Exit interviews – a tool for staff retention or just a waste of time?

Employers need to hear constructive criticism, but don’t go out with all guns blazing

Your boss sucks, the company culture is toxic and you’re run ragged from constantly having too much to do. All good reasons to jump ship and, with new pastures beckoning, you’re looking forward to telling it like it is at the exit interview. A word to the wise – don’t.

Take the long-term view. Resist the urge to vent and refrain from saying anything now that could harm your career further down the road.

“It’s very tempting to go into an exit interview with all guns blazing, particularly if you’re leaving under less than favourable circumstances. But it’s actually far better to take a step back and prepare for the exit interview with a clear head,” says executive coach Sinead Scott-Lennon, managing director of HR for Better Workplaces.

“Sectors, and often entire industries, can be very interconnected and sometimes cliquey, and you don’t want to burn any bridges. You may run into colleagues or a former boss at industry events or even rely on them for a reference at some point in the future.


Secondly, the exit interview is your opportunity to help improve working conditions for other employees and constructive suggestions can leave a favourable impression after your departure.”

Mixed opinions

Opinions about the value of exit interviews are mixed and tend to split between those who see them as an underused resource for employee retention and those who consider them a gigantic waste of time. Some organisations do them, some don’t. Some take them seriously, some don’t. Some include line managers as part of the process, others assume HR will do all the heavy lifting, although that has its limitations according to one senior executive.

“I’ve done a few exit interviews in my time and seen them done by the organisations I’ve worked for,” he says. “If they’re conducted by HR alone, action rarely ensues. They become a wasted opportunity and nothing changes.”

Those in the pro camp believe exit interviews are something leaders should be focusing on a lot more to give their organisation an edge when it comes to competing for talent. High employee churn is a good predictor of low performance, and any company that can retain its employees while its competitors are losing theirs, is at a significant advantage.

This means being prepared to listen and learn from those who leave and make changes based on their feedback.

For example, if successive leavers say manager X is great on a technical level but a disaster at dealing with people, this may raise questions about the skillsets being looked for in those applying for supervisory roles.

Exit interviews can also be a useful way of gleaning insights into the workings of rival employers. If the departing staff member flags that they are leaving for a more clearly defined route to promotion or a better work-life balance, this adds up to “could do better” on the company report card.


Most people are more than willing to share their observations, but the process quickly becomes no more than a box-ticking exercise unless the information is analysed, shared and used as a basis for action.

“Employers that don’t conduct thoughtful exit interviews are missing a trick, but getting the timing right is crucial,” says Kieran McKeown, managing director of Matrix Recruitment. “Don’t do it right after someone announces they are leaving, because emotions will be at peak level. Equally, don’t wait until the employee has disengaged and checked out mentally. Somewhere in between is ideal.

“It is a good idea to involve the manager directly above the person who is leaving, as they are likely to have a stronger relationship and the manager can take immediate action to implement change based on the feedback.

“There’s a temptation to focus on salary and benefits and to assume an employee is leaving because they are being offered more money. More often than not, that’s not the case, especially since the pandemic has made people re-evaluate their lives,” McKeown adds.

“It’s more about figuring out what did and did not motivate someone while they were working for you, so you need to delve a little deeper. You need to get their frank thoughts not only on their job, but also on working conditions and office culture as this can lead to an opportunity to improve motivation, efficiency and effective teamwork for remaining and future staff.”

Some people dread the exit interview every bit as much as the entry interview that got them the job in the first place. If the going gets tough, as can happen, Sinead Scott-Lennon advises departees to keep their cool because the decision to leave has already been made.

“If you start getting negative feedback, ask for specifics so you can learn from it,” she says. “Be gracious rather than defensive and try to view the feedback from the interviewer’s stance. Maintain your dignity and give your feedback honestly and in a professional way.

“Focus on some of the positives and be constructive. Don’t finger-point or badmouth specific people within the organisation.”

Businesses are often very poor at handling departures, and in many organisations the rumour mill steps in to fill the void, which can be damaging.

As the senior manager observed: “Difficult ‘leavings’ lead to difficult ‘belongings’. It’s not just about the individual leaving but also those left behind, especially if the person going has been a strong leader who has led many,” he says.