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7 exit interview questions to ask departing employees

Exit interview data is a valuable resource for improving company operations. Learn some of the best questions to ask an employee during an exit interview.

While an employee departure can be a chaotic time, HR staff must prioritize scheduling an exit interview. Interviewing a departing employee can lead to valuable insight about problems at the organization.

Asking the right questions during an exit interview can prompt an employee to share more than they may have previously about their reasons for leaving the company. If senior management acts on the exit interview data, the organization may be able to forestall other employee departures.

"We have seen repeatedly that when people act on [employees'] reasons for leaving, then their turnover will go down," said Danny Nelms, CEO at Work Institute, an HR-focused research and advisory firm located in Franklin, Tenn.

Here's how HR leaders should encourage HR staff to prepare before the exit interview as well as questions to ask during the interview itself.

Before the exit interview

Prior to the in-person or virtual interview, HR staff should ask the departing employee to fill out an initial questionnaire as part of the offboarding process. The questionnaire can serve as a potentially valuable addition to the interview itself and help the employee who will be conducting the interview come up with follow-up questions.

Headshot of Paul Falcone, leadership consultantPaul Falcone

Paul Falcone, a leadership consultant based in Los Angeles, suggests asking the departing employee to rate the following items:

  • The employee's job.
  • The employee's manager.
  • The company.

These answers provide HR leaders with insight into potential patterns -- positive or negative -- at the organization, Falcone said. For example, if an organization's IT leader receives consistently low scores from direct reports when the direct reports leave the company, HR staff can enroll the IT leader in additional management training.

Questions to ask during the exit interview

During the exit interview itself, HR staff should ask the following questions to get the most value from the interview process.

1. What is your primary reason for leaving?

Employees' motivations for leaving their jobs have changed drastically in recent years.

Traditionally, the following were the top three reasons people decided to leave their jobs, Falcone said:

  • They had a poor relationship with their boss.
  • They felt stagnant at the job.
  • They felt disrespected or unrecognized for achievements.

A higher salary elsewhere usually ranked lower than those three reasons as the driving force behind someone's departure, Falcone said. That has now changed.

"Right now, money is actually the first [reason]," he said. "Companies are throwing money at people because they can't find talent."

The HR staffer conducting the exit interview should also ask about the employee's secondary reason for leaving.

"It depends on the market, but sometimes what [departing employees] give as the primary answer is not the real answer," Falcone said. "I look at the number two answer to get a better feel."

2. How do you feel about your manager?

If the topic of the employee's manager has not already come up as the employee's first or second reason for leaving their job, the HR staff member conducting the interview should still make sure to ask about it.

"It's the most important [question to ask], because boards want to know how people feel about their managers," Falcone said.

Repeated problems with a particular company manager can reveal the need for additional training.

3. Did you have a clear understanding of your required work?

If an employee expresses unhappiness with the way the company communicates expectations, their manager -- or senior management -- may need to work on how they convey priorities.

Headshot of Denise Graziano, CEO of Graziano AssociatesDenise Graziano

Employees are frequently confused about general expectations or their specific job duties, said Denise Graziano, CEO of Graziano Associates, a consulting firm located in Fairfield, Conn.

"When you don't feel like you know what the definition of success is, it can be frustrating because you feel like you're never achieving anything," she said.

Unclear communication about expectations can also lead to lack of employee motivation.

"You have to connect a person to the company mission," Graziano said.

4. Do you believe that this company recognizes and appreciates diversity of thought, ideas and voices?

An exit interview can reveal how well the company is succeeding at its DEI strategy. For example, a departing employee may feel the company has not progressed enough on its DEI recruiting goals.

Exit interview data can prompt senior management to potentially make improvements moving forward, Falcone said.

5. Do you feel like your job made the best use of your skills?

An employee may decide to leave because they didn't feel challenged at work. For example, the worker may have asked for more responsibility, but their manager didn't pass on their requests.

This type of departure is a missed opportunity for the company because better communication would have solved the problem, Falcone said.

"It leaves egg on the faces of the managers, it leaves the department in a hole, and you've got someone who's walking out the door saying, 'That wasn't a really great experience,'" Falcone said. "They are not going to be a great brand ambassador and they're not going to boomerang back in, all because no one's made the space to ask [whether the worker wanted more responsibility]."

Particularly in the age of remote working, managers must be more purposeful about maintaining communication with employees so a manager can learn about -- and potentially solve -- employee discontent before the employee decides to leave, Falcone said.

In addition, the departing employee may have believed the job would be more challenging than it turned out to be. Asking whether the employee encountered a mismatch between a job posting and the actual role could help improve future recruiting efforts.

6. Did you receive adequate career path guidance?

Lack of career guidance may have led to the employee feeling unsupported by their manager and the company.

Headshot of Danny Nelms, CEO at Work InstituteDanny Nelms

Right now, a top driver behind employee departures is lack of career development resources, Nelms said.

"One of the things that we're encouraging employers to do right now is train their managers more effectively on how to be career coaches," he said.

7. What attracted you to your new employer?

Learning what the departing employee felt was missing at the organization can potentially highlight some problem areas at the company. For example, the departing employee may have been impressed by their new employer's sustainability pledges.

"And if they'll tell us, we like to know [who their new employer is]," Nelms said. "[If departing employees are] all going to some common employers, [then] what can we learn about what those employers are doing, or what they're offering? [And] how do we compete more effectively with those employers?"

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