Here’s the truth: Even at a supposed “dream company” where everyone is happy, loves the work that they do each day, and there’s seemingly nothing to complain about, you’ll still see employees leaving.
In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that in 2021, voluntary turnover (aka employees choosing to leave jobs rather than being let go by the company) was around 25 percent.
There’s nothing you can do to keep every single employee that you’ve ever hired with your company for the rest of their career. But taking the time to talk with a departing employee to find out more about their experiences can help you part ways on good terms—and avoid letting problems fester that could ultimately lead to you losing some of your best people. That’s where an exit interview comes into play.
What Is an Exit Interview?
Put simply, an exit interview is a one-on-one meeting between an employee who is voluntarily leaving the company and, in most cases, someone from the human resources team. If you own a small business though, the interviewer is often a senior manager or even yourself as the business owner.
It’s an opportunity for you to sit down and have a face-to-face conversation with departing staff, to ask them about their employee experience while working for the company, and to gather any constructive feedback that they might have to improve the work environment for the current team or any future employees.
Why You Should Conduct Exit Interviews
Although they can be time-consuming (especially with the other paperwork and loose ends you need to tie up before an employee leaves), exit interviews are an invaluable chance to get employee feedback that may not be so openly shared when someone is afraid that their honesty could cost them a promotion or even their job.
It’s crucial for companies to know how their current and exiting employees feel before moving ahead with the next hire. This ensures that the working conditions and day-to-day experiences of staff are satisfactory and can keep attrition, or employee churn, rates low.
High turnover can be incredibly costly for any company, but especially for small businesses with limited operating budgets. It costs on average $4,129 to recruit and train every new employee, so understanding the “why” behind your employee turnover rate is essential for keeping this figure as small as possible.
Effective exit interviews can provide you with valuable information about issues that could be resolved in order to keep existing employees happy long-term and boost your employee retention, ensuring that your best people stay with your company for years to come. Research conducted by the Harvard Business Review found that exit interviews are also an opportunity to find out more about:
- Different leadership styles across the team and areas where managers may need additional training to support their staff
- Important HR benchmarks that matter to employees (e.g. salary, leave time, other benefits)
- Employee perceptions of the company culture, working conditions, and their peers
Your overall goal to keep in mind when conducting these interviews is to give your exiting employees space to provide honest feedback. It also doesn’t hurt to wish them well in their new position. After all, you want to end things on good terms.
Do You Need to Conduct an Exit Interview with Every Employee That Leaves?
While you should try to sit down with most employees when they’re leaving your company, there are a few circumstances where an exit interview may not be necessary or appropriate. If you’re firing someone or letting them go for poor performance or an HR-related issue, you’re likely already parting ways on negative terms and you probably won’t learn much from them that could be viewed as constructive. In this situation, it’s best to let them go quietly and move on.
It’s also important to remember that team members have no legal obligation to attend an exit interview. So, while you can encourage them to do so, if they choose not to, that’s out of your hands. Don’t try to follow up with former employees to get more information out of them either. Once they’ve had their last day with you, the feedback ship has sailed.
15 Employee Exit Interview Questions That You Should Be Asking
We know that this conversation can be nerve-wracking—for both you and your employee.
For that reason, try to be as neutral and prepared as possible, with a template or questionnaire that you can stick to as a script, rather than trying to come up with questions off the top of your head or in response to something they’ve said.
Use open-ended questions that allow the employee to share as much or as little as they’d like and, if you’re unable to have a personal meeting with them, send your questionnaire or template to them via email as part of the offboarding process.
If you’re feeling unsure about where to start, let’s take a look at some of the most helpful questions that you can ask. You certainly don’t need to ask them all—pick the ones that are most relevant to your business and your experience with that employee.
General Questions to Get Started
1. Why did you decide to leave your position?
This gives the employee a chance to share their reason for leaving. You may find that they keep this answer vague, especially if it’s something particularly personal, or it could lead into a conversation that addresses or segues into some of your other questions—such as concerns about your company culture or feeling like they didn’t have enough room to grow within their position. If that’s the case, this is where you can learn more about the challenges your employees face—and awareness is the first step in addressing any problem.
2. What about your new position enticed you to accept?
This question helps you gain an understanding of what other companies are doing better than yours, especially if the employee is staying local, within the same industry, or even moving to a competitor business. Think about the impact of what they’re saying here. If they mention higher pay, for example, it may be time to reassess your compensation levels.
3. What did you like most about your work here?
As you talk to more exiting employees, you may notice similar themes appearing. Keep these in mind during the hiring process to add into your job descriptions or when you’re onboarding new employees. These are the benefits that you can sell the company on to help you stand out above others.
