Exit Interviews Done Right: Boost Retention & Improve Your Workplace

Although it’s tough to see productive employees leave, their departure is a valuable opportunity for you to learn and grow. Why? Because exit interviews can reveal the genuine reasons behind their decision.

Data gathered from these meetings allows you to improve employee satisfaction and reduce future turnover. That’s why knowing how to conduct exit interviews and what questions to ask is important to ensure you gain the most helpful feedback.

What are exit interviews?

Exit interviews are meetings between an employer and an employee leaving the company. During these interviews, HR representative asks departing employees:

  • Why are they leaving?
  • What was their experience with the company?
  • What issues did they face?
  • What would they improve in the company’s culture, management, etc?

The conversation usually follows a set exit interview questions template. HR staff asks all leaving employees the same questions to ensure consistency, compare feedback across different employees, and identify common issues. 

In addition to in-person conversations, you can conduct exit interviews via an online survey, email, or even phone call. 

The main goal of these interviews is to

  • Understand why the employee is leaving
  • Identify areas for improvement
  • Reduce future employee turnover
  • Retain top talent
  • Ensure departing employees feel heard and leave on good terms​
  • Make departing employees more likely to recommend the company to others

What are the benefits of exit interviews? 

  • Gathering actionable insights: Exit interviews let employees share their true thoughts because they’re leaving and feel freer to speak openly. Use these insights to understand what might be wrong and where to improve​.
  • Spotting patterns: When conducting exit interviews regularly, you can notice common reasons people leave. You can spot and address repeating problems, like poor management or lack of growth opportunities.
  • Enhanced employee experience: Feedback from departing employees allows you to identify and address problems that could affect the overall employee experience, not just those leaving. By improving training programs, management practices, and workplace culture, you can improve employee experience.
  • Boosted employee engagement: By showing that you value employee feedback, even from those moving on, you show a willingness to create a positive work environment. This can lead to increased employee engagement and loyalty among your remaining workforce.
  • Improved retention: Knowing why employees leave allows the company to make changes that will enhance job satisfaction and keep employees longer. This will lower the costs associated with high turnover, which is important considering that hiring a new employee can cost three or four times more than the position’s salary.
  • Legal protection: Exit interviews can reveal issues like discrimination or harassment, allowing the company to address them before they become legal problems.
  • Positive departures: A well-conducted exit interview helps ensure employees leave on good terms, making them more likely to become the company’s advocates. If treated with gratitude and respect, they could also recommend the company to others or even return in the future​ (a practice known as boomeranging).

Are exit interviews useful? 

Absolutely! The information you get from employees who are leaving can be a goldmine. It can help you understand what’s working well at your company and what needs improvement. 

However, here is the challenge:

  • If you don’t ask the right questions or the employee isn’t honest, answers will be useless
  • Even if you get great info, it’s futile if you don’t act on it

To make the most out of exit interviews

  1. Create a list of questions that will discover the answers you’re interested in.
  2. Ask open-ended questions to encourage employees to share their authentic experiences and say more than “yes” or “no.”
  3. Make employees feel safe and heard. Promise to keep answers confidential.
  4. Don’t just listen! Use the answers to make changes that will improve your workplace.

Are exit interviews really confidential?

Exit interviews are confidential. An HR representative or outside consultant usually conducts these interviews to encourage honest feedback. Names and identifying details are kept private, but confidentiality might be limited in severe issues that require investigation.

In smaller companies, where everyone might know each other, specific details could reveal who’s giving feedback. To avoid this, focus on the big picture of the employee’s experience rather than tiny details that could identify them.

Important note: You have to be realistic about absolute confidentiality. In some cases, it might be compromised. For example, if an employee reports serious issues like harassment or discrimination, the company may need to investigate further. This could potentially lead to revealing an employee’s identity to some extent. Even in such cases, HR should conduct investigations with utmost sensitivity to protect employee privacy.

With HeartCount, you can create custom exit surveys for specific employees with the possibility of anonymous answers. You can also save your exit survey as a template for future use.

Screenshot of the Custom survey functionality from HeartCount app
HeartCount’s custom survey

Why are exit interviews rarely used?

Exit interviews are rarely used due to lack of effectiveness. There are two main reasons:

  1. The feedback collected can be unreliable. Employees might not give honest answers, or the questions might not gather helpful information. 
  2. Companies don’t standardize interviews, so methods vary greatly. Inconsistency makes it hard to use the findings to make improvements.

