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How to conduct an exit interview

Someone put in their resignation notice. Hoo boy. Here’s how to conduct an exit interview that is useful, graceful, and candid.

“How to conduct an exit interview?” I recently was asked this by an executive who is a 1:1 leadership coaching client of mine. He’d become the CEO of his company only a month ago, and it was the first time someone had resigned since he’d assumed his new role.

“Congrats” was the first thing I told him. And no, I wasn’t being facetious. While someone resigning might not seem like a moment worthy of “congrats,” it’s an important milestone to take note of. When someone leaves, you send a message about how you want to treat everyone at your company – not just the people who join.

Additionally, an exit interview is a singular chance to understand your team and your company on a closer level: Who knows better what can be improved in your organization other than a person who is choosing to leave it?

The question is: How to conduct an exit interview that actually elicits a candid perspective from the person who’s leaving? One that actually is steeped in deep reflection, and doesn’t come from a reactionary fear of “saying the wrong thing” or burning bridges.

Based on conversations with hundreds of managers and executives who I’ve coached both formally and informally, and the research we’ve done specifically on exit interview best practices, here’s how to conduct an exit interview.

Know the purpose – for yourself, and for your company.

An exit interview is not an interrogation. Nor is it a venting session. It’s an opportunity to get an accurate picture of someone’s experience at your team – and what you and the company could be doing better. It’s not a time to take them leaving personally. It’s a moment of reflection and insight into how much better things could be.

Set it up right: Ahead of time and with clarity.

Once the person has resigned, let them know that you’d like to hold an exit interview with as much time in advance. Explain the purpose ahead of time, clearly: The discussion is about learning about their experience at the company, so the company can become better in the future, for current and future employees. Share that you plan to incorporate their feedback into changing things going forward. Emphasize that you’re incredibly appreciative they’re willing to take the time to be open with you and give you their time. I’d recommend setting aside at least an hour and up to 90 minutes for the conversation so it doesn’t feel rushed.

Hold the exit interview one-on-one.

When you’re considering how to conduct an exit interview, holding it one-on-one is key. While you may want HR and/or a leadership team member there, a panel-style exit interview is intimidating. Furthermore, it’s ideal to conduct the exit interview either in-person or by phone. An in-person exit interview will help create rapport since they can see your body language and look you in the eye. But talking via phone can make things easier for someone to be honest and relieve the pressure of having to give a “perfect” answer since some folks get more nervous having an in-person conversation. Both are factors to weigh when deciding the precise format of the one-on-one.

Pick a person who will be most fair and effective to conduct it.

Most companies have their HR department conduct the exit interview, but that is typically true for larger companies. For smaller companies, the person who is conducting the exit interview should be two things: (1) They should be on the same page with you and the leadership team about what the goals of the exit interview are, what questions to ask, and the tone to establish during the conversation. (2) Most importantly, the person conducting the exit interview should be perceived by the person who’s leaving as the most fair, effective person to be conducting the interview. You’re trying to maximize honesty and forthrightness – and that only comes if the person who is conducting the interview is someone who the interviewee trusts, and someone who you trust to relay the information back well. Because of this, you don’t usually want the person’s direct supervisor to conduct the exit interview, but the person who is one-step above their direct supervisor. This gives some space for the interviewee to speak more freely about their relationship with their supervisor. And, it also shows that you’re taking the conversation seriously and want to act and follow-up effectively (which is harder to believe if the person conducting the exit interview is, for example, a fellow individual contributor or the person’s direct supervisor).

Give it 30 or 90 days to get an honest perspective.

Experts go back and forth on when to conduct the exit interview. Some folks recommend doing it about a month or a few weeks before the person leaves because the person is still engaged in their role. I tend to think the opposite (and have found with Know Your Team customers we work with to be the case): Try holding the exit interview a month or so after the person has left the position, so there’s less pressure to give sugar-coated responses. One month after, they’re more relaxed, and they’re more likely to be frank with you about why they left and how your company can improve.

Ask questions beyond the expected, “Why did you leave?”

Try asking these questions that most managers overlook during your exit interview:

  • What would you say was the biggest reason that contributed to you leaving the company?
  • While you were deciding between staying or leaving the company, what were some of the biggest factors you weighed in your decision?
  • What did you most appreciate while working at the company?
  • What were some of your biggest points of frustration while you were at the company?
  • If you started at the company all over again, what might be one thing you wish the company would’ve handled differently?
  • In what ways was the relationship with your manager helpful?
  • In what ways was the relationship with your manager frustrating or irksome?
  • Who are you most grateful to have worked with while at the company?
  • What advice would you give to the leadership team about making the company better?
  • What was the biggest gap between what you observed was the company’s intention, versus what was exhibited in reality?
  • Where do you think the company has the biggest opportunity to get better?
  • What should we look for in the next person we hire for your role?
  • As now an “alum” of the company, what can the company do – if anything – to support your career progression?
  • Is there anything else you think we should know, in order to improve the company for current and future employees?

Calibrate your reaction during the exit interview.

Don’t defend. Don’t deflect. Don’t try to fix the issue in the moment. Listen, be appreciative, and thank them for their candor. Your goal is to create an environment that makes it as safe as possible for them to be honest. The more honest they are, the more you’ll learn what will be beneficial for the company.

Create consistency.

The bigger your team gets, the more likely having exit interviews will happen. It’s a natural byproduct of scale. As a result, I’d recommend creating setting a consistent process for how to conduct exit interviews. When you have a uniform series of questions to ask and deliberate structure to the interviews, if/when someone leaves again, you have a similar set of data to compare notes to.

Of course, there is no magical this-works-for-everyone approach for how to conduct an exit interview. In fact, they can massively backfire if you simply sit on the information you receive from them, or you become overly defensive during them. Rather, view an exit interview as a tool, when utilized properly, can mark a peaceful and graceful transition for both you and the person leaving.

Remember: Congratulations. Someone leaving is an opportunity, if you choose to see it as such.

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Written by Claire Lew

CEO of Canopy. My mission in life is to help people become happier at work. Say hi to me on Twitter at @clairejlew.