Exit interviews: What questions should you be asking?

These questions could make all the difference to your culture

Exit interviews: What questions should you be asking?

For years, exit interviews have gotten a bad rap for feeling more like an interrogation rather than a two-way assessment for both the HR team and the departing employee.

The Q&A is designed as an avenue for HR to gather feedback. But considering the circumstances of most departures, the exit interview can also sometimes turn stressful.

HR professionals conducting the interview must be prepared to hear about concerns that touch on their company’s overall culture.

For organisations notorious for having a toxic work environment, the responses may serve as a reminder of what they need to improve – and how – from the employee’s vantage point.

“The exit interview presents an incredibly valuable opportunity to gain insights about a company from departing employees who feel they can be more candid with their feedback,” said James Nicholson, managing director of recruitment firm Robert Walters ANZ.

“If used wisely, this feedback provides an opportunity to build a better workplace through making changes that could improve the employer brand, attraction strategies or staff retention.”

1) Feedback on individual progress

But which aspects of the employee experience should the interviewer focus on? The HR team will need to identify the variables that influence turnover and disengagement.

These include questions such as, “Why did the employee decide to leave?” or “What could we have done differently to help them stay?” The employee’s responses should clue HR in on “flight-risk factors” or deal breakers during their tenure.

Exit interviews should also zero in on how engaged (or disengaged) employees were and what could have motivated them to stay on instead. Questions on personal engagement should tackle which forms of recognition they valued most and what they believed was a “great day” at work.

Questions about the individual

  • What motivated you to look for a new job?
  • What was your typical workday/workload like?
  • Did you feel your schedule/assignments let you enjoy work-life balance?
  • Did you feel your actual day-to-day role fit your job description?
  • Did you feel you received growth opportunities?
  • Did these opportunities align with your role/interests?
  • Were you given clear goals and objectives?
  • What was the best part about your job?
  • What was the most challenging part about it?
  • What would you change about your role?

However, HR professionals should also remember to recalibrate their questions according to the individual’s circumstances. For example, questions for an employee who resigned in order to recuperate from illness or grieve the loss of a loved one shouldn’t anymore focus on performance but on the kind of support they require in their exit.

Read more: How to lead when your team is tired and jaded

2) Feedback on team and task management

Often, the most controversial topics during an exit interview involve feedback on the manager.

“If one particular team has higher-than-average attrition compared to the rest of the business, it might mean the manager is not effective, or the jobs are not designed effectively, or they don’t have sufficient resources to be productive,” said Natasha Hawker, founder of Sydney-based HR advisory firm Employee Matters.

“Exit interview data can enable HR to see trends developing and to react – which is why I believe that to ignore exit interviews is equivalent to putting your head in the sand,” Hawker told HRD.

With the right questions in place, the Q&A can open up a “wealth of information that may not come out in normal channels,” she said.

Done carelessly, however, and the interview questions can also open up a can of worms, especially for disgruntled employees looking to vent their frustration.

Questions about the manager and team

  • How was your relationship with your manager?
  • Did you feel valued?
  • Did you feel you could trust your manager/open up to them about concerns?
  • Did you ever encounter difficulties in your tasks that made you think of giving up?
  • Did you feel you received the right support to succeed in your role?
  • How was your relationship with your teammates?
  • Did you feel you could ask them for help when you needed it?
  • Did you feel you could engage or collaborate with them at work/outside of work?
  • Did you feel you belonged?
  • Were there specific instances in which you felt disconnected from your team?
  • Did you reach out to anyone about your concerns prior to leaving?
  • How would you describe employee morale in your team?

HR professionals should thus be mindful of how they phrase the questions and whether they may already have preconceived notions about the employee. Such biases can sometimes affect how the interviewer interprets the responses.

This is the reason most experts recommend assigning a trained HR professional to lead the process and ensure the right questions are asked and the feedback is documented properly.

Read more: Three elements of a positive employee experience

In a study by Harvard academics Everett Spain and Boris Groysberg, about 70% of organisations surveyed turn to their HR departments for help.

However, one in five companies also assign the employee’s direct supervisor to handle the recap, while nearly 10% of organisations have the direct supervisor’s manager leading the Q&A.

From the employee’s perspective, these are factors that can go against them during the interview. Sitting face to face with a former manager or supervisor could make it difficult for the employee to provide open and honest feedback. It defeats the whole purpose of the interview.

3) Feedback on the organisation

At a time when companies are placing greater emphasis on diversity & inclusion and building a safe environment for their people, HR professionals are also starting to use the exit interview to source insights – from diverse perspectives – about their organisational culture.

“Organisations are increasingly declaring a desire to recognise and celebrate the ‘whole person’. However, we tend to lack metrics to substantiate whether those leaving feel fully seen and embraced,” Mark Stelzner, founder of the advisory firm IA HR, told Forbes.

“I would therefore suggest adding, ‘Do you feel the organisation fully embraced you for who you are?’ followed by an open text response to capture a more descriptive narrative of their feelings.”

This part of the exit interview should tie in with all of the employee’s ideas about the company, and provide managers a way forward in redesigning a better culture and better organisation altogether.

Questions about the organisation

  • How would you describe our workplace culture?
  • What could we have done differently to support you?
  • What does the new opportunity offer that we don’t?
  • Did you feel you were compensated well for your performance?
  • What qualities should we look for in a person taking on your role?
  • What should we stop, start or keep doing as an organisation?
  • Would you consider returning to our company?
  • Would you recommend us to people you know?

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