Exit interviews are usually perfunctory and meaningless for two reasons: departing employees don’t really care to provide insight to a company they’re leaving, and organizations tend to brush off these remarks.

According to a 2018 survey by HR Bartender, most employees leave for better compensation and benefits, increased opportunities for advancement, more supportive managers, and flexible work schedules.

However, if companies take the approach that they can’t increase wages, create additional opportunities for advancement, or let employees work from home three days a week, they may consider exit interviews a waste of time.

But often, employees may be leaving for reasons that companies could address. “We know that transparency around pay matters to people, and if I hear that someone doing the same work makes more than me, I’ll be really mad,” says Maria Colacurcio, CEO of Syndio, an HR analytics company that helps organizations find and fix pay equity issues.

While no manager or HR person wants to hear bad news or criticism, she says it’s quite possible that employees are leaving because they believe that in order to move up, they have to move on.

Regardless of the reason, exit interviews provide an opportunity for companies to learn how to improve. “Employee reasons for leaving are usually complex, and making assumptions on why turnover is occurring can lead to the wrong conclusions,” says Deb Muller, CEO of HR Acuity, a technology platform for managing employee relations. She believes that exit interviews are an excellent way to gather insight if they’re conducted the right way.

The most important questions to ask

While specific questions may vary by industry and type of employer, Muller says these are common questions that apply across the board:

  • Specific reasons for leaving
  • Factors that drive many employees away
  • Changes the company should make to prevent turnover
  • Whether the job training was sufficient
  • Ideas to make the company become more efficient and effective
  • Whether the pay and benefits are competitive with industry standards
  • Method used to find a new job
  • What the person liked most and least about the job
  • Any other advice or recommendations

Getting employees to open up

It’s difficult to get employees to be honest about the reason(s) they’re leaving. And if they’re not honest, the exit interview won’t be useful. Muller recommends the following ways to get employees to open up:

  • Offering exit interviews online. Employees are often most comfortable completing an interview in this way, resulting in a high completion rate.
  • Conducting exit interviews several weeks or several months after the individual leaves, either by phone or with a survey. This allows time for the former employee to reflect and gain more perspective on the situation.
  • Using a skilled, trained listener. This can be an HR professional, a neutral manager or a trusted mentor with strong relationship skills.
  • Technology and templates can help by facilitating data collection in a neutral, consistent approach that treats all interviewees the same way and lets them know their feedback will be acted on.

How to use exit interview information

After gathering exit interview information, what should you do with it? “If collected in a consistent way, such as through online data collection, exit interviews become highly actionable,” Muller says.

In fact, she says they can be analyzed for the following patterns and trends:

  • Understand why people leave your organization
  • Increase managers’ accountability for employee retention
  • Collect actionable data for increasing retention and organizational effectiveness
  • Identify and monitor any illegal or unethical practices
  • Promote goodwill in the workforce

However, companies need to understand that exit interviews are about more than just their bruised egos. An organization’s profitability and continued existence may be based on the ability to view the information introspectively and make the necessary adjustments.

“Reducing turnover and increasing employee engagement can save enough money to boost your company’s growth substantially,” Muller says. “The same factors that cause turnover frequently contribute to low productivity, absenteeism and presenteeism.”

She recommends that HR leaders maintain a consistent schedule to share exit interview data and important trends with executives. “Quarterly updates work well for many organizations. Time these updates to be in sync with an annual board meeting or other important dates in corporate decision-making,” Muller says.

The legal side

There are certain legal limitations regarding exit interviews. For example, for the most part, an employee can refuse it, according to Charles A. Krugel, a Chicago-based labor and employment lawyer and HR counselor.

“There’s no law that requires employers to offer exit interviews nor is there a law requiring employees to take exit interviews,” he explains. “However, it’s possible that there’s a contractual agreement that may require such an interview.”

To avoid discrimination claims, Krugel recommends asking all outgoing employees the same questions.

He provides the following examples of types of questions you should avoid:

  • Do you think your disability prevented you from performing well?
  • Wasn’t your age a hindrance to adequate performance?
  • Didn’t your recent childbirth cause your bizarre behavior?

“There’s no specific law that prohibits these questions, but the key thing to remember is that an employer shouldn’t ask questions that lead to an inference of discriminatory intent,” he says.

Krugel also agrees with Muller that an exit interview is an opportunity to discover if the outgoing employee observed any illegal or unethical conduct. “Due to retaliation, the employee may have been afraid to disclose such conduct while working for that employer.”

But now, this individual may feel more comfortable making disclosures. “However, an employer should take all practical measures to ensure confidentiality, or that there’s no reprisal against that employee for disclosure, such as withholding of final pay, or that the former employee’s reputation will be needlessly trashed to future employers,” Krugel says.