Mastering the Exit InterviewNatalia Persin
Exit interviews are given far less consideration than traditional job interviews. For many employees and managers, the exit interview is little more than a formality on the way out the door. Glaring mistakes might be pointed out, but it’s more likely that people on both sides of the exchange will be politely complimentary about the company and their particular role before shaking hands and parting ways.
That perspective is woefully inaccurate compared to what exit interviews can help accomplish when implemented properly. New perspectives can be gained and miscommunication gaps may be able to be corrected as a result of the ideally fresh and honest information shared during an exit interview.
But getting the most out of a final discussion with employees who are changing jobs is not easy. There is certainly a right and a wrong way to go about it. Company-side managers and employees can both learn how to do better in exit interviews with the tips in this guide.
What is an Exit Interview, Exactly?
Much more rarely practiced than interviews for prospective employees or current employees in the running for a promotion or lateral reskilling, the exit interview isn’t something that everyone will have experienced as surely as you can expect them to have gone through the rigamarole of five-year plans and resume reviews.
Exit interviews are performed between managers and other important company decision-makers and employees who are changing jobs or leaving their role for another reason. Questions asked may vary, but their broad bent is to elicit honest reflection on the departing employee’s experience with the company so that managers and other decision-makers can make needed changes to improve things for current and future employees.
How Exit Interviews Work
One of the things that typical job interviews have that’s missing from the exit interview is a motivating or enticing factor. During the initial interviews for a position, the interviewee wants the job and so has some incentive to go along with the hiring process.
Since the stakes are much lower or possibly completely removed, employees aren’t obliged to participate in exit interviews. Even when they are rewarded for responding to exit interview questions, there’s no guarantee that they will share their strongest opinions.
That can be because they feel awkward about doing so or because they no longer feel particularly strongly about things they were passionate about since they’re changing jobs and the same problems are no longer their problems. On the other hand, departing employees could also be more honest since there is no longer any fear of facing punishment or retribution for sharing negative opinions or observations.
That’s not to say that companies can’t handle bad news. It would also be incorrect to say that employees never face small and even unintentional consequences if they aren’t a team player or viewed as being pessimistic or overly critical.
Most companies concentrate more on the positive advantages of the exit interview, especially when the employee is leaving on good terms. While every company should strive to improve its retention rate and keep skilled talent under its roof, it’s not always feasible. The least you could do if you lose great talent is consider their perspective.
Generally speaking, the manner in which companies conduct exit interviews is similar. Once it can be widely acknowledged that an employee is changing jobs or otherwise parting ways with the company, the interview is scheduled. For example, after someone gives their two-week notice or indicates their intention to leave in some other way, the formal offboarding process could include a scheduled exit interview.
Common Questions for the Exit Interview
Having some idea what kind of subjects are addressed in an exit interview should be instructive for both departing employees and those remaining with the company. Here are some generic versions of questions that you’re likely to see in an exit interview:
- How Would You Describe Our Company?
One of the main things managers and other decision-makers want to know from people changing jobs or otherwise leaving is what they think of the company. This is a broad question, which makes it perfect as an opener. It also allows the tone to be set depending on the attitude of the departing employee.
Usually, the company wants to know about the perception of the culture in the workplace. Frequently they also have an interest in how it’s been working within their business process and with the people who still work there.
- What Would You Change?
The natural follow-up question once the employee has described the company is what, if anything, they would change. It’s a fantastic opportunity to be constructive. The managers can elicit criticisms and the employee is free to point out whether the inability to make the changes they have in mind played any role in their departure.
Look out for the mood of the interview when this question comes up. Some people (on both sides of the table) could have strong feelings about what kind of changes need to be made. If things start to get heated, remember that it’s OK to admit when things are less than ideal. That goes for both parties.
- Why Did You Start Looking for a New Job?
Sometimes it’s just time to look for a new job and sometimes great talent is headhunted whether they’re looking for work or not. Companies don’t need to know this kind of information in great detail and interviewees are well within their rights to remain vague or even explicitly state that they aren’t comfortable sharing their reasons.
Companies are always happy to know whether the reason employees are leaving is within their control or not. If it’s a salary issue and they truly don’t have the money in the budget to pay what’s requested, then there’s not much to do. They can try addressing it through long-term solutions, but in terms of retaining the existing employee, there isn’t much hope.
However, when employees are leaving because of a poor management structure or disagreeable senior talent, then the company can take action. They just need to know what the problem is so that they can address it.
- What Drove You To Accept the New Position?
If the people giving the exit interview are savvy, they’ll know to separate this question from the preceding one. The reality of changing jobs is that the initiating factor is often not enough to close the deal.
Sometimes a problem like bad managers will cause people to keep an eye on job openings but won’t make them jump at the first job that opens up for them. A second factor with a stronger appeal is typically what pushes the employee over the edge.
If you’re the employee giving the exit interview, make sure you state clearly what finally made you leave. Like the preceding question, this one will help the company change what they can and understand when the separation isn’t something they can help. You might be in a situation where an appealing salary provoked your curiosity but the opportunity for more responsibility or novel projects finally convinced you to leave.
