The Real Reason for Exit Interviews

Employee engagement continues to be an issue for organizations.  There’s constant conversation about being over-worked and under-paid.  We all realize times have been tough but now is the perfect time to examine some of your processes to ensure your business remains healthy.

A couple days ago, I wrote about on-boarding – the beginning of a person’s career.  Today, let’s talk about the end of the employment cycle – exit interviews.

Conducting exit interviews can be a valuable experience for any organization.  Provided of course that the exit interview is done with proper planning and for the right reasons.  If you’re doing exit interviews to get the heads-up on whether the departing employee plans to sue you and your company, well…that might be good to know but it’s not really the best use of an exit interview.


The real reason businesses conduct exit interviews is to get information about an employee’s work experience with the company.  This information could be valuable all on its own or used with other exit interview data.  To gather relevant information, there are a few things to keep in mind when structuring the exit interview process:

Who will conduct the interview? Many companies have an employee’s supervisor administer the exit interview.  Not a good idea.  If an employee had an issue with their supervisor, then chances are it will not come to the surface during the interview.

Another option is to have human resources conduct the interview.  Since HR is considered the keeper of employee references, I don’t see employees opening up to HR.  At this point in their career, they don’t want to burn bridges. So this becomes an exercise in futility.  If you really want employees to provide open, honest and unfiltered feedback, consider engaging a neutral, third party to conduct the interview.

When do you conduct the interview? Some firms like to do exit interviews at the point a person announces their resignation.  I’m an advocate for waiting not only until after a person leaves but even giving them a couple of weeks.  In my experience, time allows employees to gain perspective.  I’ve seen many situations where departing employees were upset with the company or their manager.  A couple weeks later, they still aren’t happy but they’re able to talk about it with less emotion.  They’re able to offer some constructive criticism.

What’s the purpose of the interview? I believe an employee’s need to leave on good terms drives their answers regarding their resignation.  For example, when an employee tells you they’re resigning and you ask why, they’ll say more money, flexible schedule, less driving time, more benefits, etc.  And all of that might be true.  But what the employee didn’t tell you was the catalyst that started them looking for a new opportunity in the first place.  Something made them read the classified ads, take the headhunters call, etc.  The purpose of an exit interview is to find out what that ‘something’ was.

Okay, so you’ve discovered the real reasons people are leaving your organization.  Now you have to make a decision about what to do with the data. The average company will simply file it away after a quick glance by HR (or not). Listen, if you aren’t prepared to hear the real reasons, or deal with whatever they may be, for Pete’s sake . . . save yourself a lot of time, energy and money, and don’t do exit interviews.

But if you want to improve the workplace and increase engagement, then create an exit interview process that yields good results.  And include in the process a solid plan to review and act on those results.  With solid information, you can incorporate positive change and, hopefully, reduce the need for exit interviews.


  1. Bonita says

    My exit interview leaving a company after almost 10 years almost brought me to tears because they did not care about the honest feedback that I was giving to them, which made me feel as though they did not care about me. Whatever you do, don’t do an exit interview to check a box.

  2. John Jorgensen says

    I have always looked at exit interviews as locking the barn after the horse is gone. You should be doing “exit” interviews with employees from day one. Find out what issues are troubling them and might get them to look. It is a quesiton of establishing credibility with employees as a person they can turn to. Better to diagnose problems early and decide if a cure is called for.

  3. says

    I take your point about not doing an exit interview purely to find out whether you’re going to be sued by a disgruntled employee; much better to find out why they’re leaving! At that point there’s nothing much you could do to fix a problem (if there were one) for that person, but it might alert you to a wider issue.

    Alcoa’s website refers to their practice of doing an exit interview as part of their ethical program – conducted by a third party – with specific questions to enable people to disclose any concerns about potentially unethical or non-compliant processes. This would then alert Alcoa to a potential cultural problem.

    As John suggests, it’s best to spot problems early, but some things it’s just too hard for people to disclose unless they’re leaving.

  4. says

    @Bonita – Thanks for sharing your story. I totally agree…if you’re not going to do something with the information, don’t do an exit interview.

    @John – Agreed. Companies shouldn’t wait until someone resigns to solicit feedback. Even if a company is having regular conversations with employees, it can still be valuable to understand what caused an employee to start looking in the first place.

