Exit interviews

Are exit interviews worth the effort? This section discusses exit interviews in the context of: Why conduct interviews? What should the interview cover? When to conduct the interview? and Who should do the interview?

This article is based on writings by Mike Toten, HR Consultant, from 2003. It has been updated and revised.
  1. A case study
  2. Why conduct interviews?
  3. What should the interview cover?
  4. When to conduct the interview?
  5. Who should do the interview?
1. A case study
A long-serving employee who liked her job and was very good at it resigned because she had become dissatisfied with various aspects of her employer’s behaviour. She had obtained a new job with another company in the same industry.
On her last day, the Human Resources Manager directed her to attend an exit interview. Initially, the HR Manager followed an interview checklist, asking standard questions about pay, training, relations with co-workers and so on. Then she asked the woman: 'are there any other issues you would like to raise?'
The employee had prepared some notes to prompt her comments, and immediately launched into a lengthy critique of various events and the actions of some of the company’s senior managers. To her astonishment, however, the HR Manager immediately placed her pen on the desk, leaned back in her chair and folded her arms. No further notes were taken during the rest of the interview. As far as the HR Manager was concerned, her job — filling out the interview checklist — was done.
This case study illustrates that exit interviews will achieve little benefit for either party unless both employer and employee prepare for them conscientiously, the interviewer has appropriate interviewing skills and experience, and the interview takes place in a non-threatening environment.
The importance of a non-threatening environment is shown by another case study. An employee resigned from her job to start her own business. When doing so, she hoped that her former employer would become one of her clients. During her exit interview, she was careful not to criticise any individuals, for fear that they might act to prevent her from obtaining work from the company. As a result, the employee’s real reasons for leaving were not probed during the interview and significant problems within the organisation remained overlooked. This interview was little more than a box-ticking exercise.
2. Why conduct interviews?
There is no point conducting exit interviews unless both parties benefit from the experience. For employers, there are several potential benefits:
  • to verify the contents of job descriptions and specifications — the job may have changed substantially since documents were last prepared, and up-to-date information is essential when recruiting a replacement employee;
  • to identify problems within the organisation — these may relate to management style, communication, discrimination, access to opportunities, career development, remuneration and benefits, working hours, workloads, recruitment policy, training, job design/content, and many other HR issues;
  • to obtain suggestions for improvements to organisation policies and practices;
  • where employees are dissatisfied, it may be better to have them express their criticisms 'on-site' rather than leave and then 'go public'; and
  • as an alternative, and potentially less-threatening, means for employees to communicate their dissatisfaction with certain issues, or to alert the employer to fraudulent or unethical activities (such as theft or bullying). If such issues arise, however, the interviewer should handle them with great care and discretion, and afterwards look for supporting evidence.
For employees, the benefits of an exit interview are less obvious. There may be a certain 'feel-good' element, in that employees can 'get things off their chest' or 'have the last word' and thus leave on better terms than might otherwise be the case.
Also, employees may feel that if they are able to say something constructive, this may lead to improvements that benefit their work colleagues who remain.
However, many employers who leave are uncertain and nervous about their futures — even those who have another job to go to — and will therefore be reluctant to 'burn their bridges'. In general, an employee who attends an exit interview is doing the employer a favour, so the employer should demonstrate its appreciation of the employee’s cooperation and ensure that the interview is a constructive and non-threatening experience.
3. What should the interview cover?
While a standard checklist or form may assist the interviewer to explore certain basic issues, there is no need for the interview to be highly structured. Unlike a recruitment interview, the employee is not competing with other employees, he/she is merely stating his/her views.
The interviewer needs to be very careful to be neutral. He/she should neither defend the employer against criticism, nor agree with and support the employee.
The following list indicates the scope of issues an exit interview can cover:
  • main reason for leaving,
  • other reasons for leaving,
  • employee’s description of work done, how closely it related to job description and expectations when starting the job, and changes that have occurred,
  • whether employee found the work interesting/rewarding,
  • remuneration and benefits,
  • working conditions, plus related issues such as travel and amenities,
  • working hours and workload,
  • suitability of training and development provided,
  • career development opportunities,
  • relations with immediate manager/supervisor,
  • relations with work group colleagues,
  • relations with other stakeholders, eg other managers, customers, suppliers,
  • employer’s policies and practices,
  • problems that occurred,
  • suggested improvements,
  • a general 'anything else' question.
It is generally inadvisable to use the interview to try to talk the employee into withdrawing his/her resignation. The time for that is when the employee first gives notice; during the exit interview will be usually be too late.
If the employer does consider it is worth one last try, however, the interviewer should ask whether the employee would be prepared to remain in the job if changes were made, and if so what changes the employee requires. The interviewer then has to assess whether the employer could accommodate these changes and follow up on them very quickly.
After the interview, the interviewer should try to assess the employee’s realreason(s) for leaving, and prepare recommendations for any remedial actions, such as changes to HR policies that might prevent other employees from leaving for similar reasons.
There may be advantages in sending a summary of the interview for the employee to check the contents before they are distributed to anyone else.
4. When to conduct the interview?
The vast majority of exit interviews occur close to the employee’s last day of employment. Avoid having it on the actual final day, as this is often an emotional and chaotic day for the employee. Conducting the interview while the employee is still on-site is obviously the most convenient approach for both parties, and has the advantage that if the employee identifies any problems it is often possible to take swift remedial action before further damage occurs.
Although it is more difficult to organise, there may be advantages in conducting interviews some time after the employee has left, eg after 6 or 12 months. By that time, the consequences (good and bad) of leaving the job are evident to the employee, there is less perceived threat from providing criticism, and the information obtained is likely to be more accurate. Such an approach will not be possible for everyone, but employees can be asked whether it is OK to contact them later on for a possible interview.
5. Who should do the interview?
The interviewer should be someone perceived as 'neutral' and removed from the employee’s day-to-day work situation. He/she should be someone whose status within the company reflects credit on the departing employee. An HR Manager or senior HR Officer will usually meet these criteria, provided that he/she has a high level of credibility within the organisation. If not, alternatives include another senior manager who is capable of assessing the significance of the information provided, or an external consultant.
The line manager or supervisor should notconduct the exit interview — he/she is too close to the action, may feel threatened by any criticism and may discourage the employee from speaking up. 


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