What is the problem with exit interviews?

While highly beneficial, exit interviews can cause the following challenges:

  • Unreliable data: Upset employees might not always give the whole picture. Sometimes, they might forget details or even exaggerate things. They might also worry about hurting their chances of getting a good reference at this company, so they sugarcoat their answers or refrain from mentioning big problems.
  • Awkwardness and discomfort: Exit interviews can be unpleasant for both parties, especially if the employee leaves on bad terms. Its attitude towards the workplace can lead to less candid feedback and a less productive interview​.
  • Handling sensitive feedback: Gathering feedback on poor management, harassment, or discrimination can be challenging. If not done right, these problems might not get fixed, leading to potential legal and reputational risks.
  • Timing issues: By the time the exit interview occurs, the employee’s decision to leave might be set in stone. You won’t be able to make a difference for departing employees, and the problems may continue to affect other employees until you act properly. If you’re in search of a proactive approach, focus on stay interviews as well.
  • Lack of follow-through: Collecting exit interview data is worthwhile if you act on it. Ignoring the feedback shows employees that their opinions don’t matter, which can further erode morale.
  • Perceived futility: Some employees might feel that their feedback will not lead to any change, especially if they have seen a lack of action from previous feedback. This perception can lead to disengagement from the process and incomplete or insincere responses​.

How do you encourage employees to be honest on exit interviews?

To encourage employees to be honest during exit interviews, reassure them that you’ll keep their responses confidential and explain how you’ll use the information.

Assign someone neutral, like an HR representative, to conduct exit interviews. An unbiased third party will encourage employees to feel comfortable and talk openly. If their direct supervisor interviews them, they might hold back to avoid conflict or negative consequences.

Another option is anonymous exit surveys. Employees won’t worry about repercussions or burning bridges if their names aren’t attached to their responses. Additionally, knowing their identity is hidden might make employees feel freer to express their true thoughts and feelings.

Instead of relying on yes or no answers, use open-ended questions to encourage employees to explain their experiences in detail. Focus on “why” and “how” questions for deeper insights. 

Show genuine interest in the employee’s feedback and avoid being defensive. Let them know their voice is heard and valued.

Best exit interview formats

Besides one-on-one communication, you can conduct exit interviews through an online survey, email questionnaire, or phone/video call. The best exit interview format depends on your company’s needs and the departing employee’s preferences. Consider factors like:

  • Desired level of detail: In-person interviews offer the most detail, while online surveys might prioritize anonymity.
  • Employee comfort level: Shy employees might prefer surveys, while outgoing ones might enjoy in-person interaction.
  • Time limitations: Online surveys or email interviews are good options if scheduling in-person interviews is difficult.

1. Online surveys

Many employees prefer anonymity, especially when sharing sensitive feedback. In fact, anonymous surveys achieve up to 90% higher response rates

HR tool HeartCount offers confidential and anonymous survey versions, which guarantee data privacy and protection from misuse.

  • The confidential version’s responses can be traced to individual employees, but only the respondents and people of high trust with access can see the information. 
  • The anonymous version does not collect information that identifies respondents. 

With HeartCount, you can create a custom exit survey questionnaire that is 1 to 50 questions long. Depending on the question, you can choose from different response formats, like Likert scale, multiple-choice, or open-ended responses. Analyze and interpret responses with data-rich KPI dashboards and advanced proprietary measurement indices.

By collecting employees’ feedback via surveys, you can:

  • Discover key areas of improvement 
  • Identify and resolve minor issues before they become big problems 
  • Encourage a culture of improvement and open dialogue
  • Make employees feel valued 
  • Secure a satisfying future of employee experience
Screenshot of Custom survey functionality from the HeartCount app
HeartCount’s custom survey questions

2. Email interviews

Exit interviews can take place via email. Use the same exit interview email template for all departing employees to ensure uniformity and easier feedback analysis. Email allows employees to respond at their convenience, even after they’ve left the company. It covers all critical questions and allows for keeping a record of the written responses.

Although this format allows for a more structured approach, it might feel less personal than an in-person interview. 

An example of an exit interview email template:

Subject: Help us improve through an exit interview

Hi [Name],

We’re sad to see you go, but we wish you all the best in your next adventure!

To help us improve, we’d love to hear your honest feedback about your time here at [Company Name]. Your insights as a [Role] are valuable and can help us improve things for everyone.

