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Building a Recruitment and Retention Plan

Employee Exit Interview Tips

Why Survey Exiting Employees?

Making an assumption about why an employee is leaving may prevent the organization from gathering useful information or encourage a biased view of the terminating employee. Individuals who are voluntarily leaving can offer constructive insight that could help reduce turnover. They have a unique perspective on the organization and their position. This feedback is especially compelling when a pattern becomes evident. Studying the pattern of voluntary exits can assist the organization in making informed decisions and deliberate improvements concerning what employees see as negatives and positives. Once the organization identifies trends, they can start solving problems. Information gleaned from the exit process is most effective when it is compiled from many employees and reviewed over time.

The exit interview, along with employee focus groups and Employee Satisfaction Surveys [2.1.2.a.2.a], helps an organization gather employee feedback in order to shape future strategies to retain staff. The major difference between the exit interview process and employee satisfaction surveys or focus groups is that there is no expectation of immediate change. This gives more flexibility to the organization to review the data and initiate the best course of action. The exit interview is a rear-view approach and, like any employee feedback, should be analyzed, compiled, and merged with other information and feedback from employees.

Objectives of an Exit Interview
The term “interview” is used loosely and can include information gathered through methods other than face-to-face interviews, such as a stand-alone survey. The exit interview asks a variety of questions about what the employee liked and disliked about the organization. It asks for the employee’s perceptions with no right or wrong answers.

Usual objectives of the exit process include:
  • To gain an understanding of the organizational conditions that may have caused the employee to leave and to learn where improvements can be made.
  • To determine what knowledge, skills, or attributes may be needed for the position replacement.
  • To collect organization-owned property and go over a checklist for termination.
  • To end the employee relationship on a positive note.
This Employee Exit Interview Tip sheet will provide information on the first and second objectives. Each organization’s exit process should be determined internally and supported by a formal structured policy for each of the four objectives.

Survey Planning

The exit interview planning process, as with all employee feedback, can be initiated by holding focus groups or a series of interviews with staff that represent all parts of the organization. These steps can identify trends or themes that may not otherwise be included in the interview or can broaden areas of employee concern. Interviews or focus groups do not have to be elaborate.

As with the employee satisfaction survey process, you should:
  • Ask representatives for their concerns and discuss what categories and topics you should include;
  • Use some of the questions you intend to have in the survey;
  • Get feedback and solicit input (e.g., “What else should be asked?” and “Is this question clear?”); and
  • Consider giving your final draft to a number of employees as a pilot. Their input can help refine questions in order to make the data useful.
Research has shown that any employee survey conducted by a third party elicits more candid responses. If going outside the organization is not possible, make sure the survey is managed, implemented, monitored, and communicated back by a politically neutral department within your organization. The following In-person Exit Interview section suggests in-house staff that may be appropriate. 

Additional information on planning can be found at Survey Monkey, and Survey Galaxy

Exit Interview Types

There are several methods for conducting an exit interview, including:
  • In-person;
  • Telephone;
  • Paper and pencil;
  • Through the internet (often with an email reminder and follow up); and
  • A combination, using a written survey with a face-to-face meeting to discuss details.
In-Person Exit Interviews
An in-person exit interview is usually conducted with a representative who meets individually with each terminating employee. The person conducting the interview often is:
  • A human resource person;
  • Another staff person who is an active listener, empathetic, and who will not influence or intimidate the employee;
  • A management representative (not the direct supervisor or day-to-day manager) who is politically neutral;
  • A mentor of the employee or trusted manager; or
  • An outsourced third party.
The use of the employee’s direct supervisor may add a negative undertone if there are unresolved issues, and may inhibit the participant’s responses.

Pros for using in-person interviews:
  • A survey instrument can be used by the interviewer as talking points or integrated as a written segment of the session.
  • Each employee receives a personal contact before terminating.
  • If the interviewer is skilled, he or she can probe for more information about each question.
  • The interviewer can read the body language, tone, and other non-verbal cues of the respondent.
  • The interviewer can provide positive non-verbal cues to prompt the respondent for more details.
Cons for using in-person interviews:
  • It is harder to track the data in a verbal interview; questions may not be standardized due to tone or body language of the interviewer.
  • If the interviewer is not skilled, the session may become confrontational or perfunctory.
  • Employees may feel uncomfortable in verbally sharing negative information.
  • This method takes more time and scheduling may be difficult.
  • Data must be entered into a tracking system from the in-person form used.
Telephone Exit Interviews
Telephone exit interviews are usually conducted over the telephone by an HR representative or an outside third-party contractor.
Pros for using telephone interviews:
  • The interviewer is usually not known and therefore has no perceived agenda with the exiting employee.
  • The interviewer can probe for more information about each question.
  • Data can be entered into a tracking system while the interview is being conducted.
  • This method is more flexible and may be easier to schedule than an in-person interview.
Cons for using telephone interviews:
  • Telephone interviews can be time consuming if done in-house by an HR representative or other management.
  • They can be expensive if done with an outside contractor.
  • Employees may feel uncomfortable in verbally sharing negative information.
Paper and Pencil Exit Interviews
A paper and pencil exit interview is usually conducted with a form that is given to the respondent within their last week or mailed to the respondent’s home.
Pros for using paper and pencil interviews:
  • It takes less time to provide a form compared with conducting an in-person or phone interview.
  • Arrangements for completing the exit survey can be included as part of the exit protocol.
  • Employees may share information on paper that they may be reluctant to say in person or on the phone.
  • Questions can be standardized and delivered in the same format.
Cons for using paper and pencil interviews:
  • Little personal contact is involved.
  • Return rates for mailed exit interview forms are low.
  • Data must be entered into a tracking system from the paper and pencil form.
Online/Computer Supported Exit Interview Management Systems

