When someone quits, it’s unlikely they will be fully honest about why in an exit interview. Either they are livid but trying to save face or they genuinely care but don’t want to ruffle feathers. In other instances still they are moving on happily and want to keep the relationship positive. Regardless, you won’t get the closure or honest feedback you might be looking for.
Instead, use exit interviews as an opportunity to deliver a great last impression and get data you can use to build a business case down the line.
The three keys to asking good exit interview questions
When an employee voluntarily quits, it means your business could not provide something that employee wanted. While you may not have the resources to address every issue, collecting data from every employee who leaves will help you see trends and ultimately make better decisions.
The problem is too many exit interviews focus on the employee as an individual rather than digging at the issues which caused the employee to quit.
- Make questions about moving forward rather than why they left.
- Ask tangible, binary questions rather than what you “should” have done.
- Frame questions around promises made or expectations set rather than what anyone “hoped” would happen.
These three principles will help you focus your questions so you get more insight, directness, and show respect to your departing candidates (just as you’d like them to do for you).
Impactful exit interview questions
Whether through an exit interview form or a conversational interview, here are some questions you can ask.
1. What’s next on your career journey?
Pay specific attention to industry, title, seniority level, and assumed responsibilities. What you’re really looking for is insight about why they might have left. If it was to a more senior role, for example, that’s an indication the person was ready to take on more responsibility but felt the option didn’t exist (or didn’t pay well enough) at your company.
2. What new things did this role / company teach you that you’ll take to your next job?
Here you’re looking for them to talk about transferable skills—the things you got right. Knowing this will help you in future recruiting efforts but it also builds a positive final memory of your company for the person leaving.
3. What were you expecting about this role that you did NOT get?
This question may be touchy—and you might need to word it differently based on what your legal team feels is appropriate—but the key is to uncover any promises you made that the person felt they didn’t receive. This is critical because it will help you adjust your recruitment marketing. Either you can provide those promises (so make sure you do) or you can’t (so stop making the promises).
Someone leaving in anger might use this question to provide a laundry list of “promises” not kept. This isn’t about taking every single answer to heart but instead looking for trends across former employees you can act on.
4. What would need to be different or made available to you for you to feel comfortable coming back to the company in the future?
Ask this to everyone even if you don’t want that person to ever come back (not all voluntary exits are sad, after all…). This question is about candidate expectations and can be very revealing. It can help inform your future recruitment marketing, inform changes to your internal systems, and more, depending on what gets brought up.
5. What would you tell new employees is the best thing about this company / the role?
Not everyone leaving is bitter about it. They may have fond memories—build that sense of connection and get more insight for your recruitment marketing efforts with this question.
6. What would you say is difficult about this company / role? What workaround would you suggest to new employees?
So this question is about realistic workarounds and how someone can make the best of what they perceive to be a non-ideal situation. This question can help you inform onboarding to ensure employees know relevant workarounds (if appropriate) and can also uncover the parts of your work process that need attention.
Bonus: try async exit interviews
If you have a lot of folks quitting OR you have a suspicion people may not be receptive to taking an in person meeting, offer asynchronous exit interviews. By making the questions optional and giving people time to complete it on their schedule (within a reasonable time frame), you’re showing respect for that person’s time. But don’t forget to respect their privacy as well, which means not sharing the videos with anyone. Instead, your job will be to distill key insights and then delete the video.
Regardless of how you do exit interviews, it’s imperative to ask the right questions. If you focus on the hopes, woulds, and shoulds, you might get friendly responses but they won’t be productive. But when you ask pointed questions grounded in reality, you’ll generate a lot of insight.