Please take a few minutes to answer these questions (or reply directly to this email!):

  • Why did you decide to leave?
  • What did you like most about working here? Least?
  • How well did our company culture fit you (1-10)?
  • What could we have done to keep you happy?
  • Anything else you’d like to share?

Your opinion matters! Feel free to call me directly, too.

Thanks again for everything and good luck!

Best, 

[Your Name] 

[Contact Info]

3. Phone or video calls

Phone interviews offer a middle ground between in-person and online surveys. They can still be personal but provide anonymity if preferred. For remote employees or those in different locations, a video call could be a viable alternative to an in-person interview. 

In this scenario, follow the exit interview questions template you prepared before the call to ensure the conversation goes in the right direction. You can use the best exit interview questions we suggest below.

What are the best exit interviews?

The best exit interviews are those that are:

  • Tailored to your company: Generic questions might not uncover the specific issues relevant to your workplace. Consider your company culture, recent changes, and areas you suspect might need improvement.
  • Held by a neutral interviewer: Someone from HR or an external consultant can help maintain a neutral and unbiased environment.
  • Include open-ended questions: These encourage detailed explanations beyond “yes” or “no” answers.
  • Focused on actionable insights: The goal is to gather information you can use to make changes. Don’t just ask why someone left; ask how to prevent others from doing so.
  • Conducted confidentially and respectfully: Employees need to feel comfortable being honest, so ensure anonymity and avoid accusatory questions.
  • The right length: Aim for 30-45 minutes. This allows enough time for in-depth conversation without dragging on.
  • Followed by action: Don’t just collect data and let it sit. Analyze the feedback, identify trends, and implement changes based on the insights you gather.

How long should an exit interview be? 

An exit interview should last between 30 and 60 minutes. This timeframe strikes a balance between getting valuable insights and respecting everyone’s time. You can have a structured conversation that covers all the key points without overwhelming soon-to-be-ex employees or wasting time.

Best exit interview questions

Ask departing employees the following best exit interview questions:

QuestionPurpose
Why did you decide to leave the company?Understand the main reasons for leaving to fix potential issues causing employees to leave.
Did you tell anyone at the company about these issues before deciding to leave?Find out if the employee raised their concerns earlier so you can learn if there were missed chances to fix problems and keep the employee. 
What did you enjoy most about your job?Identify what employees like so the company can emphasize these positive aspects.
What did you enjoy least about your job?Identify what parts of the job were problematic and need improvement.
How would you describe the work environment and company culture?Understand the overall atmosphere and cultural fit.
How was your relationship with your manager and colleagues?Assess the quality of relationships and management practices to improve team dynamics and leadership.
Were there any specific incidents that influenced your decision to leave?Identify any particular events that may have led to the decision to leave so you can address them.
Did you feel supported in your role?Evaluate if employees felt they had the resources and guidance needed to succeed.
Were there sufficient opportunities for career growth and development?Check if lack of growth opportunities was an issue and improve career development programs if needed.
What could we have done to keep you here?Identify steps that you could have taken to retain the employee, providing insights for future retention strategies.
Were you satisfied with the company policies, benefits, and compensation?Gauge if the compensation and benefits are competitive and meet employee needs.
How do you feel about the training and development programs offered?Shows the effectiveness of training programs and identifies areas for improvement.
Would you recommend our company to others as a good place to work?See if the employee would recommend the company to others, indicating overall satisfaction.
What skills and qualifications should we look for in your replacement?Get advice on the ideal candidate profile for the role to ensure a good fit.
Do you have any suggestions for improving our company?Gather actionable suggestions to make the company a better place to work.
Is there anything else you would like to add?Provide an open-ended opportunity for any additional feedback not covered by other questions.

For additional inspiration, take a look at expert advice:

YouTube video

Use digital HR solutions to improve your exit interviews

How employees leave your company is just as important as how they begin their journey with you. Exit interviews are crucial in this process, but traditional methods can be time-consuming and awkward.

Online surveys allow employees to share their thoughts openly and honestly. Anonymity can lead to more candid feedback compared to face-to-face interviews. With surveys, you can understand the authentic reasons behind employees’ departures, improve workplace culture, increase employee satisfaction, and reduce turnover.Ready to leverage the power of exit surveys? Start your 14-day free trial with HeartCount, the ultimate HR tool for streamlining exit interviews and keeping your employees satisfied and engaged. Take the first step toward a happier, more productive workplace.