Pros for using online exit interviews:
  • Participants administer survey themselves and may be easier for the organization to administer.
  • Employees may feel comfortable sharing information by computer.
  • In most surveys the information automatically compiles and is tracked.
  • Reports may be available through low/no cost software.
Cons for using online exit interviews:
  • Home email addresses can be difficult to gather once an employee leaves the organization.
  • Access to a home computer may inhibit some responses.
  • A Web service for hosting the survey may be cost prohibited.


Exit interviews can be conducted with an employee immediately prior to leaving or a few days to a few weeks after termination. Both pre- and post-termination sessions have their strengths and weaknesses. Trying to catch an employee as they are preparing to leave may undermine the importance of the information they can offer. Pre-termination sessions can provide an opportunity for the organization to formally thank the employee but may hinder the honesty of responses. Interviewing a terminated employee after leaving the organization may allow a better perspective on his or her employment but may reduce the return rate. Unfortunately, there is no concrete evidence to support either timing option over the other.

Mandatory vs. Voluntary

Making exit interviews mandatory encourages the exiting employee to oblige as an expected part of employment. All positions should be included in the exit process; lay offs or retirement may need a different or modified approach. Legally if an employee does not wish to participate, there is no recourse for the organization. Furthermore, an employee has little incentive to give honest responses if he or she fears that the process may jeopardize a future reference or somehow negatively influence them personally. The organization must make a good case concerning the confidentiality and anonymity procedures.

Formal vs. Informal

An organizational decision to make the exit session formal or informal may depend more upon the organizational climate than exit protocols. The degree of structure can vary, ranging from a casual conversation with note-taking or a standardized list of talking points to a questionnaire or other survey instrument.[1]

Confidentiality and Anonymity

Stressing confidentiality and anonymity is an important factor in calming employee concerns over providing negative information. A statement should be made that clearly indicates that the employee can discuss issues in confidence with anonymity and no chance of repercussions. In an organization where the low turnover rate could identify the source of the information, the information should be cleaned or the timing of release of data should be stalled in order to provide added protection to the respondent. In all cases, the organization should tell the respondent exactly how the information will be handled and that it will be used for general consensus. The only exception to their confidentiality protection is concerning legal issues which must be reported, such as harassment, criminal behavior, and discrimination.

Exit Interview Topics

Exit surveys often include the following categories:
  • Reason(s) for leaving;
  • General questions about the job;
  • If job expectations were in line with the actual job function;
  • The culture and environment of the organization;
  • Orientation;
  • Training;
  • Supervision;
  • Team member relationship;
  • Management issues;
  • Pay and benefits;
  • Growth opportunities;
  • Recognition issues;
  • Positive and negative features about employment;
  • What could have been done differently;
  • What improvement should be made to the exit session or survey; and
  • General questions concerning the new employer and if the exiting employee will be doing the same type of work.
If you are dealing with union employees, consult with union representatives or human resources departments to review the process.
The Survey Items
Plan how you will analyze and chart the data while you are constructing the survey. This will keep the results useful and may help you design each item. Before you develop your survey, make sure that each item will give you specific feedback on how to improve the situation or promote the effective behavior. Many surveys are not effective because the questions asked are too vague.
To determine the effectiveness of survey items, ask yourself two questions regarding each of the items:
  1. If we get negative information, is it clear how we will fix the problem?
  2. If we get positive information, do we know what we are doing right so it can continue?
Exit Survey Item Construction
The most effective survey uses multiple formats, such as rated questions, yes/no questions, and open-ended questions, as each format has its own strengths and weaknesses.
Rated questions (e.g., questions with responses on a scale of 1–5) are easy to score but due to their precise nature, they may not elicit answers to important topics you did not include.
Yes/no questions can provide definitive answers but do not allow for elaboration and may miss an important aspect of the topic.
Open-ended questions (e.g., questions in which the respondent fills in a comment) are harder to score but capture broader information in areas that you may not have included. These answers should be summarized prior to publication.

The following are basic tips on constructing rated questions:
  • Avoid terms such as “always” and “never”, as this can provide distorted results.
  • Use questions that are narrowly focused and precise so that the response you receive is useful.
  • Don’t ask about two things in one question. A question on “training and supervision” would make the response difficult to understand.
  • Refrain from using words or questions that have a negative impact or send a bad message.
  • Items that ask the respondent to rank the amount that they disagree or agree require clear instructions and statements so the respondent can understand the item and the implications of his/her answers.

