How to get exit interviews right
By Annie Makoff on 24 October 2023
Nothing says ‘we really value your opinion and want to improve’ like a decent exit interview. With the right framework and preparation, exit interviews can be a crucial source of qualitative data which HR may not always be party to ordinarily.
Exit interview feedback can also indicate issues with diversity, equity and inclusion.
“Exit interviews can provide rich feedback about the reasons individuals are leaving an organisation and identify any emerging patterns or trends,” says Toby Mildon, diversity and inclusion architect and founder of consultancy and advisory business, Mildon. “For example, a large number of women leaving an organisation citing ‘difficulties with work-life balance’ might tell you the organisation is not good at implementing flexible working or supporting women. Or there might be disproportionately more people from ethnic minorities who are leaving. Organisations will then need to reverse engineer that and find out why.”
But for those who are leaving because they’ve experienced microaggressions or who are unhappy with the workplace culture, exit interviews can be a source of anxiety.
That’s why Jane Green MBE, founder of neurodivergent charity SEDSConnective advises employers to handle the exit interview process as sensitively as possible and offer exit surveys in place of interviews, if preferred. “Exit interviews aren’t particularly accessible, especially for some neurodivergent employees,” she says. “Questions can be misinterpreted particularly if you’re autistic or the set-up may feel overwhelming. Many neurodivergent employees are also vulnerable to bullying, so the idea of an exit interview may feel quite distressing. Surveys can sometimes be a better alternative, as long as the wording and format is accessible.”
Embed in the offboarding process
According to Mildon, exit interviews must be managed properly, as part of the offboarding process. “I’ve known some organisations who don’t offer exit interviews consistently or who gather data and feedback, but then do absolutely nothing with the data!”
So given issues with accessibility and inclusivity, concerns over language and whether or not interview feedback is actually utilised, how can organisations ensure they’re conducting exit interviews in the right way?
“The purpose of the interview must be clearly explained, the leaving employee must believe in this purpose and the interviewer and processor of the data must be trusted and independent,” says Bethany Samson, people director, Investors in People.
Mildon agrees: outsourcing the process to a third party may make it easier for out-going employees to be completely honest. “If someone is leaving because of bullying and someone from HR phones up and says cheerily, ‘we’d love to an exit interview with you!’, that’s not going to go down well. People will be much more willing to share their experiences with a third party, particularly if they can do so anonymously.”
Design exit interviews with employee collaboration
For organisations who prefer to keep the process in-house, Green advises going back a few steps. “Forward-thinking organisations might want to consider asking a diverse group of employees, including neurodivergent and disabled employees, as well as those from LGBTQ+ and ethnic minority communities to help design the exit interview process. It’s important to get voices of lived experience in there because they’ll know the right words to use.”
Mildon also suggests asking the employee themselves what needs to be put in place to ensure they’re as comfortable as possible. “It might be using a particular room or avoiding a certain area, allowing someone to bring in a colleague to act as an advocate or providing interview questions up front.”
And when it comes to utilising data gleaned, Mildon recommends analysing the data on a regular basis, identifying any emerging patterns or trends, drawing conclusions and then acting on those recommendations. “That’s where the feedback loop comes in. Organisations can then say “we’ve listened to what’s been said during exit interviews, this is the action we’ve taken and these are the outcomes.”
Asking the right questions
Getting the questions themselves right is absolutely essential. According to Gita Singham-Willis, founding partner, Cadence Innova and Co-Chair of the MCA Diversity & Inclusion Working Group, it’s important to understand whether company culture is having a negative impact on DE&I. “Questions need to encourage feedback,” she says. “Useful questions can be about how safe people feel expressing themselves in the work environment, if they’ve ever felt excluded or couldn’t speak up or if they felt they witnessed unhelpful behaviours which weren’t dealt with.”
Mildon meanwhile suggests focusing on the employees’ relationship with their manager. “Marcus Buckingham once famously said ‘people leave managers, not companies’ and that’s something to always keep in mind. Try to dig into whether their manager was a contributing factor to their decision to leave.”
DE&I professionals suggest some powerful exit interview questions which may help identify any potential issues with an organisation’s culture:
• “Were there instances of microaggressions or discrimination that you experienced during your time here?”
• “How effective do you believe the company’s DEI initiatives have been in promoting a diverse and inclusive workplace?”
Shipra Choudhury, Chief People Officer, Coastr
• “What was the hardest thing about coming to work for you?”
Jane Green MBE, founder, SEDSConnective
• “What prompted you to look for an opportunity somewhere else?”
• “Tell me about your relationship with your manager – how would you rate them?”
• “What attracted you to your new role?”
Toby Mildon, diversity and inclusion architect and founder, Mildon
d&i Leaders is a global community of senior diversity, inclusion and HR focused professionals, looking to collaborate, network and accelerate their workplace inclusion strategy.