I had someone send me an e-mail asking for recommendations for vendors to do exit interviews. I’ve never worked with a vendor for that, so I have no idea. (I’m sure he’d appreciate your input, though, so comment away!)

But, he also asked: 2) What is the best method (direct contact with term’d employee, websurvey or paper survey)?

Excellent question. First, let me tell you about my love/hate relationship with exit interviews. I’m a data girl, through and through. (Kind of sounds super-heroish, doesn’t it? It’s Data Girl! She’s brought her SPSS and Excel spreadsheets to save they day!) I like data.

But, as they say, the plural of anecdote is not data and unfortunately exit interviews tend to be little more than collected anecdotes.

We know that the number one reason people leave their jobs is because of their direct supervisors. But, I’ve never seen that as a number one reason on any report of aggregated exit interview information. The number one reason I always see popping up? “Opportunity.”

Personally, I think opportunity is about the last reason people start looking for that new job in the first place. After all, if that opportunity doesn’t come with a bigger pay check and a less insane boss you’re not going to take it. If you are satisfied with your current job you are not going to start looking.

Because the biggest reason to leave is management and that information isn’t accurately recorded in an exit interview, we have to glean what we can from the other data. But, since even the worst of managers rarely have more than a handful of people working for them, it’s difficult to tell whether that one person who left for “opportunity” had really just outgrown the job or if the manager was a raging lunatic. We can put information together and aggregate it at high levels, but this doesn’t always give you real information that you can act on.

Always, always ask for primary, secondary and tertiary reasons for terminating. This helps you identify things like salary, benefits, work hour and company culture issues.

Keep in mind that most people know they can’t burn any bridges and they will assume that anything they say in an exit interview can end up back at the desk of the offending boss. “But we promise confidentiality!” you say. Hogwash. You can promise all you want, but they won’t believe you.

The reason they wont’ believe you is that they are smart. They know they are the only person from that boss to quit in 2009, so if you give any “feedback” to said supervisor he’s going to know it comes from you.

So, paper, face to face or online?

No, yes, yes.

Aren’t I helpful? I like the face to face because people will spill things in casual conversation and you can read their facial expressions.

Paper? Only if your employees don’t have individual computer access. Give them an online survey to fill out prior to their last day. Then you don’t have data entry costs to pull the info together.

Online, see above. But, I’d like, ideally, to take it one step further. Ask for an e-mail address for the employee in our original survey. Then, after they’ve been gone for 6 months, send them a new survey to fill out.

Why? Because they are removed from the situation and have a new perspective. The “perfect” new job now has the real boss and the real co-workers and the real projects to go with the idealism. Asking them what they thought of the last job at this point is going to give you a different view.

And what do you do with all this information? Well, there is no point in gathering it if you are not going to act. Trends need to be dealt with. Groups with high turnover need to be looked at more closely. Numerous salary complaints (and ask about new salary–they may or may not tell you, but ask) or indications that people are leaving for a LOT more money needs to be dealt with.

But, you cannot go to the one manager who was identified as the reason for termination and tell them. Even though no one believes you will keep the information confidential, it’s critical that you do. But, it’s also critical that you find other ways to deal with your bad managers. Otherwise, why ask?

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26 thoughts on “Exit Interviews

  1. Great Post. We're having an endless debate here about whether the data and inputs should go back to the person who has caused someone to leave. I believe we should let the person know… but not directly. This article has given me a lot of food for thought. Thanks!

  2. I’ve never received a formal exit interview. However, in resignation letters and informal chats, I always used the softball answers like “opportunity.” Even if I hated the place, I still need that reference. When I had a job that was so toxic that I knew any good reference was impossible, it would’ve been a waste of time to complain during my exit, because the dysfunction ran throughout the entire company.

    Exit interviews are like thank you notes. You say nice things because you have to maintain professional etiquette, not because you mean them. It’s your final chance to leave a good impression on your former company and assure those stellar references.

    But why use anecdotal information that you know to be inaccurate to make business decisions? Why collect it at all? That’s like tracking your business popularity based on applicants’ cover letters. No one is “eager” to file memos or “passionate” about spork manufacturing. That’s just what you say to be professional. You wouldn’t say “this opening is marginally better than unemployment” any more than you would say “I’m quitting because my boss is an incompetent a-hole.”

