Are Exit Interviews Really Necessary?

how to conduct exit interview

A friend of mine recently changed jobs.  He was a 19-year veteran of the company he left, during which time he worked on a number of successful projects and had worked in several departments.  And yet, after nearly two decades with the firm, he was informed that no exit interview would be held as the company saw no value for the time spent.

People change jobs for any number of reasons: their spouse may have taken a position in a new city, they have grown tired of commute, they may have found better pay somewhere else, they may be dissatisfied with their boss, or they may simply no longer enjoy the work they are doing.  Some of these situations, we as managers cannot control: if an employee’s spouse take a big promotion on the other side of the country, there is not much we can (or should) do to dissuade their departure.  But in many situations, we absolutely have the ability to prevent things from getting to the point of resignation.

What Would You Say?

In the case of my friend, he left his company due to a growing dissatisfaction with his own manager, and an evaporated vision from the company’s leadership – bad management, essentially.  Over the years he had witnessed his medium size company grow into a corporate giant, and seen innovation and flexibility turn into burdensome metrics and risk aversion.  When he finally decided to seek employment elsewhere – something he had never really thought about doing until the last year – he wanted to give his feedback to the organization so they could use his experience to help the firm right some issues.  When he brought up the subject, the company informed him that they no longer conducted exit interviews due to the time required and given the employee was leaving the company.

So we now ask ourselves a few questions.  Are exit interviews necessary?  Do they add value?  Are they worth the time, the reason my friend’s company cited for not doing them?  Let’s explore some answers to these very basic concerns.

1. They’re Leaving Regardless of What I Say.  Why Bother?

First, from a business perspective, employee turnover is an expensive proposition.  The cost associated with recruiting, hiring and training a replacement is often overlooked.  Take a moment to think about the time you personally spend reviewing resumes and interviewing candidates to fill a vacancy, which is in addition to head hunter fees, travel costs, background checks, etc.  Second, from a management perspective, the moment that employee walks out the door, their experience and knowledge go with them.  We want to minimize the effect of both of these.  Voluntary turnover (people willingly leaving the organization) impacts productivity and can be a morale killer when colleagues see their work friends depart.  Sure, people will come and go.  But high turnover is a sign of a management or organizational problem that should be investigated.  Perhaps people are being overworked; there may be a lack of vision; there may be significant gaps in communication.  Regardless of the reason people resign, when employees leave the firm you should absolutely care and want to understand why because it may be a sign that others will be following soon.

RELATED: What Keeps You Here?

2.  I’m Pretty Sure I Know Why They Are Leaving.  Are Dedicated Exit Interviews Necessary?

The short answer: yes.  Exit interviews are a management vehicle for getting feedback on how things are going.  Even if you think you know an employee’s motive for resigning, it’s still worth a conversation.  When employees voluntarily leave our business to gain employment elsewhere, we should make every attempt to understand the circumstances behind their decision.  Even if for your underperformers or difficult to manage staff, their reasons for leaving may not be unique to them.  Whether they leave for personal reasons (such as a spouse taking a job in another city), or as a result of growing dissatisfaction with the company, exit interviews offer management and HR a chance to understand the things they are doing well, and ways management can improve to make the company a more desirable place to work.

“From a management perspective, the moment that employee walks out the door, their experience and knowledge go with them.”

3.  Isn’t an Exit Interview Just A Formality?

Feedback is a gift, whether on a personal level, or at an organizational level.  Even if you do not have turnover problems, and a longtime employee is simply retiring, an exit interview can still provide valuable insights to a management team.  What was it that encouraged him or her to stay so long?  Was there anything that motivated them to retire when they did, or was it just the right time?  What changes have they seen over the years that were positive, and negative?  What advice would they give a new employee starting that day?  When an employee is leaving a company the filters tend to come off, and fear of being terminated is gone.  Exit interviews offer management an opportunity to gather real feedback that may never be shared otherwise.  Employee surveys and skip level meetings, for instance, will not provide nearly the level of honest commentary you’ll get from a departing employee.

