If exit interviews are just a tick-and-flick exercise, they’re not worth doing. In order to benefit from the rich information they can uncover, HR needs to get comfortable asking direct questions – and potentially getting some direct feedback.
There are standard questions that tend to get a run in exit interviews: Did the position and your responsibilities align with your expectations of the role? Why did you start looking for another role? What did you enjoy most about the position?
While these questions offer a good starting point, it’s worth adding a few more questions to your repertoire to help to shine a light on current challenges affecting your workplace.
1. How has hybrid work influenced your connection with other staff?
While employees might have regular daily touchpoints with team members, they might not feel as connected to other teams or to the organisation as a whole.
“Sometimes people will feel isolated and disconnected to the organisation’s purpose,” says Ella Burke, Founding Director and HR & IR Specialist of Employii.
If an exit interview shows there’s a level of disconnection, it might be a sign that the company needs to look at how it’s cultivating a culture of connection in a hybrid setting.
“In a physical environment there are often posters hanging on the walls showing current projects being worked on, or other visual cues that create [a sense of] organisational culture. You don’t have the same cues online,” says Burke.
“In a virtual world, we’re very task-focused. We show up to a meeting and automatically start talking about work. We need to bring that personal element back in, and with that connections between peers will hopefully strengthen.”
Based on the feedback you receive from departing employees about how they felt about your company’s approach to hybrid work, HR could look at ways of facilitating moments of meaningful connection – i.e. more than just a social get together.
“We’re social creatures. Organisations can have a hybrid model but they might still need people to be together in the office and have structured time together once a week or once a month, depending on what suits the business,” says Paulette McCormack CAHRI, Founder and Owner of Fresh HR Insights.
It’s also a good opportunity to ask other questions about hybrid work, such as whether employees felt they had adequate resources and support to work effectively and productively when they weren’t in the physical workspace.
2. Do you think the company has helped you in your career aspirations?
Employees are increasingly wanting to know how they can leverage the skills they’ve learnt in a company to grow professionally and step into a higher role.
“People are creating their own personal portfolios,” says McCormack.
“Employees are moving from workplace to workplace and each one is building on what they did before.”
If an employee provides a negative response to this question, it might be an indicator that the company needs to invest more time into developing its staff.
“Look at where there are opportunities for people to change and grow. Succession planning is really important because it enables you to identify people who are suitable to progress in your company.
“It’s also about what suits a certain person. Talk to your people and ask them: ‘If you were still doing this role in six months time, would you be satisfied? And if not, what would [you want] your next six months look like?’”
“If there’s a question that directly asks, ‘How do you perceive your manager’s leadership style?’ Or ‘Would there be anything in terms of their leadership style that you would change?’ you can hopefully pull out some of the information that they may have been more hesitant to provide otherwise.” – Ella Burke
Burke says if career development is a key strategy that your company is working towards, then HR could dig deeper and ask further questions such as:
- Do you feel the company spent enough time discussing and planning your career development?
- Do you feel the company supported you to reach your professional goals?
For each one of these questions, asking ‘why’ or ‘how’ is critical, adds Burke.
“You want to know the types of activities that helped them to feel this way, or what they were missing. You always want to try and get more information so you have points to take action on.”
Organisations can then use the feedback to ascertain what activities they should dial up or down.
For example, an employee’s manager might’ve encouraged them to undertake micro-learning online and allocated them a period of time per month towards this activity. If an employee has spoken positively about this approach, HR could explore the possibility of other managers implementing this process.
Or if some managers aren’t giving regular feedback to their employees, it might signal a need to develop that manager further, or to introduce a 360-degree feedback cycle, so managers have access to that information earlier in the employment journey, when they can actually do something about it.
“You’ll need to make sure [managers] understand the company’s expectations and also give them the skills to have those coaching conversations,” says McCormack.
3. How would you describe your supervisor’s management style?
Some employees may be reluctant to raise issues about their supervisor during their employment. Even when there’s an environment of psychological safety, they might not be as honest and forthcoming in raising issues as they would be towards the end of their employment when there’s less at stake.
Burke says asking direct questions about a manager’s leadership style can get to the crux of issues quickly.
“Oftentimes the questions asked in exit interviews can be too general. The standard questions are: ‘What did you like about your job, and what did you dislike?’ They’re great but also very broad, so people will have lots of ideas around what to share.
“If there’s a question that directly asks, ‘How do you perceive your manager’s leadership style?’ Or ‘Would there be anything in terms of their leadership style that you would change?’ you can hopefully pull out some of the information that they may have been more hesitant to provide otherwise.”
