What to Discuss in an Exit Interview

Personaler beim Austrittsgespräch

Exit interviews are one of the best means of obtaining honest and open criticism from employees. How can this kind of interview be conducted constructively? This article will explain what you should be mindful of in terms of the format and content of the discussion, and how best to prepare. You will receive a set of sample questions as well as an editable questionnaire that you can take with you into the interview.

 

Although they are quite routine and happen whenever someone finds a new role, the departure of an employee is one of the less enjoyable parts of being an HR professional. Usually it means the loss of a well-liked colleague, a lot of paperwork, and a great deal of effort to fill the position again. Frustration, annoyance, and anxiety can be involved.

However, there is always a positive aspect to be found in the departure of an employee, especially from an HR perspective. There is the opportunity to identify mistakes that have been made and do better with the next employee. The best way to achieve this is with the help of an exit interview.

The exit interview should be an integral part of the offboarding process that takes place when an employee leaves the company. In an exit interview, the employee is asked why they are leaving, what their personal impression of the company is, and what general suggestions they have for improvements. Ideally, the discussion is based on a structured exit interview questionnaire – this will be discussed in more detail in the second part of this article.

Why Exit Interviews Are So Important

Out of sight, out of mind: The temptation to let an employee leave as quickly and quietly as possible can be great. Especially when emotions are running high and the employee themself, or their colleagues or supervisors, are angry and disappointed. Exit interviews are nevertheless extremely important in two respects:

Revealing problems: Employees who are leaving the company are usually more willing to discuss problems openly. They no longer need to worry about their criticism annoying bosses or impeding their careers. Exit interview questions offer an opportunity to gain deep insights into corporate and leadership culture and identify structural problems within the organization.

Improving the employer image: Exit interviews are often the last chance for reconciliation at the end of a working relationship. An open discussion shows that a company can accept criticism, admit its mistakes, and demonstrate a willingness to improve. If, at this end point, you can listen carefully to an ex-employee and convey your appreciation, they will remember you more positively and maybe even recommend you as an employer.

By the way, you should conduct an exit interview regardless of whether the employee resigned or was terminated. Even if the employee themself had no reason to leave, they will still be able to come up with some points where improvements could be made. If things have become acrimonious between the employee and the company, it is best to decide on a case-by-case basis whether an exit interview still makes sense or if you would prefer to simply let the matter rest.

Correctly Define the Scope of the Exit Interview

Let the employee know in advance what the goal of the discussion is and what topics you intend to cover so that they can prepare themselves mentally. Make it clear that what is planned is an open, confidential conversation in which you would like to hear their personal opinion.

The best time for an exit interview is during the employee’s last few days at the company. With the date on which notice was given far enough in the past and the new job (possibly) coming up, you will have the best chance of a reasonable, objective discussion. Any job reference should already have been written by this point, so the employee does not have to worry about the impact on their evaluation.

Meet on neutral ground, for example in a separate meeting room. A one-on-one conversation with a colleague from the HR department should create a good atmosphere in which the employee can open up without feeling that they are being ‘interrogated’. Use an exit interview questionnaire to guide the discussion so that you can be sure to cover all the topics that you feel are relevant. Take notes on the employee’s answers.

On no account should you allow the employee to fill in the questionnaire for themself. Who is going to want to put down in writing the fact that they are not so keen on their supervisor or the management? You will find out much more in an informal conversation. Try to explore the employee’s thoughts and motivations by asking appropriate supplementary questions. However, don’t push them too far or exert undue pressure. If the employee does not want to comment on a topic, respect their right not to do so. Follow the general rule for feedback sessions and do not comment on or judge the statements they make.

Recipes for Disaster

There are some definite no-gos that must be avoided in order to prevent the exit interview becoming a mere box-ticking exercise or even having a negative effect.

