8 Tips to Help Run a Tough Exit Interview

Do you hate conducting exit interviews?

You’re not alone.

Although most organizations conduct exit interviews, statistics suggest that as little as 15% feel comfortable with the process and trace any real value back to it.

For most, they bring up awkward memories of frozen smiling faces as an employee unloads what an awful time they’ve been having or the uncomfortable knowledge that something’s not quite right even though they claim everything was wonderful and they just ‘needed a change’.

Some even question why organizations continue to perform exit discussions, pointing out that these sorts of questions should be asked of employees on a regular basis, and not just when they’re about to leave. By that time it is too late to do anything about it.

For the majority of managers or HR supervisors, exit interviews are a reality of the role. Sometimes the interviews are pleasant – nothing more than a tick of the box and a positive send off. Other times they turn into a nightmare situation - employees crying, spewing anger or just refusing to comment believing that the discussion is futile.

If you have an Exit Interview scheduled and you think it might turn ugly, here are some tips for dealing with the tough discussions.

1. Provide the employee plenty of time to prepare

If you think you’re nervous about a tough exit discussion, you can be sure the employee is just as uptight about it; perhaps even more so because they perceive themselves to have less control of the process. It’s courtesy to provide the employee with the list of questions they will be asked in advance. Let them know they don’t need to answer any they might not feel comfortable with and that you’d also just like to have a general discussion about their experience with the firm, if they have anything they would like to add.

2. Set up a structure

Have set questions. Write things down. Stick to the time limit.

A standard process to follow does two things. Firstly, it keeps the procedure neutral, allowing both parties to fall back on a system if the discussion becomes too intense. Phrases like, ‘I’ve written all that down. Why don’t we move onto the next question?’ can help diffuse an emotionally charged situation.

Secondly, it provides the organization with comparable data. The information you spend emotional energy and time on obtaining is unlikely to be used if there is no systematic format for aggregating it.

When everyone is using the same structure, even if interviews are conducted by different managers, the information can be compared and analyzed.

3. Keep it simple

When there is a lot of information to get through, it’s unlikely you’ll make it all the way to the end of a list of 20 questions. Adding too many agenda items will put pressure on the interview and cause it to end with an unfinished feeling.

Stick to:

  • the two main reasons they are leaving;
  • any suggestions for how the organization could have kept them
  • what they liked/didn’t like about the workplace and;
  • options for keeping in touch in the future.

4. Find out about the employee’s role

Please note: This point applies to anyone conducting an exit interview with someone who does not report directly to them.

It can be tempting to assume the employee will be able to fill you in on the basic details about their work environment, such as what they do on a day to day basis and why they need to work so closely with ‘Sarah’ whom they really don’t like.

However, not having a cursory understanding of their role and the people they work with will reduce the amount of quality information you receive in the interview and block the employee’s honesty.

Work environments can be complex. If an employee feels like they need to go through the basics of where they sit and their general activities before they can elaborate on nuanced relationship issues, they may not even bother to get started. Finding this information out beforehand will show you care and save time for talking about the more important stuff.

5. Choose the right setting

Think carefully about the impression you want to give an employee in the exit interview. For most, the discussion will go better in an environment where they can relax and feel safe in divulging anecdotes. This means moving it out of an imposing office and onto neutral ground, perhaps an outdoor table away from listeners or a private meeting room.

6. Combine it with an anonymous online survey

The two main limits of exit interviews can, in some way, be made up for by an anonymous online survey. It doesn’t matter how much you say the discussion is confidential, the employee will not believe you. They know that to use the information they provide, the stories will eventually need to get back to the source somehow.

I once had an exit interview conducted on me where some of the points I had raised ‘confidentially’ were shared before I’d even left the building!


An anonymous online survey can, in some instances, tease out stuff an employee might otherwise decide to hide.

Secondly, anecdotes are important but difficult to use to spot trends or rank managers. Some quantitative data is useful in conjunction with the face-to-face meeting.

7. Don’t get defensive

The goal of the session is not to get the employee back on staff or defend your reputation as an organization. This will accomplish nothing and entering the discussion with these goals will create angst very quickly.

Set your sights on ensuring the employee has felt heard, garnering information if you can and making them feel appreciated as they walk out the doors. Doors you want to keep unlocked, even if you don’t want them open.

8. Finish well

It’s all how you finish. The most emotionally fraught discussion can still result in the employee leaving with a good taste in their mouth if the last few minutes are conducted right.

Ensure you have some points of praise from their current manager (if that isn’t you!) and mention the ways they contributed during their time in the business. Wish them the best for their future career and thank them for being a part of the organization.

Do it sincerely. No one sets out to be a nightmare employee. See them for the human they are; the human you may run into on the street some day in the future!

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