Conducting the Survey

Once you have determined the method that will be used:
  • Choose a neutral environment;
  • Promote a non-threatening, non-judgmental undertone both verbally and in writing;
  • Do not include a discussion or written content on reference procedures for future employment;
  • Do not try to change the employees mind about leaving;
  • Resist the urge to defend the organization’s position; and
  • Save time to extend a thank you to the employee.

Studying the Pattern of Voluntary Exits

Information gleaned from the exit process is most effective when it is compiled from many employees over time and reviewed. Once an appropriate return level is reached, look for themes. Note the topics and items that received similar responses by the largest group of respondents. Determine the following:
  • What does this reflect?
  • Are these respondents from specific departments or categories of employees, or is the problem organization-wide?
  • What common denominator do the same respondents have, if any?
  • Look for themes within departments or worker category; do the answers reflect a particular feeling?
  • Are responses the same within a group or team?
  • Does one category of employee say the same thing?
  • Are responses the same between two groups?
  • Does employment tenure, demographics, or organizational position relate to these responses?
  • Is there a difference that can be understood?
Look for trends in open-ended questions:
  • What topics are discussed in the responses?
  • Which groups, departments, or levels of employee gave the same response? Which groups, departments, or levels of employee gave different responses about the same topic? What could be influencing these discrepancies?
  • Look for trends concerning the employees’ feelings and their relationship to the organization.
  • Do responses include suggestions for improvement or change?

How to Use the Exit Information

The following are steps to help organizations utilize exit information:
  1. Develop a method for compiling the information that allows you to identify areas that need more investigation or to be able to highlight trends that may be affecting retention.
  2. Track the information in a standardized format such as an excel spreadsheet or a structured response sheet. The Satisfaction Survey Worksheet [2.1.2.a.2.c] can be modified to track your rated or open-ended responses.
  3. Assess topic themes and commonalities, identifying and separating those issues that appear to be personal from valid organizational problems.
  4. Avoid showing word-for-word responses by summarizing or grouping together the topics.
  5. Share the trends with managers and staff to initiate modifications to the job or job description to help in candidate selection. Be mindful of confidentiality and anonymity issues; summarize data to avoid connection to any one staff.
  6. Emphasize that the data collected; regardless of whether it is positive or negative, it should be used objectively to better understand why employees are leaving.
  7. Discuss with managers how the information may be utilized to positively impact job retention or for new hires.
  8. Use the cleaned information for hiring a replacement by sharing the insights with a candidate who may ask why the previous person left.
  9. Use the information to provide a basis for an action plan to build on strengths and improve deficiencies.
  10. If any changes are made based on the information collected in the exit process, or any staff feedback process, acknowledge and publicize this role.

Determining Corrective Actions

Once enough exit survey results are compiled, and trends – not just personal issues – have been identified, the responses themselves may provide insight into the next steps or corrective actions. Trends may lead to logical conclusions and specific interventions. If the response results do not provide a clear direction, do some additional work. Conduct a focus group or brainstorm with employee representatives to probe for additional information. Include managers or direct line staff who may have additional insight. Do not look just at trends that have a negative rating; identify and support positive behaviors.  

Once results or trends are identified, there may be several options for interventions or corrective actions. The following adaptation from Assessing and improving your organization: symptoms, diagnosis and cures by D. Chaudron, are trends and suggested interventions to reduce turnover:[2]
When trends exist:
The results may show:
You can try:
Within a group or team
Negative or low scoring that identifies symptoms that focus around group goals, relationships and roles within the group, or conflict between members.
Interventions that include role clarification activities, problem-solving training, group skills training, coaching of individual members, and team-building skills training.
Between groups
Negative or low scoring that identifies problems between groups. Issues may be verbalized or they can remain hidden, but usually have been apparent to members. Between-groups problems often deal with scarce resources and disagreement over responsibilities.
Interventions that include team building between groups to discuss conflicts and come to a solution, especially for issues that cross over both groups. Use bridge staff and cross-functional teams to fade the groups’ boundaries or merge the groups for a specific project.
Across the organization
Negative or low scoring on organizational structures such as compensation, performance evaluations, management style, and communication, or a pattern of low scoring on mission, vision, or goals.
Interventions that look to a change in the organizational structure that would emphasize the product or customer. Some suggested interventions include profit-sharing instead of individual merit raises or including more line staff in strategic planning and product development. The more widespread these problems are within the organization, the more you have to look at organizational issues.

The article, Exit Interviews and Knowledge Transfer, found on provides an overview of the employee exit survey with reasons for the process and sample questions including knowledge transfer probing questions.
Click here to download this as a word document.

[1] Frase-Blunt, M (2004, August). Making exit interviews work. HR Magazine, Volume 49, No 8, Retrieved August 17, 2010, from
[2] Chaudron, D (2003). Assessing and improving your organization: symptoms, diagnosis and cures. Organized Change, Retrieved August 27, 2008, from

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