  • Confusing it with other conversations: Clearly separate the exit interview from other elements of the offboarding process. Exit interviews are not part of the dismissal meeting, which should be kept as ‘quick and painless’ as possible and be held in the presence of a witness. Nor are they part of the handover process with colleagues and supervisors. As soon as the exit interview gets mixed up with other discussions or objectives, it loses its confidential, open character.
  • Supervisors taking part: Direct or indirect supervisors do not belong in the exit interview, nor is their office an appropriate place to hold the interview. A final discussion with the boss is anything but an exit interview – even if that is how it is described in many companies. Honest criticism on the part of the employee cannot be expected in this context. The best-case scenario here would be a bit of small talk; the worst, a proper settling of old scores. Exit interviews only work with a neutral counterpart, ideally someone from the HR department.
  • Confidentiality being violated: Evaluate the findings in the HR department. Supervisors or management should only receive anonymized, summarized information. In smaller companies, where it is rare for an employee to leave, results may be difficult to anonymize, so it might seem logical to simply email the meeting notes to all of the senior management. Avoid this at all costs! If it were to happen, the anger of the ex-employee would probably be the lesser of two evils; if it becomes known that confidential criticism from exit interviews is being circulated, none of your employees will ever honestly voice their opinions again.

Obtain Real Insights with This Exit Interview Questionnaire

The correct interview technique will determine whether an exit interview is constructive and the employee speaks openly. Which questions should you ask? This structured exit interview questionnaire will help you to address all the important topics and obtain relevant results that you can then meaningfully evaluate. If you are well prepared, you will be able to go into the conversation confidently, avoiding heated discussions or superficial verbal sparring.

Here are twelve example questions that you can use and adapt for your company:

  1. Why have you decided to leave? (Assuming the employee is leaving the company voluntarily.)
  2. What would have had to change for you to stay?
  3. Have you voiced your criticisms in the past? How do you feel that was handled?
  4. How did you find the onboarding process?
  5. How did you feel about your relationship with the management/your supervisor? What would you have liked to be
  6. different?
  7. How did you find the atmosphere in the team?
  8. Under what circumstances would __ have suited your career plans better/could you have imagined moving up through the ranks at__?
  9. To what extent does the reason for you leaving us go back to your original interview? For example, do you feel false promises were made, or were you given an inaccurate description of the position?
  10. Would you recommend that a friend apply for a position here, or not? Why?
  11. How would you describe our corporate culture, and is there anything about it you would have preferred to be different?
  12. What advice would you be willing to offer to help us improve employee retention?
  13. In your eyes, what should we be mindful of in recruiting your replacement?

Did you notice the wide range of topics covered in these questions? Although an employee leaving is the reason for an exit interview, why they are doing so should not be the sole focus. Take the opportunity to gain insights into all areas relevant to employee satisfaction.

Dissatisfaction with the HR department is unlikely to be the reason why someone is leaving. But exit interviews can bring to light valuable insights that are also relevant to your job. Perhaps the ex-employee will provide you with the crucial piece of information to make the position in question much more attractive. Or they might tell you what information was lacking during the interview process.

Use the Same Questionnaire Systematically

Use the same exit interview questionnaire in all your interviews so that you can then systematically evaluate and analyse the results. (This is why it needs to be very thoroughly prepared beforehand.) If the same criticisms come up repeatedly, that would point to there being some genuine issues to address. From time to time, check to see if any of the improvement initiatives you have taken are reflected in the feedback from ex-employees.

Integrate exit interviews into your offboarding process. For example, you can use HR software to store the exit interview questionnaire, record your findings, and make sure that every step is carried out diligently each time.

Make the Best of an Employee’s Departure

Departing employees are just as much a part of everyday life as new ones. Businesses and people change, and a bit of change does everyone good. Nevertheless, it is rarely an enjoyable experience when someone leaves. Structured exit interviews can help you to make the best of the situation: You gain important insights on how to better retain your employees, and you get to part company with your employee on the best possible terms.