Any time an employee quits or otherwise leaves your organization, it’s essential to understand why. This holds true whether they’re retiring after a long and happy career, leaving because their temporary contract is up, or moving to greener pastures.
Understanding why an employee leaves can show you issues at the ground level that you might not be able to see from above. It can reveal systemic problems, problem managers, and other issues that drive turnover; and that you can fix.
“An international financial services company hired a midlevel manager to oversee a department of 17 employees. A year later, only eight remained: Four had resigned, and five had transferred. To understand what led to the exodus, an executive looked at the exit interviews of the four employees who had resigned and discovered that they had all told the same story: The manager lacked critical leadership skills, such as showing appreciation, engendering commitment, and communicating vision and strategy. More important, the interviews suggested a deeper, systemic problem: The organization was promoting managers on the basis of technical rather than managerial skill. The executive committee adjusted the company’s promotion process accordingly.” – Harvard Business Review.
A crucial part of understanding why employees leave is the exit interview. The exit interview is your one chance to have a heart-to-heart with an employee about why they’ve decided to leave.
Unfortunately, exit interviews are also tricky to conduct appropriately. Many employees still fear repercussions even as they leave; what if what they say hurts their chances of returning if things don’t work out or damage their ability to use you as a professional reference? There’s a push-and-pull between the ex-employee’s motivations and the interview goals from HR’s perspective.
Remember that exit interviews can be performed either in person – like a hiring interview – or as a survey the employee can fill out and return to HR later. Typically, you want to do both; provide an exit survey with many questions, read through it, and conduct a more specific and targeted exit interview in person. A large portion of the final two weeks of an individual’s employment should be spent arranging this.
What we’ve done here today is put together an extensive list of exit interview questions you can ask. All of them aim to help you get a piece of useful information that may identify problems within your organization, which may be solvable to help boost retention and satisfaction rates with your remaining employees. You don’t need to use all of them, but the ones you do use will be useful, for sure.
This first set of questions are the most basic, common questions every exit interview should ask.
They lay the groundwork for gathering relevant information without trying to dig too deep or too specific right off the bat.
- Why are you leaving the company?
- What inspired you to look for a different job?
- When did you decide to seek other employment?
- Could our company have done anything to keep you around?
- Would you consider returning to the company in the future?
- Do you think your pay and benefits were reasonable?
- What should we look for in a replacement for your role?
- How much did your job change between being hired and today?
- Did you find your duties to be reasonable or unreasonable?
- What were the best and worst parts of your job?
- Do you feel you were treated well in your team or as part of the company?
These questions generally focus on identifying the main reasons why an employee is leaving, the context of them leaving, and the details of the situation. For the most part, these questions are meant to go on a basic exit survey since they’ll be general and asked of everyone who leaves. Some of the information is relevant to an exit interview, so the answers should be read. Others are simple and general enough that it’s easier to ask for them on paper than to spend time in an interview asking about them.
In particular, you’ll want to pay attention to the questions about a replacement, how the duties of a job shifted over time, and how well the employee feels they were treated. These questions, and the answers the employee gives, can give you deeper insight than they might think they’re providing.
This second set of questions focuses on feedback. This feedback can center around the company as a whole, around the role, team, or department, or about specific business processes, mechanisms, or roadblocks that may have contributed to the employee leaving.
One vital part of this set of questions is to customize them for your situation. You can tailor them based on the employee’s role, level, and position within the company. You can also tailor them to what the employee has said about their reasons for leaving.
- What could we have done better as a company?
- What feedback do you have about your working conditions?
- How would you improve your position if you could?
- What kind of constructive criticism would you give to other employees here?
- Is there a part of our process that you feel needs to adapt or evolve?
- How would you characterize collaboration and communication between teams?
- Did you ever feel that you were not equipped to do the job you were asked to do?
- Did you ever experience harassment or discrimination?
- If so, was it reported and handled?
- If it wasn’t, why not?
The questions in this section give you deeper insight into what your exiting employee thinks of their team, their management, and the company as a whole. They’re essential for getting an overall picture of the company and identifying any problem areas that may drive an employee to leave. In particular, you want to pay attention to any crossover, in these answers, between multiple exiting employees, as that can signal a specific issue that is causing turnover.
The final three questions about harassment and discrimination are exceptionally important and need to get handled with care. Bad experiences of those sorts are not just detrimental to your company; they can be grounds for legal action. This is even worse if the employee reported such events but was ignored. Hopefully, however, #8 is a “no,” and the other two don’t matter.
