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Things You Should Avoid Saying In An Exit Interview

When an employee hands in their notice, it’s not unusual for managers and other team leaders to “check out” from the relationship. However, even though an employee is preparing to leave your organization, you can still learn invaluable lessons from their departure. While it’s true that employee turnover exists at virtually every organization and business out there, employers have the power to influence a significant number of the factors that lead employees to quit. But to make strategic improvements, you’ll need to understand why employees choose to leave your workplace – and those are the answers an exit interview can offer.


An exit interview should be viewed as a highly purposeful conversation with a departed employee to best understand the real reason that the left the organizations and gain insights into their overall employment experience. And like any professional interaction in the workplace, there are several “do’s and don’ts” of exit interviews – emphasizing what not to do. 


In this guide, we’re breaking down everything you need to know about what is important in an exit interview and how you can strengthen your approach to make the most of the learning opportunity. 


What is the Purpose of an Exit Interview?

An exit interview (or in some cases an exit survey) is a structured discussion designed to better understand an employee’s reasons for leaving your organization. Ideally, it takes place after an employee has left the organization so they can feel completely comfortable being candid about their departure. 


Ultimately, the goals of an exit interview are to:

  • Learn from the good and bad experiences of the employee
  • Determine why the employee has chose to quit
  • Pinpoint potential areas for improvement in workplace policies, company culture, etc.
  • Develop targeted strategies to prevent turnover
  • Uncover potential compliance issues
  • Formally conclude the employer/employee relationship constructively.


A successful exit interview is one in which an employee can speak honestly about their experiences working for your organization so that they can glean invaluable insights that will translate into actionable strategies. Although about 80% of exit interviews are conducted internally by someone at the organization, experts advise that engaging an external objective third-party can provide an additional layer of comfort to the former employee to get more authentic feedback.


Things You Should Avoid Saying In An Exit Interview 2

What Makes Exit Interviews So Important?

There are many reasons employees quit their jobs, some of which are beyond any organization’s control. However, about 75% of the factors that contribute to employee attrition are issues that employers can work to remedy – but improvements are not possible if employers don’t even know what these issues are.


In the case of employee attrition, ignorance is not bliss. When you ensure that every departing employee has the chance to provide honest feedback, you can gather the information that allows you to improve the working experiences of both current and future employees. 


In turn, those improvements translate into very real, very measurable benefits for your company:

  • You can reduce the time, money, and effort needed for recruitment.
  • You can resolve leadership issues quickly and effectively.
  • You can boost employee morale and increase engagement and productivity as a result.
  • You can ensure that your organization remains competitive as an employer.
  • You can learn of and stop compliance issues that put the organization at risk
  • You can reduce key talent turnover, allowing your teams to focus on key objectives and goals.


Whether your primary focus is on employee engagement, effective operations, or long-term achievement – or, most likely, all the above – an intentional approach to exit interviews is well worth it.


Things You Should Never Say in an Exit Interview

Again, the best approach to a constructive exit interview is most likely to engage an objective third-party with the expertise to do them effectively. However, if you are going to conduct an exit interview internally it is a good idea to know what not to say in an exit interview. 


If you find a question or phrase on a list of the “Top Things Your Boss Should Never Say to You,” then it should be considered off the table for an exit interview. It doesn’t matter that the employee is leaving your organization. They should still be treated with respect and professionalism above all.


Here are a few examples of things for employers to steer clear of during an exit interview:

  • Criticizing the employee’s performance
  • Taking a defensive or negative approach to the conversation
  • Bringing up gossip or hearsay
  • Attempting to make the employee feel guilty for leaving
  • Rehashing an issue that has already been addressed multiple times
  • Making separation benefits contingent on an interview


Now, what about what you should do in an exit interview? Let’s take a closer look at some of the best practices for exit interviews, specifically from an employer’s perspective.


Exit Interview Best Practices

An impressive amount of research has been conducted into the best approach for exit interviews, allowing experts to understand how employers can successfully navigate the process. 


When refining your organization’s exit interview strategy, keep the following considerations in mind:

  • Partnering with an independent third party has delivered higher-quality insights in exit interviews. Employees often feel free to be honest, eliminating any potential bias in the interview.
  • Open-ended questions are typically the most effective in gaining useful insights, particularly “why” questions designed to evaluate topics on a deeper level.
  • A structured, set of open-ended questions will allow for consistency. It still provides employees significant leeway in telling their story, but can allow an employer to accumulated exit interview data for comparison and insights across the organization.  
  • Employees should be aware that the conversation is confidential and will not affect any reference they request in the future.
  • Exit interviews should be well-organized to demonstrate respect for the employee’s time.


What Makes a Good Exit Survey?

Exit surveys can take many different forms and should be developed based on your organization’s needs and goals. But generally, all successful exit surveys share a handful of important qualities:

  • They collect key information. Although the exact framework of an exit survey will vary by employer and industry, a few common topics apply across the board, reasons for leaving, satisfaction with an employer, and perspectives on their manager.
  • They are purposeful. An exit interview should have a clear direction and focus.
  • They encourage open dialogue and candor. Every effort should be made to make the employee feel comfortable, including working with a neutral third party to administer the interview.
  • They don’t avoid tough questions. Your organization must be willing to open the door to hear about potential issues within the workplace and ask questions that invite employees to share their honest perspectives.
  • They are designed to track trends over time. A good exit interview is structured so that it allows your organization to gather measurable data points, which can then be tracked to identify specific trends and linked to KPIs (such as the cost of staff turnover). 
  • They are short and simple but not shallow. An excellent exit interview does not need to spend hours getting to the “nitty gritty” of an employee’s departure. Rather, the interview should be brief but in-depth.


Effective Questions to Ask in an Exit Interview

Here are a few examples of exit interview questions to help you begin building a stronger strategy for your organization:

  1. What is your main reason for leaving the company? This question may seem obvious, but the straightforward approach is often the best way to get an informative answer.
  2. How accurately was your role described to you during the recruitment/interview/onboarding processes? Evaluating your hiring, interviewing, and onboarding processes can help your organization ensure it is effectively searching for and hiring the right candidates.
  3. How would you describe the workplace culture? Even if a company’s leadership believes they have created a certain workplace culture, the actual experiences of employees can differ dramatically. 
  4. What would you have changed about our workplace? Again, this to-the-point question can give you an honest view of how your employees feel about their daily working environment. 


Make Exit Interviews a Productive Part of Your Organizational Strategy

All too often, employers invest significant effort into collecting a wealth of information in exit interviews, only to do nothing with it. Exit interview data will almost always reflect key organizational patterns, highlighting critical areas that need your attention. 


So, why aren’t all employers putting this information to good use? It comes down to a few basic reasons:

  • The quality of the information falls short of the mark.
  • Exit interviews are not conducted consistently enough to generate a steady data stream.
  • Failure to take action on the employee feedback
  • The information is not being shared with key decision-makers.
  • Organizational leaders are skeptical about the value or accuracy of the information. 


At Work Institute, we have devised a research-backed approach to exit interviews, employee engagement studies, and other key employee retention strategies for employers. With our help, our clients have drastically improved employee morale and satisfaction, reduced the impact and costs of employee turnover, and learned how to create a positive and productive working environment. 


Learn more about conducting exit interviews that benefit your organization when you contact us today.



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