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How to use exit interviews to improve culture

Human Resources icon4 min read


When an employee chooses to leave your organization– either for a new job elsewhere, or because they’ve had a negative experience– exit interviews can provide valuable insights to improve your workplace. If they’re done correctly, these conversations give you the chance to find out some more about how your staff perceives the workplace, and how you can prevent voluntary staff turnover in the future. Allowing departing employees to share their thoughts about the strengths and weaknesses of your company also provides closure and ends the employment relationship on a positive note.

Getting it right takes planning

In order for an exit interview to be productive and professional (and not devolve into an opportunity to vent frustrations), it’s important to have a structured plan in mind. First, put some time on the schedule to talk with the departing employee. Ideally this will take place during their last day or two at the office, so that they know they can be honest without worrying about potential awkwardness or retaliation afterwards.

Next, decide whether you want the interview to be entirely an in-person meeting, or whether you want to give the opportunity for the employee to gather their thoughts on a written questionnaire ahead of time. By providing a list of written questions and ample time to think, you may find that you’ll get more thoroughly considered responses. However, this may also mean you’ll get less candid (and therefore potentially less useful) answers.

What to do during the interview

Begin the conversation by noting that the departing employee can choose to answer or not answer any questions, based on their comfort level with them. Ask if they consent to you sharing some of their input with management. Affirm that all their concerns and comments will be used to improve the organization.

The kinds of questions you’ll ask depend on the person and the culture in your workplace, but there are some basic themes you should be sure to address. Here are some ideas to help you get started:

  • Why are you leaving?
  • What were your general feelings about your time here?  
  • What is the company doing right? Almost right? Badly?
  • What could have improved your daily experience as an employee?
  • If you’re leaving because of a negative experience, what would you do to improve the situation?
  • What are we currently not doing that could improve the employee experience?
  • What were three things you liked about your time here?
  • If you could have changed three things about your time here, what would they be?
  • What are three positive things and/or three areas of growth for your supervisor?
  • What would you tell a new employee that you wish you had been told in your onboarding and orientation process?
  • What advice would you give to the next person who does your job?
  • Who has made the most positive impact on your time here?

These questions allow for positive and constructive reflection, and should help you keep the conversation focused on professional concerns with the workplace.

What not to do during the interview

Exit interviews are opportunities for honest feedback, and they should give you some general ideas of how to improve the employee experience at your company. While the departing employee should feel free to share broad concerns about their supervisors and coworkers, remember that these meetings are not meant to settle grudges, feed office gossip, or gather information to use to terminate other employees.

Obviously, if the departing employee says anything that raises concerns about harassment or discrimination, follow your standard HR procedures to look into these claims. However, if they discuss personal grievances or differences of personality with a former coworker, it’s important to maintain a neutral stance. Be careful not to appear to agree or disagree with any negative personal remarks the employee makes about their coworkers or supervisors. Instead, try to steer the conversation back to a more general and professional topic of conversation.

An exit interview is also not a last-ditch effort to try to keep the employee at your company. If there is ever an appropriate time to have that conversation, it’s at the time of resignation. By the time an employee is approaching their final days in the organization, it’s best to look forward and try to fill their role with a strong candidate.

If the departing employee is someone whose contributions are especially valuable to your company, you should be sure to graciously note this in your final conversations and wish them well in their future endeavors. Take their feedback seriously so that your company can retain similarly qualified staff members in the future.

Not all organizations offer exit interviews as a way to get closure and input from employees who are moving on, but they are missing out on a useful opportunity. People who know the ins and outs of the workplace are especially qualified to share suggestions that will benefit company culture and aid recruiting and retention efforts in the future.

The next time your company experiences a period of voluntary turnover, try to implement an exit interview process using some of these tips. They should help you get to the bottom of what causes your strongest talent to leave your company, and allow you to work to make positive changes in your workplace.