  3. I was the 16th person in my department of 14 to quit in a year. I already had my new job in hand when I had my exit interview. I tried to be diplomatic, but when the HR lady asked if I would ever return to this company, I recoiled in horror and said, "No! OK, maybe, but not in that department."

    They knew what was going on but either wouldn't or couldn't do anything about the two managers.

  4. It sounds like a nice idea. Except that I wouldn't feel comfortable completing such a survey. And I definitely wouldn't want to complete a followup survey in 6 months for a job I'd left. So far as I'm concerned, the company lost any claim on my time and energy when they stopped paying my salary. Nor would I be inclined to be any more honest on an online survey than I would be in person – probably less, actually, because there's no way that I'd trust that such a thing would be kept confidential.

    I know that sounds harsh, but I've been burned by the "no, we want you to be honest, really" thing before.

  5. Yes, the exit interviews are a waste of time. Companies are idiots if they expect useful information from them.

    The only exit interview I ever had was at a job where I was making about $15/hr while I was in school. (Most people made closer to $11.) It wasn't a career job, and everybody, including the managers knew it. I quit that job when I started grad school and moved away.

    Now, if I were making $60k/yr, I never would have quit that one. And when the subject came up, I told them so. HR didn't want to put that down on paper, but I insisted it was true, so she did.

    So I never figured out what the purpose of exit interviews at the company was. More money would keep more people around longer but 1) We didn't have huge turnover, and 2) The world we worked in was small, and if the pay was below average, the company would have figured it out through word of mouth (or higher turnover) anyway.

  6. Insightful post. We provide an online survey software which many clients use for exit interviews. I liked your perspective on how to gather this feedback.

    I especially liked your suggestion: "After they've been gone for 6 months, send them a new survey to fill out. Why? Because they are removed from the situation and have a new perspective."

    This is a great way to make sure the data is representative of his/her feelings at the time of leaving.

    If some need more convincing of the benefits of employee exit surveys, you can see our reference here:


    Thanks for the great post!

  7. We can't even get people to return their Census forms once every 10 years, and you're going to try to get a (possibly disgruntled) former employee to do an exit interview 6 months down the line?

  8. I like the idea of an online survey because, as lots of people have pointed out, it's a lot to ask of a former employee to fill out anything. If you do it online, at least a low response rate won't make it a waste of paper.

    I think the only way to make an exit interview useful is to ask about systematic or procedural issues. That's the one area where people might be honest, because it's less likely to hurt them and may be something the company actually will change if it's brought to their attention.

    If I left a job because of a jerk boss, I wouldn't mention it. If I left because I had three different bosses and competing/conflicting responsibilities or because I could never get a day off, I might point that out.

    I also don't think it's appropriate to give that negative feedback to a supervisor. Even if it's anonymous, the timing will make it pretty obvious who said what, especially in a small company or department.

  9. Isn't 'opportunity' SUPPOSED to mean more money? Or, rather, isn't it one of the legit things it could mean?

    I figure if someone says opportunity they mean money, a higher position, and/or the chance the do something that they can't do at their current place of employment. What is it supposed to mean if not that?

    For what it's worth, I know someone who thinks you should change companies regularly: about every 5 years. He says after that point you start to become an expert at working for that specific company and on their systems instead of growing skills that work in your industry in general. So you keep moving and keep learning new industry-related skills because the fact that you are in expert a Company X's widget system won't matter when they fire you.

    I like the idea of a later follow-up survey but in order to work it has to be sent with a polite request that makes it clear that they know that you are doing them a favor. As someone already said, the company no longer has a claim on the former employee's time and implying otherwise is a good way to guarantee you never get a response.

    – RP

  10. It takes a combination of an independent and skilled interviewer to peel back the onion on why someone has left a position. Most companies are not willing to pay for that level of expertise for many reasons.

  11. “Opportunity” Decoder:

    If you paid the employee at or below the industry average, he left for more money.
    If you paid the overqualified star as little as his under-qualified peer, he left for more money.
    If you paid him well, he left for advancement.
    If you paid him well and offered real advancement, he left because his manager sucks.
    If multiple employees leave because of bad managers, your whole company sucks.

