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Exit interviews don't have to suck

Vision and Values
"Does anyone actually attend their exit interview?"
This casual remark, recently encountered in a tech community, struck a chord with me, not just for its surface-level cynicism but for its deeper implications about the workplace dynamic and the bridge—or lack thereof—between employees and management. But I can’t blame them because most exit interviews suck.
Exit interviews are not administrative checkpoints to be ticked off. Instead, they are a critical feedback mechanism designed to offer both the departing employee and the organization a moment of candid reflection, honest assessment, and mutual growth. Unfortunately, this ideal is far from reality for many, as evidenced by the apparent apathy towards such interviews. Why, then, does this disengagement exist, and what does it reveal about the broader organizational culture and the employee experience?
  1. Time constraints. As employees prepare to leave an organization, their final days are often a whirlwind of activity—finalizing projects, transitioning responsibilities, and the emotional labor of farewells. Carving out time for an exit interview can feel like an unnecessary burden, a box to tick in a long list of last-minute obligations. 
  2. Fear of retaliation. In an ideal world, exit interviews would be safe spaces for honest feedback. However, the reality is that the professional world is interconnected and, at times, unforgiving. Concerns about burning bridges or casting a shadow on one's professional reputation can muzzle departing employees, encouraging them to offer platitudes rather than the unvarnished truth. 
  3. Lack of trust. If employees feel that their feedback will disappear into the void, unacknowledged and unacted upon, their motivation to participate dwindles. The ritual becomes empty, the potential for change, stagnant.
  4. Poor execution. When exit interviews are reduced to a series of rote questions, lacking genuine engagement or the intent to understand and improve, they lose all value. (“What was your primary reason for leaving?” “How do you feel about management or leadership?”) Employees can sense when a process is performative rather than purposeful. 
The good news is, I don’t think it’s hard to do better. 
  • Incorporate better, more thought-provoking questions. 
  • Listen without the impulse to argue or persuade and acknowledge the validity of the departing employee's perspective. 
  • Conclude with a sincere thank you and recognize the value of their feedback.
Here are ten questions I’ve collected and developed over the years that have worked great for me:
  1. Anything you want to ask before we start? Is there anything you want to make sure we cover?
  2. What was your favorite part of working here? What is your proudest accomplishment?
  3. What should we have told you in the interview process? What would have been helpful to know in advance to help you be as successful as possible?
  4. Who would you take with you if you could, and why? (Remind them you’re not trying to trip them up and get them to break a non-solicitation agreement.)
  5. If you could replace or re-assign anyone within the organization, what changes would have the biggest impact?
  6. Similarly, what three changes to the org would you suggest we make? These can be personnel moves, changes to organizational structure, policy changes, anything.
  7. Tell me about the day you decided to leave.
  8. Aside from the work you are directly responsible for, what other work or relationships does your exit put at risk, and how would you suggest we mitigate that risk?
  9. What should we know to help the person we hire next be as successful as possible?
  10. What else should I have asked you today? Anything you were hoping I would ask or that we would cover?
Don't forget to close out by covering administrative stuff: last day of work, how to return equipment, details around benefits and severance, etc.
Why do these questions work? Each is crafted not only to elicit specific, actionable feedback but also to engage the departing employee in a way that feels constructive and meaningful. This approach acknowledges that not every question will resonate with every employee; however, by offering a diverse set, we increase the likelihood of touching on areas deeply relevant to the individual's experience. The repetition and variety within the questions ensure we cover a broad spectrum of the employee's journey and perspectives. 
More importantly, these questions are framed to foster a dialogue that is both positive and forward-looking. The interviewer's role—emphasizing trust, showing genuine interest in the responses, and aiming to conclude the employee's tenure on an uplifting note—transforms the exit interview into a powerful tool for closure and learning. This not only provides insights for improvement but also allows the departing employee to reflect on their experience with a sense of accomplishment, appreciation, and respect.
Want your own copy of these questions in easy template form?