The Great Exit Interview Debriefing: Best Practices

Exit Interview

As the saying goes, employees don’t quit companies, they quit managers. And when those departures happen, savvy organizations make a point of conducting insightful exit interviews to learn why people are really leaving and what could be improved.

Done well, the exit interview is a treasured opportunity to receive candid feedback from someone with an unvarnished perspective. Done poorly, and it becomes an empty check-box exercise that reinforces all the workplace frustrations that led to the person exiting in the first place.

So what’s the secret sauce for hosting an effective exit interview? I’ve conducted hundreds of these over my career, and let me tell you – it’s an art requiring equal parts planning, empathy, and occasionally turning a blind eye to the messy realities of being human.

Timing is Everything

There’s no one-size-fits-all perfect time for an exit interview, but general best practice is to initiate it shortly before the employee’s very last day. Catching them too early means they may still be in job hunting mode and reluctant to dish. Too late and they’ve likely already mentally checked out.

A week or two before their departure strikes the right balance where people feel comfortable opening up, yet still care enough about leaving on a positive note. Exceptions may apply for extremes like furious rage quits or icy cold tenure terminations.

The Two-Headed Exit Beast

To accommodate the widest range of communication preferences and comfort levels, consider providing both virtual and in-person exit interview options.

For those keen to spill all the vocal beans, an in-person meet allows for advanced truth serum vocal inflections, interpretive hand gestures, and dramatic pauses for effect. For the typing terminators, a virtual questionnaire enables thoughtful pondering before clicking submit.

Some employees may prefer a one-two punch combo kick-starting with an anony-survey then concluding with a live chat to expound on juicier morsels. There’s no singular right way, so buffet options offer flexibility.

The Golden Exit Questions

Knowing which questions to ask is where many exit interviews get derailed. Questions need to inspire constructive criticism, not just open Pandora’s venting box. A few proven gems:

  • “What ultimately led to your decision to pursue opportunities elsewhere?”
  • “If you could change anything about this role/team/company, what would it be?”
  • “What did you appreciate most about your experience here?”
  • “How would you describe the management/leadership style?”

Notice the framing around “change” and “appreciate” – this subtly encourages balanced feedback spanning positives and negatives. You’ll likely need to pepper in some role/team-specific queries too.

From there, be ready to go wherever the honesty trail heads, while politely steering clear of topics that could veer into legal danger zones. Asking thoughtful follow-ups is key.

The Comfort Shui

Even a well-timed exit interview with brilliant questions can flop without an environment conducive to vulnerability-based share-festing. You’ll want to host the meeting in a relaxing, private space – not your typical drab interrogation room or public food court battle arena.

Simple tricks like having water/snacks available and literally meeting the person at eye level can immediately defuse tensions. Begin the conversation by personalizing it – ask how they’re doing with the transition, discuss the weather, make a lighthearted comment about the funky office artwork. Anything to transform it from a corporate firing squad to a casual chat between imperfect people.

Then there’s putting on your empathetic listening ears. Nod, don’t interrupt, take notes. Confirm you’re receiving the intended message by repeating back key points. And regardless of how utterly bonkers the feedback is, maintain your most pokerfaced “I’ve heard it all before” demeanor.