    @Lucy – Thanks for sharing the Alcoa example. I like the inclusion of ethics in the exit interview. So many times we just talk about pay and benefits.

  5. says

    @Bonita –If you are giving an exit interview in the first place there is probably reason to believe they didn’t care about you to begin with. If they cared about you, they would see that you were not happy and would have tried to work with you until you were happy and your needs were met. I have friends who work in places where they are fired and rehired in the same day so that the employer doesn’t have to give them a raise or promote them or give them benefits. Its every 4-6 months they do this, and it is no secret. It is flat out dirty work of employers. Yes, it sucks, they should care about you and after 10 years they should be devastated to lose such a loyal employee, but they don’t. and it is sad :(

    –Good Luck in your future though–

  6. says

    With all the work a HR department has on their hands, I can’t believe people just conduct exit interviews to check a box (I mean…I totally BELIEVE it, it just baffles me). Someone is leaving. Chances are something didn’t go right – you have a chance to learn from it, and maybe make it better for the next person…and yourself.

  7. says

    I like the neutral third party suggestion you give, may be hard to implement at smaller companies unlike the Alcoa example. But as I was reading your post I thought of the surveys that it seems every store, restaurant, etc is doing these days, perhaps a website like they use might be of use? However I also agree strongly that a good manager/HR/company is connected to the employees through the whole process of employment from onboarding to saying farewell. Hopefully then nothing comes as a “surprise!” Sometimes exits come about and there really is nothing one can do about it, family concerns, commute, move, etc. But the I hate my coworker/boss situations should be known and being worked on so that it doesn’t have to raise to the level of mass exodus (easier said than done in some circumstances I know) Hence why it is so important to do your research on the company before saying yes to the offer, to make sure the ethics/culture match to your needs and you are not looking to leave due to concerns you could have avoided.

  8. Mara says

    I think that exit interviews are a total waste of time. Like everything else in corporate America, it all depends on who you give the interview to. You could tell someone in HR that your boss berated you and that you’re leaving because it’s a terrible work environment and if they’re friends with or have any relationship with that person, nothing is going to happen. But at the same time, an employee who was given two terrible reviews in a row and was basically in line to be fired could give an interview and complain about their boss (who’s been working with this subpar person for years) and the information gets run all the way up the chain and the boss gets in trouble. Exit interview information is completely circumstantial and clearly if the person is leaving the company, now is not the time to try and be getting feedback from them, it should have been happening all along.

  9. Ray S. Leonard, PE says

    I generally just say a better position. No point in getting into a debate with HR since they are corporate and generally clueless.
    Last position I made the mistake of offering some suggestions when asked for things that would be an improvement. Felt like I was back in my high school debating class.
    Observation: total waste of time with high potential of a downside if you might cycle back though the company which given the nature of engineering and construction is highly likely.

  10. says

    I oversee all interviews for Creative Restaurant Solutions, the restaurant industry’s leading provider of third party exit interviews (so popular we created a company for non-restaurant clients, Combined Resource Solutions). Clients outsource because third-party interviewers are non-biased professionals who dig to get beyond “I left for a better opportunity” to find out why they were looking in the first place; we find the “something” Sharlyn mentioned. When employees we contact hear we are an external party, they let down their guard and open up knowing we don’t have any preconceived judgment about them or their situation. They trust that what they say will be recorded without filters. On occasion we still get objections such as, “I don’t want to burn my bridge” but once we explain the company’s reference policy, they typically provide the real scoop about what’s going on. And Sharlyn, you’re absolutely right, an integral part of the process is to review and act on those results. Our best clients are those whose need for our services dwindle each year as they’ve made real changes as a result of the exit interview data to improve retention.

  11. says

    Thank you everyone for sharing your thoughts. You guys rock!

    @Jim – I think there are moments when an organization’s goals and an employee’s goals just don’t align any more. Kinda like when people say they drift apart. It’s no one’s fault. It just happens. So there are times when people leave the company and it’s OK.

    @Ginger – I know, boggles the mind. Unfortunately, we both know it happens far too often.

    @Catherine – I like the website idea. I wonder if there’s a company out there that already offers something like that? I also like your point about candidates doing their research before accepting a job offer.