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NEW! How often does your organization conduct exit interviews with departing employees?
  • Always
  • Most of the time
  • Only on a case by case basis
  • Rarely, if ever
  • Never

4. I’m Very Busy.  How Much Time Does It Take?

It doesn’t take much. When employees with decades of experience and continued service to the organization leave, you should take notice.  Even if an employee willingly leaves after just a single year, you should make the effort to understand the motivators behind his or her departure.  What did they see in just a year that concerned them?  How do they compare their year with your company to the time they spent at their previous employer?  Whether they were a key veteran, or an underperformer, a single hour-long exit interview can help you really understand what your staff is thinking and feeling, as well as what competing employers may be offering in order to peel your staff away from you.  Exit interviews do not need to take a long time.  Even a short, 30-minute dialog will be highly informative.

10 Things You Can Learn By Holding an Exit Interview:

  1. Problems with Company Culture and Vision
  2. Dissatisfaction with Pay or Benefits
  3. Lack of Support for Employees’ Career Development
  4. Excessive Working Hours or Lack of Flexibility
  5. Ethics and Conduct Issues Within the Organization
  6. Issues with Processes, Policies and Procedures
  7. Barriers for Employees to Feel Successful
  8. Gaps in Communication Throughout the Organization
  9. Interpersonal Issues, or Leadership Problems
  10. What Competitors May Be Doing or Offering

5.  So I Learn Why An Employee Is Leaving.  Is There Anything Else to Gain By Holding Exit Interviews?

The real reason you hold exit interviews is not for the departing employee; it is for all of the employees that remain.  When held in a professional, and objective manner, the feedback you receive from holding exit interviews helps you recreate and repeat the employee’s positive experiences with the rest of your organization.  The information can also help you avoid the negative aspects of the job that tarnished their experience as a member of your staff.  When I asked my friend what feedback he would have given had he be granted an exit interview, he responded: “I would have said that people worked very hard for the company because they like what they do.  But there is very little recognition for their effort, and when problems occurred, management came down on us like a ton of bricks rather than lend a helping hand to make things better.”  Managers and business leaders could do a lot with that kind of input, couldn’t they?

6.  They’re Leaving Because They’re Unhappy. Won’t They Just Complain Throughout the Exit Interview?

This may certainly be the case.  If an employee quits because he or she is just fed up, an exit interview may feel like a complaint session during which the soon-to-be-former-employee unleashes everything they’ve bottled up for the past few years.  But from that discussion, with raw, unfiltered commentary, you can learn what frustrates your organization.  He or she may also offer delighters about the job that you never realized.  Often times, exit interview commentary is not unique to the individual.  Even if he or she is incorrect about a few things – why a certain policy was set, how a key decision was made, etc. – their perception may tell you there is a communication or trust issue within the organization.  Regardless of the individual’s temperament, you can still learn a great deal about what matters to your workforce and how to resolve dissatisfiers.

“The feedback you receive from holding exit interviews helps you recreate and repeat the employee’s positive experiences with the rest of your organization.  The information can also help you avoid the negative aspects of the job that tarnished their experience as a member of your staff.”

7.  What Should I Do With Feedback I Get From an Exit Interview?

The last thing you should do following an exit interview is file your notes away for a review at a later date.  When employees leave because they are unhappy with the company, the work, or their manager, it’s a sign of a current problem, not a future one.  After an exit interview is held, share the feedback with other managers and leaders within your organization.  Other managers may be getting similar feedback in exit interviews they conduct, or may have added insight into the motivators that encourage employees to leave your organization.  By sharing the input you get from an exit interview with other leaders, you can collectively seek ways to repeat the positives and avoid the negatives.


So Yes, Exit Interviews Are Extremely Valuable

As mentioned previously, employees will always come and go, and it’s unrealistic for us to think that every employee will start and end his or her career in our organization.  But we as managers should do everything we can to hold on to our talented staff, and should take it seriously when anyone decides to leave.  We can learn a lot as managers from the feedback we get from the employees that do separate from our organization – what can we do better, what are we doing well, what needs to change, what changes had a positive or negative result?  Exit interviews offer tremendous insight and help us answer questions using what might be the most direct feedback we’ll ever get from our staff.



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