Culture and Image
This set of questions focuses on your company culture and your image as an employer, from within and without.
It will help you get an idea of how well you’ve managed to make a good impression and whether or not the company culture is sufficient for maintaining or growing a positive image outside of your company.
- Would you recommend our company to friends or family?
- What three words would you use to describe our company culture?
- How did working here compare to what you were told when you were hired?
- What was your favorite part of working for our company?
- Did you feel comfortable speaking up with ideas, feedback, or criticism?
- How would you rate our work environment overall?
Your overall company culture, both internal and external, is critical for building and maintaining an employer brand. You want to identify if there are cultural issues that could affect your future hiring, your reputation, or your brand image. These can be very detrimental impressions to let go unchallenged and can lead to a suppression of high-quality candidates in the future.
Specifics and Details
This section of questions focuses on more specific problems and issues that the employee may have run into. These are difficult; the employee may not want to speak ill of the people they’re leaving, even if those people are directly responsible for their decision. They don’t want to come off as rude or burn bridges, after all.
You’ll need to be tactful to pull out relevant information from most employees, especially if the employee is on generally good terms and has answered positively that they would be willing to return if the circumstances allowed for it.
- Did you get along well with your team members?
- Did you ever receive constructive feedback from your managers?
- How would you improve the team you worked with?
- What could your manager/team leader have done better?
- Did you feel that you had adequate training or routes to improvement?
- Did you feel that you had growth and promotion opportunities within the company?
- Who amongst your peers or leadership stood out as exceptional?
- If you had parting words of advice to your team, what would they be?
This last section of questions is very flexible. Some of them are useful as-is, but many of them are contextual; if an employee wasn’t part of a team, wasn’t a long-term employee, or didn’t receive training, those questions aren’t applicable. These are the questions you’re more likely to want to ask during an interview, tailored to the answers they gave on a survey.
The Purpose of the Exit Interview
The exit survey and exit interview serve a defined purpose for your organization. When you compile questions like those above into an interview and survey, you do so with three primary goals in mind.
To determine why the employee is leaving.
At the most basic level, you want a record of why employees are leaving. Some turnover is inevitable, and many reasons an employee might leave are not related to your job in any way. For example, if an employee suffers a family crisis and needs to leave their job to become a caregiver, it doesn’t reflect poorly on your organization. Conversely, if your employees are leaving primarily due to a single bad manager – “People don’t leave jobs, they leave bosses” – it’s something you can identify and work to change.
To uncover pain points and roadblocks that drive employees away.
You can uncover the reasons employees leave in three ways.
The first is when they up and tell you directly. Many employees will not want to do this outright for fear of burning bridges, but some might.
The second is when they hint at it in the things they say, but don’t outright state. People often dance around an issue by trying to remain tactful. Unfortunately, there tends to be a level of ill will between HR and an exiting employee, making a frank discussion even more difficult.
The third is when multiple employees leaving all have similar things to say. One employee leaving because of a given manager might be a poor cultural fit. Three employees leaving out of the same team, even if they cite cultural differences, might indicate a problem manager. Reasons like this are why it’s essential to perform these surveys for all exiting employees and keep records on hand to review.
To gain a better understanding of ground-level company operations.
Upper management, executives, and C-levels often have a disconnected view of the company they run. It’s inevitable simply because of how they operate at a different level, guiding operations and strategy rather than tactics and actions. Thus, these upper management individuals need to gain a better perspective in any way they can. All the theories and strategies in the world won’t make a business a success if the employees are downtrodden when working on it.
Overall, exit surveys and interviews are of critical importance for a wide range of reasons. They give you a ton of excellent information you can use to improve your company, your teams, and your benefits packages. Moreover, they can identify problem people, processes, or holes in coverage that lead to a poor experience for employees. Especially in high turnover cases, this is critical for fixing the problem and righting the ship.
Now to you, the readers. Have you ever conducted an exit interview before or been a part of one? What are your favorite questions you have asked or have been asked as part of an exit interview? Let us know in the comments below. Additionally, if you have any questions regarding today’s topic, please do not hesitate to reach out at any time. We’d be more than happy to assist you with your or your business’s needs.
Andrew Greenberg’s roots in recruiting date back to 1996. He has experience both on the agency-side and corporate-side of the staffing business, with a focus in the financial services space at companies like Bloomberg and UBS. He also has core experience with information technology staffing, and has worked for major software companies such as SAP Business Objects and IBM/Informix Software. To get in touch with Andrew, you can reach him by email or by phone at (800) 797-6160.