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Exit Interviews: Are You Using Them To Their Full Advantage?

Is your company getting all it can out of exit interviews? Exit interviews can yield gold mines of information for employers. But if not conducted properly, they can be a useless, formulaic exercise that benefits neither the company nor the outgoing employee.

The stories of two different employees will help illustrate this. Amy left her job at XYZ Company for a new position because her boss, Mike, was a verbally abusive bully. Amy had never complained about Mike because she feared retaliation. As her last day approached, she considered telling HR everything in her exit interview – all the abusive comments, unreasonable demands, and temper tantrums she had endured while working for Mike. But she knew Mike would be involved if a future employer asked for a reference. She had been at XYZ for five years and could not afford to jeopardize the positive reference she had earned from her good work. Besides, she figured management already knew what Mike was like anyway. Wasn’t it general knowledge at XYZ? So Amy decided, rather than burn bridges, to remain silent about Mike. In her exit interview, she said she was leaving only because she got an offer for a position with a higher salary. The interviewer accepted this response and asked no further questions.

Tim also reported to Mike at XYZ and was a victim of his bullying. When Tim left for a new job, he saw his exit interview as an opportunity to vent about the years of abuse he had suffered at the hands of Mike. When asked his reason for leaving the company, Mike launched into a detailed, 30-minute account of Mike’s behavior toward him and others. He even brought along copies of emails that substantiated his report. After Tim’s exit interview, HR immediately began an investigation of Mike. It revealed that numerous employees had had similar experiences with him, and it ended in Mike’s termination.

As these stories show, exit interviews can be a source of important information, or they can be a lost opportunity.

The benefits of a well-conducted exit interview are many. You can learn about systemic problems within the company, reasons for low morale, problems with supervisors, and much more. The information gleaned from an exit interview can help a company increase employee retention and may even reduce the risk of lawsuits (particularly if the interview reveals issues with a supervisor that were previously unknown to management and the supervisor can be removed before causing more harm).

So how can you get the most out of exit interviews?  First, if your company has an HR department, put HR in charge of conducting the interviews. Employees should not be interviewed by their boss but by someone who is, at least ostensibly, neutral. Second, if feasible, promise anonymity and confidentiality of responses. However, if your company is small this may not be realistic. When a small company chooses to act upon information obtained from the interview, such as by investigating allegations made, the source of the information may be obvious to everyone there — including the target of the investigation. Third, consider having a company-wide policy of limiting references to confirmation of job title and dates of employment. This will allow you to assure outgoing employees that the information they provide in their exit interviews will not affect their references, since the company does not provide substantive references.  Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, convey to employees that you are truly interested in what they have to say. Do not conduct the interview in a manner that suggests you are just going down a list of questions and checking off boxes. Engage the employee; draw him or her out. Remember, a disgruntled employee, even one who is reluctant to go into detail at first, has probably fantasized many times about venting his frustrations. Give him the gentle nudge he needs to do so.

If employees can feel confident that the information they provide will be treated with sensitivity, and will not negatively affect future job references, they will be more forthcoming in their exit interviews. As a result, management will be able to access information that otherwise would never have been brought to its attention about what is really happening inside the company.

The HR consultants and staff attorneys at PMP are experienced professionals  committed to providing clients with practical guidance on all aspects of the employer/employee relationship.  For tips on how to conduct effective exit interviews, contact a HR consultant at PMP today, 800-921-2195 or 516-921-3400. You can also e-mail us at

This article is intended for general information only and should not be construed as legal advice.


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