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Exit interviews: everything you need to know

10 min read
A good exit interview will provide simple, actionable data and insights that clearly pinpoint areas you can work on to reduce unwanted employee attrition. What is it, and how do you create one?

An employee has handed in their notice. Maybe they just couldn’t cut it. Maybe they got a better offer. Maybe you decided their time with the company had simply run its course. Who knows?

You should know. Pinpointing why people leave is crucial to your company’s success. People exit organisations every day: it’s called employee turnover and is part of every employee’s lifecycle.

But where it is ‘unwanted attrition’ – losing high performing or highly engaged employees for reasons that could have been prevented – it’s a critical business issue.

What causes unwanted attrition?

Unwanted attrition generally results from:

  • employee job dissatisfaction
  • employees not feeling valued
  • poor management practices
  • lack of advancement opportunity
  • occasionally, conflict with a co-worker or manager

These are all things that can build up over time, and the trigger to leave can happen at any stage in the employee lifecycle.

The key to reducing unwanted attrition is to understand:

  • why it happens
  • what you can do to prevent the same things happening to other high-performing employees

Good exit interviews will provide you with this information.

What is an exit interview?

An exit interview, or exit survey, taken at the end of an employee’s time with you is the best way to find out why people leave your organisation. You can identify trends, learn from them, and take action to reduce attrition,  such as more robust hiring strategies or improvements to your culture and management styles.

Why are exit interviews and surveys important?

The hiring process is expensive, and can be long. If at the end of it you employ people who stay with your company only briefly:

  • You waste time and money on recruitment
  • Every time someone leaves, a bit of company knowledge or process goes with them
  • Leavers may also be detractors, affecting your company reputation

By providing departing employees with the opportunity to give honest feedback, you can gather valuable insights to improve the employee experience for both future and current staff.

Typically, only about a third of employees leaving an organisation complete an exit interview. Given the potential richness of exit information, all organisations would benefit from encouraging every leaver to respond to exit surveys.

An exit survey is a means to an end. The goal is not to prevent the employee from leaving.  Instead, it is to learn and use it to gain insights to help retain talent, prevent bad hires, improve management practices, and ultimately drive better organisational performance.

It really does pay to invest time, energy and care into finding out why people are leaving in order to minimize future attrition.

Get started with our free exit interview survey template

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What does a good exit survey look like?

Unlike a traditional engagement survey where you analyse constructs built around employee attitudes, an exit survey should be much more practical and simple to design and interpret.

Different exit surveys can gather different types of feedback. Some ask for direct feedback on the leaver’s manager, while others just ask about the role and reasons for leaving.

It uses open text fields to elicit rich detail and nuances about an employee’s decision to leave, as well as multiple choice questions. Text analytics software can automatically process language and analyse sentiment to allow you to gain insight into what your exiting employees really think. You can create topics, themes and trends to help you to spot patterns in the data.

The most effective exit surveys:

  • Have a purpose, stated right at the beginning: ‘Help us understand more about your decision to leave.’
  • Thank the employee for their service: ‘We really appreciate the work you’ve done with us, and we’re sorry to see you go!’
  • Encourage open dialogue by using online surveys, which result in more candid feedback (as well as useful data) than a more traditional face-to-face interview.
  • Ask tough questions, particularly ones that shine a light on potential breakdowns within your business.
  • Are automated through a digital open door Reduce the amount of time HR needs to spend manually administering surveys. Link an exit survey to your HR software to automatically send a request for exit feedback when an employee hands in their notice.
  • Understand the impact of attrition by correlating data from different sources. For example, by tying in your exit interview data with 360 performance data or employee engagement data you can start to identify regrettable and non-regrettable attrition.
  • Pinpoint certain teams, roles or demographics with higher attrition rates
  • Track trends over time so you can measure improvements and link them to KPIs such as staff turnover costs, to prove the return on investment (ROI).

How to gain maximum insight from exit interviews and surveys

  1. Make the exit interview part of the standard off-boarding process and use automated systems to reduce the workload.
  2. Conduct the exit interview after employees decide to leave, but just before physically leaving the organisation. Employees are less likely to respond to the survey once they have walked out of the door.
  3. Keep employee exit interview questions short and simple by focusing on evaluating different job components and identifying where change is necessary.
  4. Think carefully about questions involving feelings and emotions as this is particularly difficult, especially if you have let an employee go.
  5. Assure the respondent that their feedback is confidential. Not to be directly shared with their manager, and most importantly, you must emphasise that it will not affect any reference they may seek in the future.

Key themes to measure in an exit interview

Every organisation will have their own questions when it comes to finding out why employees leave, and you will be able to tailor your exit surveys to reflect this.

There are several standard themes you’ll want to understand:

  • Reasons for leaving
  • Feedback about role, manager, team, pay and conditions, working environment, opportunity for career advancement
  • Feedback about the organisation as a whole
  • Whether your ex-employee would still promote your organisation to others

Example exit interview questions

Here are some example questions to help you to identify trends that cause people to leave your organisation and find ways to prevent the same problems recurring.

Use a mixture of open-ended (open text) and closed-ended questions (multiple choice, check box).

  1. What is your job title?
  2. Which of the following departments do you work in?
  3. What was your main reason for leaving our company?
  4. How reasonable or unreasonable was your workload?
  5. How well did members of your team work together to reach a shared goal?
  6. How reasonable were decisions made by your manager?
  7. How good or bad was the overall quality of the offices/physical environment you were working in?
  8. How fair did you feel your total compensation package was compared to other organisations?
  9. What opportunities were there for personal growth?
  10. Overall, how good or bad was your experience working for our company?
  11.  On a scale from 0-10, how likely are you to recommend our company to a friend or colleague?
  12. Do you have any other feedback about our company, your role, or factors that contributed to your decision?
  13. What is your gender?
  14. What is your age?

Learn more about Exit Interview questions

Exit interviews as part of your employee engagement program

Exit interviews are a great way to understand at scale why employees are leaving. But unless you combine this data with feedback from other stages in the lifecycle or with operational data such as staff turnover figures, it’s difficult to make improvements to remedy a situation.

You need to have an employee engagement program that pulls all your employee lifecycle feedback into a single, holistic program.

Bringing your exit interview data into the same system as your other employee feedback allows you to make connections that simply weren’t possible before. It helps you to understand not only what’s causing attrition amongst your best people, but also when and how you need to step in to prevent it from happening.

Get started with our free exit interview survey template