Ask Alto : What is an exit interview and why should we do more of them?

June 22, 2023 Share this article:

Ask Alto

The exit interview is a staple tool for human resource departments. The Society for Human Resource Management, which has a range of articles on the topic going back to 2004, defines an exit interview like this:

An exit interview is a conversation or questionnaire conducted at the time of an employee’s resignation used to identify the underlying factors behind an employee’s decision to leave.

Their use is widespread in organisations. Corinne Klajda, Managing Partner at Accord Polska / AltoPartners Poland, and Matthias Bruchner, Partner at Jack Russell Consulting GmbH / AltoPartners Munich, both say that their clients use exit interviews extensively.

And yet, entering the search term “what is an exit interview” into a search engine brings up few human resource perspectives. Instead, one finds articles advising people on how best to deal with exit interview questions. Tellingly, there is frequent advice on what the hidden agendas behind exit interview questions might be.

These approaches to exit interviews from the point of the view of the departing employee surface an underlying problem: a participant in an exit interview might have good reasons to hide their true thoughts, ranging from professionalism to mistrust to their experience of company culture. Tessa West, a professor of psychology at NYU, tells CNBC that people find it hard to give frank feedback in exit interviews because they’ve had no practice. It takes months of practice and daily feedback conversations to build the muscle for constructive conversations, she says. The day of the exit interview is too late to start.

Advice on dealing with exit interview questions is also often concerned with protecting an employee’s reputation going forward. Klajda urges departing employees to give honest and constructive feedback. “You will be respected and thanked for it,” she says.

Why exit interviews may not work for organisations

Harvard Business Review says there’s little evidence of research showing that exit interviews actually reduce staff turnover. That may be because follow-through is poor. An HBR study – which surveyed 188 executives and interviewed 32 senior leaders from 210 organizations in 33 industries – found that three-quarters of the companies in the study conducted some type of exit interview with at least some departing employees. “We asked the executives whose companies had programmes to name a specific action taken as the result of an exit interview (a policy change or an intervention in HR, operations, marketing, or some other function). Fewer than a third could cite an example.

Still, there are good reasons to conduct exit interviews

All that said, there are still several benefits that can be derived from exit interviews, given a concerted management effort to analyse the data and take action based on the findings:

  • The reasons for an employee’s departure might be unexpected, and provide valuable insights into hidden aspects of company culture.
  • On a practical level, a last interview provides an opportunity to discuss continuing obligations with the employee (e.g., non-competes, intellectual property agreements, etc.)
  • Insights into recruiting, on-boarding, and training needs might be revealed.
  • Improvement opportunities in management development and succession planning can be detected.
  • Exit interviews can play a part in branding, offering insights into the kinds of benefits that might attract people in future recruiting efforts.

Bruchner notes that for executive search firms, conducting their own exit interviews can be essential networking tools. “Some of my former colleagues are clients now,” he says.

What to think about when creating an exit interview strategy

HBR advises that companies should concentrate on five goals:

  1. Aim to uncover issues relating to HR: Companies often focus too narrowly on salary and benefits. Plenty of other HR practices can play into an employee’s decision to leave.

  2. Aim to understand employees’ perceptions of the work itself. This includes job design, working conditions, culture, and peers. This can help managers improve employee motivation, efficiency, coordination, and effectiveness.

  3. Aim to gain insight into managers’ leadership styles and effectiveness. This equips the organisation to reinforce positive managers and identify toxic ones. Micromanagement might be revealed as a problem, for instance, allowing targeted training initiatives.

  4. Aim to learn about HR benchmarks (salary, benefits) at competing organisations. Exit interviews can reveal how competitive a company’s packages are – and perhaps give insight into who is poaching staff.

  5. Aim to foster innovation by soliciting ideas for improving the organisation. Exit interviews can be used to look at company strategy, marketing, operations, systems, competition, and company structure.

Tips on how to conduct an exit interview

It’s important to approach exit interviews with an open mind. Scott Mautz, leadership speaker, quotes Gallup as saying that great exit interview experience occurs when the employee feels heard and proud and leaves feeling like a brand ambassador. “This happens when the door is left open as much as possible for the exiting employee.” Bruchner agrees, saying that exit interviews can provide an opportunity for both sides to share insights.

Klajda says that exit interviews can be fruitful at executive level, where honest feedback around questions about what could be done better or differently for the business can be enormously valuable. Bruchner recommends that exit interviews at C-suite level should look at both the internal and external factors leading to the person’s exit from the organisation.

Something to do in addition to exit interviews: stay interviews

Talking to employees before they decide to leave a company does not happen often enough, says Klajda. “Companies tend to wake up after a resignation,” she says. Bruchner says both stay and exit interviews can be a blind spot for mid-sized companies.

Stay interviews are usually one-on-one structured interviews between a manager and a valued employee. They should allow managers to gather actionable information to help foster bonds between the organisation and the employee.

Tips for conducting stay interviews

Talk to the right people. Look for A-level workers whose departure would have the greatest negative impact on business performance. If it looks like a top performer might be looking elsewhere in the next 12 months, then that individual should be on the stay interview list.

Do stay interviews often, and regularly. If you conduct enough stay interviews, you will likely see patterns emerge which define why employees want to stay at your company – or consider leaving

Use the interviews to take action. Make sure the interviews are conducted with enough time to identify and fix a problem.