Five simple ways to conduct a better exit interview

5 ways to get started with exit interviews

The idea of opening yourself, and your organisation, up to criticism can be a bitter pill to swallow. But, as a human resources professional, or if you’re managing paid employees or volunteers, welcoming criticism can be a great way to improve management and organisational processes, and as a result reduce your staff turnover.

One way to do this is the often over-looked, sometimes criticised, exit interview.

Exit interviews can be one of the most difficult parts of management and as a result, some organisations choose not to use them. But they can also give you important insights into why staff or volunteers are leaving your organisation, insights which can help you to improve your staff retention and HR practices.

So if your organisation has been neglecting to do exit interviews – or if you’d just like to improve the way you do them – here’s six ways to help do them well:

1) Prepare

When you’re conducting a recruitment interview you wouldn’t dream of going in without preparing. The same applies to exit interviews.

Regardless of why someone may be leaving your organisation they may not feel comfortable in telling you the whole truth. There is a fear amongst many outgoing employees that what they say may come back to haunt them – and no one wants to burn bridges on their way out!

Before conducting the interview, review the employee’s resignation letter as well as anything else from their work history that might be relevant such as written warnings, performance review reports, their contract and position description.

If you aren’t the employee’s direct supervisor, call their manager to see if they have anything to add that may not be on file. Don’t call colleagues or their direct reports though – you’re very unlikely to get colleagues wanting to talk honestly about other employees, even if they are leaving.

Like a job interview, use this information to formulate some specific questions for the outgoing employee. Unlike a job interview, make sure the questions are broad and open ended enough that the interview can bring up issues and concerns that you might not have thought of.

And make sure there aren’t too many questions, so the interviewee doesn’t feel rushed in answering.

2) Keep it professional

If an employee is leaving under difficult circumstances, it can be a challenge to put aside your personal feelings and remain professional. At these times it’s likely that an outgoing employee will be critical of the organisation and a natural reaction to criticism is to be defensive. But defensiveness is rarely productive, and you’ve got nothing to prove to an employee who’s leaving anyway.

Resist the temptation to be defensive and use these simple techniques to keep the interview on track:

  • Stick to prepared, specific, questions;
  • Don’t try to respond to complaints or get drawn into emotional debates – just listen;
  • If you need more information, ask for it, but don’t dwell on specifics if it’s not getting you anywhere;
  • If it’s appropriate, have a second person sit in on the interview with you to give a different perspective, and to give you someone to debrief with afterwards;
  • If it’s appropriate, offer for the employee to bring someone to sit in with them so they feel less intimidated.

3) Listen

The golden rule of any interview is to listen more than you talk. This is even more important in an exit interview.

If an employee is leaving under difficult circumstances, it’s important to give them the uninterrupted space to voice their concerns about the organisation, even if you completely disagree or think that what they’re saying is unfair to the organisation or their manager.

If it’s not clear why the employee is leaving, it’s possible they aren’t going to be willing to pinpoint exactly which set of circumstances has resulted in their resignation. This means you need to have your best listening ears on so that you can identify when the interviewee might be holding back, and gently draw out useful information from them.

Here are some simple tips for listening;

  • Don’t try to fill the silence – give the interviewee time to think about what they want to say before answering
  • Stay neutral – this goes for what you say but also your body language and facial expressions
  • Start general, and then get specific. That means ask a broad open-ended question first and then listening to their answer before deciding if you need to probe for more information.
  • Don’t push too hard. If you keep probing for more information when it’s clear that the employee doesn’t want to divulge anything further, you risk them shutting down the lines of communication altogether. Listen for cues that an employee is uncomfortable with the questioning, and if you aren’t getting anywhere, move on.
  • Don’t try to respond to accusations – even if you disagree with what’s been said, you’re not going to convince the person that they’re wrong, and debating a point is a waste of everyone’s time at this point.

4) Provide more than one way to give feedback

Face-to-face is by far your best option for conducting an exit interview. It shows that you genuinely care about the outgoing employee or volunteer’s opinion, as you are willing to give up time to listen to them.

However, this won’t always be an option for those staff who aren’t willing to site down face-to-face. Some other options for an exit interview  in these circumstances. might include an online survey, email or a more informal chat over the phone.

5) Reflect and take action

However you decide to conduct your exit interview, remember that the information you have learned is only useful if it leads to learning or change.

Before you do anything though, spend some time reflecting on the feedback you’ve been given:

  • How much of it is constructive and useful?
  • How much of it is the employee or volunteer simply not being the right fit for the role or your organisation?
  • Are there any short-term changes you can make for a quick win?
  • Are there long term lessons the organisation should be learning as a result of the interviewee’s experiences?

Once you have identified these, it’s time to take action. This could mean a number of things, depending on what your own position in your organisation is, including;

  • Planning how to make use of the info gained from the interview. Should it go to management, be communicated to staff, or noted for your own management processes or practices?
  • Should written or verbal recommendations be made to amend organisational policies or procedures?
  • Should the feedback be used to feed into longer-term discussions about longer-term strategic changes to management, HR or volunteer management practises?

We’d love to hear your tips for doing exit interviews! Please leave them in the comments below.


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