    @Mara – Good points about the abuses that take place where exit interviews are concerned. Hopefully organizations are considering these points when they seek feedback.

    @Ray – You bring up an interesting dynamic. Many industries have employees who cycle back. Balancing suggestions / recommendations with keeping the door open is something to consider. I don’t agree with the “waste of time” and “downsides” if HR is diligent in doing them right.

    And as I was writing this, along comes @Christin letting us know about his service. Thanks for chiming in!

  12. Darrell Kerrigan says

    Our experience with exit interviews has been very hit and miss over the years, trying to do them in house, but finding we weren’t getting the take-up we needed (around 40-50%) and those who did take up the offer of an interview were pretty guarded about what they had to say. We ended up researching the marketplace, and eventually outsourced to This is all they do, and have created a niche in the field. For what its worth, I’d recommend checking them out.

  13. Minnie Ha Ha says

    I could write you volume after volume about the use and mis-use of exit interviews. But none of it would matter, there are always always always going to be those that get by with absolutely ruining another persons career, and in some cases their life. God has so blessed me with a long life, and I have been fortunate enough to see some of the old fashioned, “What goes around comes around syndrome”. Ahhhh sweet revengeful feeling, when it happens to someone so deeply mared in hurting others.

  14. says

    @Darrell – Thanks for sharing a terrific resource. I’ve always said why recreate the wheel when others are willing to share their experiences. Most appreciated.

    @Minnie – My motto is success is the best revenge. 😉 And how you define success is completely up to you. Thank you for sharing.

  15. john says

    I just gave an exit interview a few weeks that mentioned my boss and his boss going to strip clubs and making sexual comments and innuendos during work related functions .. Well HR did an investigation and other people came forward and said other comments backing up what I said and much more I believe and as a result the company fired both of these managers — there are rumors that they may sue …. can they try and sue me for the exit interview I wrote? –

  16. says

    Great post Sharlyn. The exit interview is unfortunately an often overlooked opportunity to improve other employees’ experience with the organization and increase engagement levels.

    I’ve included your post in my Rainmaker top five blog picks of the week – found here: – to remind my readers of this important talent management opportunity.

    Be well!

  17. says

    @JohnJorgensen – I agree with you, these interviews, known as ‘stay’ interviews should be down long before some actually quits, but that really requires the employee to have a good relationship with a manager or other senior manager who can conduct the interview. The best companies are those who foster a culture of trust and respect and are open to learning from their mistakes.

  18. Ray S. Leonard, PE says

    I have found after more than 35 years with the last 15 in middle management in a variety of companies that despite all the articles on upward communication neither management nor HR want to hear about problems even is accompanied with solutions. As in the Marines you are expected to suck it up, solider on and don’t bother us – either senior management or HR. So I just do my job and when the situation is no longer tenable I move on. BTW I made 25K in performance bonuses last year doing my job well and not whining to either senior management or HR. Semper Fi

  19. Avi Singer says

    I think there is a distinct difference between exit interviews conducted for voluntary exits vs. involuntary exits. When employees are leaving voluntarily there is little reason why they wouldn’t openly share all the reasons they are leaving. And let’s face it, we care a lot more about why people choose to leave over why they believe things did not work our if they are being let go.

    I have found most of the exit interviews of voluntary leavers, done internally, to be pretty open, blunt and honest. There is nothing to be gained for those leaving to not share openly. If we didn’t feel we were getting worthwhile info, we would not be doing it anymore, and we are, going on 5+ years now.

    The bigger reason why exit interviews may be seen by those who leave as a waste of time is that they don’t believe that whatever they say is going to benefit anyone. If that’s your situation, the issue is not the interview, it’s employee confidence in HR and your senior management team.

  20. Ray S. Leonard, PE says

    I think Avi Singer inadvertently summarized the polarization with his comment “it’s employee confidence in HR and your senior management team” Typical response re turn it back on the employee, that one would expect from HR during an exit interview. I’ve gone to and been sponsored to a number of leadership seminars. There is always the talk about team loyalty and the duty of the employee to the company. Very little about loyalty of the company to the employee. Most of my compatriots know that you are only as good as your last project. Miss a step and you are history. Perform and you don’t have to put up with the bs of exit interviews and feedback. At 66 I can pick and choose my projects and I generally get contacted by recruiters at least 3 or 4 times a month for other possibilities. Why because I deliver. Sometimes it take a bunch of 60 or 70 hour weeks on a 40 hour base but the job gets done. Then you can look around and decide to stay or go. There is no loyalty any more only performance.