Questions about Your Team’s Leadership
4. Do you feel like your manager gave you enough support in your role?
This is important in understanding any issues that could recur with a certain leader on your team and any areas that an employee feels are lacking when it comes to professional training to help them perform their job duties adequately.
5. Do you feel that your contributions and achievements were appropriately recognized?
Feeling valued and appreciated in their jobs is key to employee satisfaction, so it’s helpful to know if your managers are only giving their team negative feedback or if they’re taking the time to acknowledge a job well done.
6. Did your manager provide you with constructive feedback on projects and tasks?
Likewise, employees want to be able to make improvements and grow professionally, which often comes in the form of feedback from a superior. Managers should be doing this frequently, so it’s vital to hear firsthand whether this is the case or not.
Questions about Development Opportunities
7. What are your overall career goals?
When 87 percent of millennials note that career development is important to them, knowing what an employee wants from their career will help you spot the signs in other staff much earlier and start to plan more effective training programs.
8. Did we give you enough training and support to pursue those goals?
This is where you can be more direct with your question about development opportunities. Employee engagement—which leads to higher employee retention—is often tied to training programs and career advancement. So, if an employee says they wish they could’ve had more support in reaching their goals, you’ll want to consider how you can better help your current employees do exactly that.
9. Is there anything specific that we could have done to help you advance in the company and your career?
An employee may have ideas about what training or help they could have received to gain the additional professional skills they needed to make their job easier or help them pursue higher positions in the company. Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, get ideas from your exiting employees on how to help your team reach their goals.
Questions to Evaluate the Company Culture
10. How would you describe the culture of the company?
This question isn’t about specifics but more the overall feel of the company from the employee’s perspective. Over time, you’ll likely see similar answers or themes appearing, which will give you a somewhat accurate picture of what the culture is really like at your business. That’s information you can use to improve your company—whether that means providing more thorough training for managers, implementing more social opportunities for employees to connect, or something else.
11. Is there anything that you feel could be done to improve the workplace environment?
There are a couple of different ways an employee could answer this. They could focus on the physical environment of the workplace, like the resources they had access to, or the general feeling of the environment. Either way, the employee might give you helpful insights that you never considered before, especially if you work in a different area.
12. Do you think that the current company policies promote a healthy work-life balance?
How your employee answers this question not only gives you insight into what’s important to them personally, but also any issues that may need addressing, like long work hours or lack of flexibility. If the employee has had experience with remote work while working for you, you could also incorporate this into the question.
Questions to Wrap up the Conversation
13. Were you happy with the benefits that you received in your position?
Benefits are often one of the biggest reasons an employee leaves a company, so it’s crucial that you use the exit interview to find out if this played a part in that particular employee’s resignation. If so, it’s time to take a closer look at what you’re offering your team—and where you can improve.
14. What could we have changed to keep you employed here?
This is open-ended enough that the employee could say anything. They may address other areas that you didn’t bring up with your own questions, which will help you cover more bases. They could reiterate a point they made earlier, which would indicate that’s an important issue for them—and an area you might want to focus on. Either way, this question will give you more information to work with when considering how to improve the workplace.
15. Would you recommend the company to a friend?
This question gives you a good overall perspective of how the employee feels about the company. If they say no, you may want to look back over their answers or probe for additional comments as to why not.
Quick Tips to Make an Exit Interview Less Awkward
The interview process can be draining on everyone, but there are a few ways that you can help improve the experience for both yourself and your employee.
- Send an outline of the questions to the employee ahead of time. This gives them a chance to prepare their answers and feel more comfortable on the day of. These should be the same set of questions that every leaving employee is asked.
- Have a third-party individual conduct the interview. This should be an HR manager or leader who has had little direct interaction with the employee, can remain neutral throughout, and that the employee can feel comfortable with when it comes to giving honest feedback.
- Never ask leading questions about their personal life. Even if you know that’s why they’re choosing to leave, let them offer up that information voluntarily or avoid it entirely.
- Don’t address office gossip or ask about specific individuals. It’s unfair to put your employee on the spot and it’s best to not engage if they bring this up on their own.
- Ask for examples to make the most of the conversation. That will nudge your employees to go beyond generalities and give real-world anecdotes, which are much easier to address. For example, if they mention they feel like they lacked training and support in their role, you could ask them to provide an example of a time when they felt unequipped to tackle a task or a project. Maybe they couldn’t get in touch with their manager quickly enough, or they didn’t have enough time to complete their work. That’s valuable information you can use to get a sense of what’s actually happening and improve from there.
- Offer excitement and congratulations on their new job. This is a great way to conclude the interview so everyone is leaving the room on a positive note.
Turn Your Findings into Action
It’s never easy saying goodbye to a valued and respected member of the team, but life at your company goes on.
Here’s the most important next step after that conversation: Take the time to review the answers that your former employee has given you and see where you can make improvements to unify and grow your team.