    It’s simple. No need for exit interviews.

    P.S. If you wait until someone quits before trying to figure out that his manager sucks, you’re too late.

  12. If an e-mailed questionnaire about why I had left came from a former employer, I'd bounce it back without an answer as if my e-mail address had changed. (My e-mail program allows that.)

    No need to stick my head in that particular noose.

    In person? Platitudes. I think most HR people already know the answers as to why people are quitting. Why should I risk anything by confirming what they already know?

  13. Sounds like people feel pretty strongly about exit interviews. I agree, employees leaving aren't always going to tell the truth about why they are leaving. BUT, every now and then, someone will and it's when someone steps up that you need to, too. I received feedback that one manager wasn't, well, much of a leader… Now we're conducting a 360 review. Guess we'll see how that works.

  14. I've only given the real reason for my departure in one exit interview, and that was done quite deliberately knowing that I was taking a flamethrower to that bridge when I did it. It was worth it, though, because the manager I had been reporting to was a sleazy back-stabbing weasel who had harmed the progress of any number of people along with and before me.

    He was subsequently removed from that role and placed on "special projects" until his eventual departure. I don't pretend that my candid feedback about why I was leaving was the sole reason he was removed, but I like to think I was the final straw.

    The bridge turned out to only be slightly singed as I was welcomed back to that company several years later.

  15. Interesting discussion.

    Online systems have really changed everything in the world of exit interviews.

    Pre-technology, it was a real chore to get honest responses,high participation and data on trends across departments, divisions, etc.

    A lot of people still think of exit interviews the same way they did in the past (useless). What they don't often know is that over the last decade, online exit interview management systems have matured to the point of providing solid, actionable data and metrics.

    It's difficult to argue against online exit interviews once you've seen companies using them successfully. One large organization recently reported reducing their turnover by 25% in two years. They documented savings of $8.4 million dollars in the first year alone.

    For a small company, in-person or telephone interviews with tracking in a spreadsheet can be great. For larger organizations, it's worth exploring the online exit interview management programs.

    Disclaimer. Co-founder and CEO of Nobscot Corporation. Developers of WebExit.

  16. I agree with Stuart. If I'm leaving a position, and presumably need a reference, why would I risk saying anything other than the usual platitudes? I understand that it can be great for the company – but in that situation, I have very little reason to be at all concerned about the company, and every reason to be concerned about my own career. So I really don't see the point, and I particularly don't see the point of follow-up surveys. I'd think the response rate would be so low, they'd be pretty much useless.

  17. The best managed companies know that turnover is expensive especially if the departing employee has been on the job less than a year. You've lost the cost of training and now you have to spend that money all over again with a new hire.

    First line supervisors need to be held accountable for turnover since they're the ones doing the hiring. A bad supervisor is driving up costs. Maybe a bottom line mentality where the rubber meets the road will improve turnover rates.

  18. Interesting discussion — our company does exit interviews. and occasionally we get honest feedback & can identify a problem area (albeit often too late for that particular employee), but most people just give neutral responses. We also tried following up with former employees after they've been their new employer for 2 months to see "if the grass was really greener" and received less than a 2% response. They moved on… I didn't want to feel like a stalking ex-girlfriend and the feedback wasn't useful, so we nixed the follow-up program.

  19. Stuart – you should show a follow-up panel to that exit interview cartoon with the EE going onto the Internet and venting about his employer there. :p

    I agree it's really hard to get employees to be honest in face-to-face exits. Only the real talkers usually open up. Luckily today with online systems it's pretty easy to get good participation and lots of honest feedback.

  20. I was laid off during budget cutting last year. The HR director actually wanted me to come back to her office for an exit interview after I had packed up my stuff!

  21. I did exit interviews for employees of color who had left a professional firm. All were interviewed by me, an outside consultant, who could screen their identity. All had been gone at least six months. We got tons and tons of exceptionally helpful data on climate, culture and individual behavior/attitude that had affected the decisions to leave. I think a targeted exit interview campaign can be quite helpful.

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