  21. says

    @John – This won’t sound very comforting, but in the U.S. anybody can sue anyone for anything. Oh and I need to remind everyone I’m not an attorney, yada, yada. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, you brought up several things that should put your mind at ease. 1) HR did an investigation 2) Other people backed up your story and 3) Those other people said much more.

    @Chris – Thanks for the kind words. Most appreciated! I’m honored to be included in your Top 5 for the week.

    @Rebecca – Thanks for mentioning “stay” interviews. You’re right about the need for trust and openness in making them successful.

    @Ray – I agree there’s a big difference between constructive suggestions for improvement and whining. That’s why I suggest giving employees some time after they leave a company before approaching them for an exit interview. Hopefully, it reduces the whining.

    @Avi – Good point. I’d be interested to know how many companies do exit interviews for people who leave involuntarily?

    @Ray – Like you, I learned a long time ago that I’m the only person responsible for making my mortgage payment. Meaning don’t expect loyalty from your employer. The company might like you, think you are fantastic, etc. but that doesn’t mean they always are able to be loyal. But, keep in mind too, you’ve discovered what works for you at your company. It may not translate equally to every corporate culture.

  22. says

    I agree with you Sharlyn that using a third party is the way to get really good participation. I would also suggest using the anonymous feature. In our system, WebExit, which is an online Exit Interview Management System, you can give the leaving employee the option of being anonymous. This gives them the peace of mind required, especially if they don’t have terrific things to say. Also, online exit interviews gives the exiting employee the chance to do their survey online, and not in a face to face situation, which can be very uncomfortable for certain people. I would also suggest a program that has real time reporting so that you can see what is going on in every part of the organization at any given time.

    I liked the comments as well about getting the information from the employees while they are still employees. Employee engagement surveys can be very challenging for companies mainly because as soon as management knows the issues and irritants they must now act on them. With exit surveys companies can take their time and gather the appropriate data before making any changes.
    Great post Sharlyn!

  23. says

    Hey Sharlyn, I didn’t read through all of the comments — but I asked my generalist team to stop doing exit interviews and start implementing more Gallup-ian strategies and asking the important questions before employees leave. I’ve written about this a gazillion times — I think exit interviews provide valuable data, but when used as the primary communication tool and a data collection tool to gain a sense of the work experience, they are a lazy way to communicate and engage with employees. My two cents!

  24. says

    Hi Laurie. Thanks for the comment. I agree exit interviews should not be used as an engagement tool. The whole reason the exit interview is being conducted is because the employee is disengaged. Finding out what created/caused the disengagement is important and an exit interview, if done properly, can help get those answers.

  25. says

    Exit interviews are always funny to me. There trying to find you why your’e leaving, but never do anything to prevent the same problem from happening again. HR departments I’ve worked with just go through the motion and don’t really seem that interested in fixing the actual problem. I know this because I stay in touch with former colleagues.

  26. says

    Hi Sharlyn,

    I have a belated comment on your exit interviewing blog. First of all, I agree with everything you wrote, especially about who should conduct the exit interview. Not being an HR exec, I was a bit surprised to see that opening up to HR is ill-advised in an exit interview for the reasons you cited. I always considered HR the confessional of a company. I thought of it as the place where you can go for sanctuary for any reason, especially if treated unfairly by superiors, kind of like going to a principal in school if the teachers are being nasty. The HR director could shield you from foul play according to the company’s code of conduct. How interesting you should point this out.

    I’ve never been offered an exit interview. I think I was never offered one due to my former employers being fearful of an earful from me. They didn’t want to hear if they were the reason for someone leaving.

    My company, TNS Employee Insights, offers one solution: EXIT SURVEYS. In this way, HR can hand the survey to the off-boarding employee and not have to conduct an interview vìs a vìs. Also, as you mentioned, this could be sent to the employee a few weeks after he or she has left the company. It sounds like a good idea not to take the survey too soon after an employee announces his or her resignation in the event they are angry and leaving on bad terms. You’re right. I think that separation time gives one a better perspective.

