I used to think employee exit interviews were a waste of time when I was a supervisor at a 1000-employee manufacturing facility.
Sure, the idea behind conducting an exit interview made sense. Touching base with departing employees can help employers:
- Understand what caused employees to resign
- Gain insight on how to create a more productive and fulfilling work environment
- Identify ways to help build a better organization
In theory, it made sense. But not in practice.
For one thing, few exiting employees were very honest. Some didn’t see the point; they wouldn’t personally benefit from any changes or improvements they might suggest. Others couldn’t be bothered; their focus was on their new job, not the old one.
And most of them didn’t want to burn any bridges. They wanted me to check the “okay to rehire” box on their separation forms just in case the grass turned out not to be greener and they wanted to return.
In time, I stopped following the exit interview template provided by HR. I just talked to people about their new jobs, offered my congratulations, and wished them the best.
That seemed a lot more productive. (And human.)
But that’s because I was asking the wrong exit interview questions.
The wrong exit interview questions to ask
Most exit interview templates and guides include at least a few of the following questions:
- “Why did you start looking for another job?”
- “What made you decide to leave?”
- “What could we have done that would cause you to rethink your decision?”
- “How can we improve employee development?”
- “How was your relationship with your boss?”
- “How would you describe the culture of this company?”
The main problem with exit interview questions like those is they’re too vague. In theory, open-ended questions create room for people to include more information, share more details, and better express their true feelings.
But if a question is too vague, the answer will be as well.
Take a question like, “How would you describe the culture of this company?” As Daniel Coyle points out, culture isn’t something you are. Culture is what you do. Culture is the result of dozens or hundreds of small interactions and events. Unless the employee is also an organizational psychologist or studies company culture, they’re unlikely to be able to provide an accurate, high-level view of your company culture.
Then there’s the old standby, “What could we have done that would cause you to rethink your decision?” While some people think the exit interview provides a last-minute chance to prevent an employee from resigning, that horse is already leaving the barn. Most employees will naturally wonder, “Wait. If you’re willing to do (that) for me now, why weren’t you willing to do (that) before I said I was quitting?”
If an employee has decided to leave, wish them well instead of trying to convince them to stay. Put that time and energy into determining what you need to do to make sure the great employees who remain will want to stick around.
How do you do that?
What to say in an exit interview
The following are exit interview questions you should consider asking, plus why they should appear in any effective exit interview template:
1. “What was the best thing about your job?”
An easy intro question, as well as an excellent conversation starter. (Remember, your goal is to have a conversation, not conduct an interrogation.)
While you might not learn a lot, you never know: During one exit interview, a customer service employee told me the best thing about his job was that he had the freedom (and authority) to do what he felt was the right thing. He enjoyed the sense of responsibility and trust, and I realized we could restructure other jobs in a way that gave other employees more authority—and showed them just how much we trusted them to make smart decisions.
2. “What was the worst thing about your job?”
The true measure of a job is the worst part of that job.
Relentlessly seeking to improve the worst part of a job is the real measure of a great business (and employer).
A friend of mine runs his business that way. He assigned people to improve the tasks people hate. Individual team members work on reducing re-work, optimizing the number of inventory touches, streamlining work-in-progress, or eliminating unnecessary reports.
The goal isn’t to create cushy jobs. It’s to reduce roadblocks and irritants so people can focus on doing things that drive value and results—and so they have a better work experience.
Just make sure you don’t get defensive when you ask this question. Don’t justify. Don’t push back. Simply ask follow-up questions to ensure you understand. Ask the employee what they would change.
If you show you’re sincere about wanting to know the answers, don’t worry. People will tell you.
3. “Before you decided to leave, what job did you hope to do someday? What about that job appealed to you?”
Again, the goal isn’t to fish to determine whether offering a promotion now will cause the employee to stay. You want to get a sense of the employee’s desired career path, and then understand why they felt those goals might be better met elsewhere.
You may discover that while you think you’re great at employee development, your team doesn’t share your opinion. Or that the career progression plans you have in place and the training you provide isn’t sufficient.
Or you might find that people feel stuck because there is no obvious career path. In this case, you’ll need to find other ways to make your employees feel they’re progressing—either gaining skills, experience, knowledge.
4. “What would you tell the next person who does your job they should try to accomplish in their first 90 days?”
This question accomplishes several things at once. One, it implicitly shows you respect the employee’s talent and experience. Two, it provides insight into the skills and attributes a job actually requires; the traits you think are important may not be what truly matters.
And lastly, it helps you create a blueprint for the next employee’s first 90 days. You can lay out exactly what you expect them to achieve—and make sure you provide the resources to help them do just that.
5. “Think about the employees here that you consider superstars. Not the ones others might say are top performers, but the ones you feel are top performers. What traits do they share?”
Every company is different, and so are the key attributes of their top performers.
Depending on your business, the top performers might be:
- The most creative
- The best team players
- The best leaders, whether formal or informal
- Those with the best technical skills
- Or merely the ones who work longer hours than anyone else
And maybe what you think drives results isn’t actually what drives results. Maybe the employee holding all those meetings isn’t building great teams; he might be wasting everyone’s time. Maybe the employee continually coming up with new ideas isn’t fostering innovation; he may be taking focus away from critical, long-term initiatives.
An exit interview is a safe space for a departing employee to give you an inside look into dynamics on your existing team and who is moving the needle.
6. “What is the one part of your job that contributed the most to producing results?”
This question sounds similar to the “superstar” question, but it’s not. While most jobs involve a complex set of tasks and responsibilities, one function, task, or responsibility often forms the core of that job.
Say you’re conducting an exit interview for a human resources employee. HR employees fill job openings, but what produces results is filling a job with a great candidate who will help create a higher-performance organization and improve retention rates.
Or at the other end of the scale, say you run a landscaping business. What drives results for a lawn care worker is ensuring they can spend as much time as possible actively engaged in landscaping work.
Going back to the shop for tools, clarifying work orders, waiting for supplies—those things might be part of the job, but they distract from the primary function of the role.
As author Stephen Covey said, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”
Your employees know their jobs better than you do. They understand what drives results—and what doesn’t.
Use exit interviews to determine ways to make sure the main thing stays the main thing, and eliminate anything that diverts or distracts. That means separating opinions from facts, and things you can change from those you don’t.
In short, evaluate suggestions for improvement the same way you assess potential projects: Costs versus benefits, simplicity versus complexity, low-hanging fruit versus a long runway, etc.
After all, you don’t know what you don’t know—but asking departing employees the right questions can help you bridge that gap.