Photo: Alex Green, Pexels
This question is a great launchpad to understand other underlying issues, says Burke.
“It answers some of the other questions in your list, such as whether the employee feels they were supported to achieve their professional goals, whether they were given autonomy over their role, whether their manager supported their wellbeing needs, and whether they felt they were given honest and helpful feedback.”
HR could also home in on more specific questions here such as: Were you comfortable raising any issues with your manager? Did you feel listened to? How could management within the company be improved?
4. What do you like most about our workplace culture? What do you like least?
When seeking employee’s feedback, it’s also best if they can supply an anecdote to support what they’re saying, so HR can go back to leaders with a concrete example.
“Asking them to give you a positive and a negative about the workplace culture will more likely give you valuable information. And get them to focus on a specific example.”
Information gathered from exit interviews should also be used when HR is crafting risk mitigation strategies.
“If you see a pattern where more than one person who has resigned has mentioned the same cultural issues, that’s a threat to organisational culture. You need to investigate it further before making an informed decision of what to do,” says Burke.
“Be careful not to jump the gun. Make sure you do a thorough assessment to look at all the evidence you have and then make an informed decision about how to make changes that are aligned with your company’s goals.”
5. Would you consider re-employment with the company?
Just because an employee is leaving, that doesn’t mean you should close the door to future opportunities to work together.
“People don’t necessarily always leave on bad terms. Maybe they’re relocating. Maybe they’re having a career break for family, health, or progressing their career. It’s not always negative, so you want to maintain those relationships,” says Burke.
Afterall, it’s not uncommon for employees to return to their former employers.
Read HRM’s article on making ‘boomerang employees’ part of your hiring strategy.
“If they say ‘yes’ and the reason they’ve left is for career growth, in the future, if you have a role that could match their career goals, then you could use that as an opportunity to reach out to them and say, ‘We know you left because you wanted to progress your career. We’ve got a new manager role we think you might be interested in, can I send you some details about it?’”
If they answer ‘no’, however, it might be time to do some investigation.
“If they don’t want to come back, ask why. This would trigger some thoughts around what else is going on,” says McCormack.
“It opens up the door to ask more questions. There might be other issues to explore that you haven’t set structured or formal questions around.”
Exit interviews are a rich source of data to improve aspects of your organisation. AHRI’s course, Mining Data for HR Insights can help you make the most of information that’s already at your fingertips. Book in for the next course on 2 September.
6. What’s your proudest achievement experienced at our company?
Work shouldn’t just be about ticking items off a to-do list or going through the motions to meet KPIs.
For employees to feel engaged and energised at work, it’s important they feel a sense of pride over their work.
McCormack advises that HR identify the underlying factors that made a particular moment so memorable for an employee.
“If it was that they were given more autonomy or more space to be innovative, how can you create more of those opportunities for your people?” says McCormack.
“Proud moments are usually because an employee has gone out of their comfort zone or they feel they’ve made a meaningful impact.”
Burke says this is a good question to end an exit interview on.
“It’s finishing on a warm and fuzzy note, so they will hopefully leave that interview feeling good about this company.”
This means they’re more likely to go on and become external advocates for your organisation.
“Everyone has done something worthwhile during their time at a company. Show employees you recognise and appreciate that.”
Questions for HR
When refreshing your exit interview questions, there are some key points for HR to keep in mind.
- How do the questions you’re asking ladder up to the organisation’s strategy?
“If a company has a strategy that includes improving psychological safety, for example, the exit interview should have questions that specifically target psychological safety,” says Burke.
“It should always be connected to the strategic overview and what the company is trying to improve. If it’s not relevant to your organisation’s goals, the information gathered won’t be helpful.”
- Are you asking these questions throughout an employee’s time at your company?
“If you’d asked these questions sooner and changed some aspects of the job that they weren’t happy with, you might have changed their decision to leave. All of these questions should be part of continuous conversations happening in a workplace,” says McCormack.
- Consider what you’ll do with the feedback
“Pick a few questions that will specifically target the areas of feedback that you want to know about. A lot of organisations gather feedback and do nothing with it,” says Burke.
“I’ve often seen exit interviews done, but companies don’t use the answers to inform their strategy. I think there’s a huge opportunity to use them as a strategic part of your business.”
For these reasons, although we’ve shared some suggested questions to consider including in your exit interviews, look at whether they reflect your organisation’s priorities and goals. They should always be relevant and tailored to your business needs.
What questions do you ask in an exit interview? Let us know in the comment section.