    In the event you have several employees exiting, hopefully not all at once, but if your retention rate is slipping rapidly, by using a written survey, you’ll be able to see if several employees are answering the same survey questions in the same way. This should practically pin-point issues that need to be addressed.

    Someone mentioned that issues need to be addressed all along so that this doesn’t happen in the first place. True enough, but you will have people leaving companies even if your work atmosphere is sterling and the pay is satisfactory. Exit surveys seem to be a ditch effort to find problems. I agree that problems should be sought out and fixed before they become the reason for good talent to leave a company. In that case, naturally I’m going to recommend regular surveys. Just make sure if you survey your employees, you act on the results and in a timely manner or the survey work is done for nothing.
    Katherine Razzi recently posted..Is There an Equal Balance?

  27. Marie says

    I have worked with a dentist as an assistant for over 8 yrs now and I am soon to give my notice to quit.
    I am overworked, underpaid and taken for granted. I have not had a raise in over 3 years.
    The other 2 assistants come in late and leave early. They do not give the 100% like me.
    I come in early and stay late to try to complete my job responsibilities, but cannot keep up due to the workload.
    I finally, as a last resort, said something to the manager and boss, that I needed help. I do not have enough time to do all that they want me to do.
    We are short handed due to firing another assistant over 6 months ago. We have all tried to take up the slack, but most of it has fallen on me. I cannot keep up and it has resulted in health issues now. I have migraines and stress all the time about work that needs to be done. All my manager can say is “job security”.
    It has been a tough decision, but I have decided to give notice to quit. I feel like they (manager and dentist) do not care that you are a person with feelings, but just a ROBOT to crank out work!
    I am conflicted whether to tell the dentist the real reason for quitting. I do not think he will really care about the reasons.
    Our office manager always tells us that the dr does NOT care about anything BUT the patients. How wrong is that?
    I have lost MANY hours of sleep stressing about this job and noone really cares.
    Why is it that the 20-something people get away with murder and the older, more experienced people have to be more professional? The management says “oh, it is because they are young!!!” So what.
    I was hired to do a job just like everyone else and by them saying that about age is just an excuse for them for NOT doing their job.
    There is clearly a different set of expectations here.
    I am expected to be professional and to do jobs that are now overwhelming due to circumstances (not enough people).
    The management does NOT HEAR want I am saying, they just want the results.
    I cannot do this job any longer. I am giving my notice this week.
    I do not want to burn my bridge, but I want to let the dr. know the real reasons for leaving.
    I will be giving 2 wks notice and a letter of resignation.
    Why can’t dentists be BETTER bosses?

  28. Sofolahan Soewu says

    Many organisations see exit interviews as a matter of just completing the HR cycle, not so much for genuinely needing the feedback. The purpose of exit interviews shouldn’t be to get feedback at the time an employee is leaving the organisation, feedback should be sought the moment an employee joins the organisation and throughout an employee’s career with the company. One way of doing this is through the performance appraisal exercise.

    I have come to realise that, many times employees do not give genuine/honest feedback at exit interviews (somewhat dependant on other factors, some mentioned in this article) and if an organisation becomes dependant on information at exit interviews, then such an organisation is very short sighted.

  29. says

    @Sofolahan – Thanks for the comment. In my experience, I’ve found using a third party for exit interviews can yield more candid results.

    Another thing I do when conducting an exit interview is give the individual being interviewed options regarding sharing their comments. For example, asking if the interview can be shared in its entirety, or with certain information filtered or not at all. It allows individuals to feel like they are in control. Most of the time, people allow full release of their comments.

  30. Jason says

    What about exit interviews for fired employees? Do you think there’s a different approach needed for employees when they haven’t resigned? If so, what would you recommend?

  31. says

    @Jason – We believe strongly in conducting exit interviews with fired employees. This is obviously a hire that has gone very wrong, and you can often learn more about possible process improvements from this, than from a hire that has gone smoothly. When storing your exit interview data, it is worth having a Regretted/Non Regretted Departure option, so the data for Non Regretted Departures can be filtered into a separate report from the Regretted Departures.

  32. says

    Thanks for the question Jason. I think James answered it beautifully.