- Could Anything Have Kept You Here?
The exact wording of this question changes depending on how sure it is that the employee will leave. Beware opportunistic employers trying to give minor benefits to keep employees from leaving even when the offboarding process has reached a late enough stage that the exit interview is happening.
For managers who are legitimately trying to find out how to keep their team together and all their talent happy, finding their own blind spots is important. This question is an opportunity for the departing employee to get creative with possible solutions – it doesn’t have to be something that was possible and missed, it can also be something that the company could try to make possible for the next time this situation arises.
- Did You Understand Your Role Here?
Another good question for managers who want to make sure employees have all the tools they need to be successful, this is also a chance for people on both sides of the interview to imagine some solutions to known problems.
From a management perspective, it’s also a chance to get some of the most experienced talent thinking about how the team works together and the effectiveness of role definition. Perhaps duties are not evenly distributed or certain roles have begun to become redundant.
Best of all, this question leaves open the opportunity to address the departing talent on a personal level. It’s not only about putting the onus on them to have understood their role or on higher-ups to have explained it. Thanks to the wording of the question, the employee and managers can talk about how it feels to be a person working at the company.
- Have You Already Shared Your Concerns With the Company?
Watch out for this question in the exit interview lineup if you’re going to be asking questions. One possible perspective is that you’re pushing the blame for dissatisfaction onto the departing employee rather than accepting any on behalf of the company. The other is that you’re looking for holes in the problem-solving process within the organization.
Hopefully, everyone will be on the same page and address the second perspective. Shoving blame around is the worst possible way to execute exit interviews and troubleshooting the organization is one of the best, so it’s vital you ask this question with the right goal in mind.
Departing employees should also try to answer this question from a position where they are in essence trying to help point out things that can be fixed rather than having blame foisted upon them.
Even if the company representatives are coming from the wrong perspective on this question, indicate that it’s not about whether you took some kind of initiative to share concerns but rather that you either did and the solutions never came or you had no one to turn to with those concerns.
- Would You Consider Coming Back to Work Here in the Future?
This is the last of the common exit interview questions and it’s one of the big ones for the company. It also allows the departing talent to indicate how they feel overall about the problems they’ve already indicated throughout the rest of the interview.
For instance, if you expressed a problem like disagreeable management or ill-defined roles, indicating that you would nonetheless come back to work there in the future if those problems were addressed lets the company know that you were generally satisfied with your work there.
When the problem is a salary issue, this question gives you the chance to say that you possibly would work there or would have stayed if the money had been right. For management, this isn’t so much a way to get off the hook as it is a way of seeing a prioritized view of the problems expressed elsewhere in the interview.
What Should I Say In an Exit Interview?
Is there anything departing talent should leave out in an exit interview? To some extent, you can say that overly passionate or personal viewpoints don’t have a place in the interview unless they’re heavily qualified. If you’re still feeling taken advantage of and don’t have any genuine interest in helping the company improve, then you can most likely skip the exit interview altogether.
Most of the time, exit interviews don’t affect things like reference letters or invitations to return. Unless there is some kind of malfeasance or unprofessionalism in the interview, it’s more of an open communication platform than anything else.
From the managers’ side, there’s no reason to try and absolve the company from guilt or try to pretend that problems and missteps are impossible. That doesn’t mean you can or should accept any and all criticism without any resistance if you know that the company behaved properly and did everything it could. But your goal should be an honest estimation of the interaction between the company and its talent so that the company can improve.
Exit Interviews & Career Planning
If you’re the one changing jobs or leaving your position, exit interviews can feel like unnecessary intrusions. Perhaps they don’t feel unnecessary enough to skip completely, but it can be difficult to imagine how you can benefit from giving thorough and honest critiques.
But when you put it in the context of career planning, it makes a little bit more sense. Not that exit interviews will catapult you into your dream gig or boost your portfolio, but you can still learn lots about yourself and what you want out of your professional life within the setting of the exit interview.
For one thing, you aren’t the only one who is free to be a bit more candid. Managers and other higher-ups are still bound to some degree of secrecy about whatever company-specific information they are aware of, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be a bit freer in the exit interview.
There is a natural interest in keeping talent that is already trained and integrated into the team and the rest of the organization. It’s not the heaviest leverage in the world, but it’s often enough to get managers to open up a bit more if it means they can address concerns raised by talent in the interview.
It’s important to take note of what kinds of things are viewed as malleable or repairable and which ones are non-starters even when the stakes are fairly high. Managers typically have little issue talking about the limitations of budgets when salary is the issue. Duty assignments are also fair game during these discussions. But structural elements and best practices tied to the product and the company’s branding might not be so easily tackled or susceptible to change.
Too many people view exit interviews as unnecessary. But managers and departing employees can both benefit from the frank discussions these final meetings are able to bring about. For the company, badly needed changes are more apparent.
Talent can learn better what they want out of their careers in a setting that’s rarely offered otherwise. Take the opportunity to do a bit of professional soul-searching in the exit interview, and both sides of the table will benefit greatly. You can use some of the tips and considerations in this guide to make sure you get the most out of your next exit interview.
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