to or instead of a face-to-face or telephone interview. When using surveys, consider:

  • Sending out a survey before the interview to gather information, and then choosing which topics to probe in the interview.
  • Providing the option for employees to complete an electronic survey anonymously.

What should we ask?

What you ask in the interview should directly relate to your original purpose and goals. Each question should seek information that has a specific use. Common topics include:

  • Reason(s) for leaving.
  • Initial recruitment and selection practices.
  • Pay and benefits.
  • Supervision and management.
  • Work environment.
  • Organizational culture and practices.
  • Opportunities for training, development, and advancement.
  • Aspects of the employee’s new job, such as location, pay, and duties.

How should we end the interview?

Whenever possible, employees should leave your organization on a positive note. If they feel valued and respected, they are less likely to speak negatively about you as an employer, and may consider re-employment in the future. When closing the interview, consider:

  • Thanking employees for their service and their contributions.
  • Asking them under what conditions they would consider coming back to your organization.
  • Asking them for ideas that would help you keep high performers.

How should we compile, analyze, and use the information?

How you compile and report information is as important as how you gather it. To get the greatest benefit:

  • Show trends such as poor management, lack of training, or uncompetitive salaries.
  • Summarize data to highlight key issues.
  • Compare data with employee survey results.
  • Communicate key results to management, and include recommended actions.

Exit interviews are valuable tools, but only if well executed and used strategically. Taking the time to figure out the purpose, goals, and approach improves the usefulness of the information gathered.

Original: September 4, 2008
Last update: February 17, 2010