    The only thing I’d add is the importance of giving people time before conducting an exit interview. Whether they resign or not. Often people need some space to process their departure. I’ve heard during many exit interviews, “I was really mad about XX when I left but now that I’ve thought about it…it was for the best.”

  33. says

    Interesting article and some great comments. Some exiting employees will give you the straight goods and some will not, it depends on their courage, company experiences, whether they trust the person doing the interview and whether they needs a reference in the future or must work with people from their former employer in their new job. An anonymous exit survey may be an option, however people are suspicious about it being truly anonymous. Often overlooked is surveying the people who are still with the company (who have a greater vested interest in making things better than those who are leaving) and there are more of them to ask. If managers ACT on the opinions and advice from surveys, they build their reputation for caring about how things are working and people will trust and be more candid as time goes on.
    FYI, there is a really helpful book on this topic called Taming Turnover – Creating Strategies for Employee Retention. Here’s the link:

    It includes two reproducible surveys for managers who want to know something more about why people stay and how to measure employee satisfaction.

  34. Paul says

    The whole boss/employee (really owner/slave) is fascinating to me. Everyone finds this completely normal….another human telling you what to do every day; complete dominion over you every day of the week. HR pros and other professions remind me of the movie “They Live”. You are like aliens in their own little world. Workers are just disposable “nothings “. You can forget the exit interview. You really don’t want to hear what I have to say.

  35. says

    @Paul – I think we had a good thing going on in the 80s and 90s when many employers started to really listen to their employees more by way of productive/interactive meetings, employee forums, creative benefit packages and some larger outfits went to the extent of having child day care and fitness facilities. Today I’m hearing less and less of these great benefits. Maybe many employers would like to offer more to their employees, but they simply cannot financially. Not to wonder during this shaky economy. When the economy was thriving, I think the average employee felt less like a “slave” and more like a business partner with the employer. Now, with our jobs hanging over our heads like the sword of Damocles, the situation forces us back to thinking like “slaves” again. I don’t like feeling that way but I guess it’s the law of the jungle.

  36. says

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Whenever an employee would come into my office and say “No way I’m doing an exit interview”, I would challenge it with “Try me. Sit down and tell me the good, bad and ugly. I can take it.” A really good HR pro wants to hear it. Because they can’t fix something they don’t know about.

    Sure, there are plenty of bad companies out there. But it’s really a shame that more employees don’t take advantage of the exit interview process. If they did, maybe it would eliminate some of the negativity that takes place. And open the company’s eyes to improving benefits or creating more employee involvement.

  37. James Hill says

    My employer said “Since your departure was VOLUNTARY there is no need for an EXIT INTERVIEW.” I thought the whol process was to determine why good employees resign?

  38. Georgina says

    I think this is really interesting!

    There are a couple of things I’m really interested in. You speak about completing the exit interview after the indvidual has actually left the organisation. How would you recommend going about that? By that I mean visiting in person? Over the phone?

    Also, have you been successful in using exit interview data to fuel talent retention initiatives within the organisation?

    Thanks all!

  39. says

    Exit interviews can be conducted via phone, mail, or electronically after a person has left the organization. As part of the offboarding process, the company can let the employee know they will be contacted, encourage them to participate, and ask for a preferred means of communication.

    The data from exit interviews coupled with other company metrics can be valuable. For example, the trends can point to compensation and career development challenges the organization will want to address.

  40. Ray Leonard says

    I trust HR about as much as I trust politicians and lawyers. It will be a cold day in h**l before I gave HR my real reasons for leaving. Besides the one time I tried the lady wanted to debate me and refute my examples. Given that HR protects themselves and the company in much the same way the State Dept. has done better to leave with the comment “Thank you”

  41. says

    Ray, you bring up a very valid point which is why many companies hire a third party to do the exit interviews. Those of us that are third party work hard to listen to and ask questions so the candidate leaves the interviewing knowing their side of the story was heard – no debate, no refuting – instead capturing what we call “The REAL Scoop!” Sorry you have had such bad experiences with exit interviews in the past!

  42. says

    Ray, thanks for sharing. It’s unfortunate you had a bad experience. Morreen is absolutely right – that’s exactly why companies who are sincerely interested in your feedback hire a third-party to conduct the exit interview. They want the truth – good, bad or indifferent.