Exit interviews: When, how, and why or why not

By Michelle van Schouwen

I will confess that over the years, I conducted few exit interviews although, like many employers, I witnessed (or initiated) many exits from my companies and management roles. But I’ve rethought my position and now conclude that in many cases an exit interview can provide value to both employer and employee.


When a good employee is moving on to a fantastic new opportunity and may be able to give you useful critical feedback about your company.

When an employee has performed well but does not want to continue with your company or industry (in other words, has some bones to pick).

When an employee may be leaving because of an ongoing management, pay, or cultural problem at the company.

When a longtime employee is retiring and wants to provide some insights.

NOT when you’ve fired or laid off an employee – it’s a bad time to engage further.

NOT when a bad employee is leaving of their own volition – do you even value their feedback?


An exit interview should not be mandatory (legally, you don’t have much backing for requiring them anyway).

Each interview should take only 30 to 60 minutes and should be conducted by someone with skills in this area. (Can you take criticism gracefully? If not, have someone else hold the interviews.)

Ask no more than a dozen questions. Examples include “What prompted you to look for a new opportunity?”, “Were you able to grow in your position?, “Did you share your concerns about our company with anyone in management?”, “What did you like most about this job? Least?”, “What would you change about company culture, given the opportunity?” and “Would you recommend this company to other prospective employees?”

In-person interviews are probably ideal, but if staff works remotely, video conferences will work.

Receive input without debating its validity. Avoid challenging the interviewee’s opinions, no matter how off-base you may find them to be. Neither do you have to verbally agree with anything the employee says. Just say “thanks” or “got it” and move on to the next question.

If the employee asks for feedback on their performance, remember that an exit interview is not the right time to open your major “cans of worms.” The employee is moving on, your company is moving forward, and that’s enough.

End by thanking the employee for the feedback and for their work at the company – even if the interview yielded negative feedback or felt unpleasant.

Why or why not

Before creating an exit interview policy, consider whether you want to hear anything your soon-to-be-former employees have to say. (I say this unironically.)

Make sure you or someone else has the skills and desire to conduct exit interviews.

Remember that sometimes, an employee can open your eyes to new and better ways to operate. They may allow you to see an issue through fresh eyes.

A departing employee may be ready to be open and honest with you. They may feel they have less to lose.

Then again, many employees defer to participate in exit interviews, or provide cursory and not-very-useful answers. They may not want to burn bridges, or they may simply be “done” with your company.

Most important, in my book – make sure, absolutely, positively, that you do not inadvertently open the door to a lawsuit. This is not the time to let your guard down and say anything that can be used against you – and take my word for it, there is plenty of room for an exit interview to go wrong. Years ago, I learned that when one fired or laid off an employee, the talking was over. “We’ve decided to go in a different direction” was the sum-total of the feedback we would offer. Similarly, an exit interview is not the time for an employer to comment about an employee taking time off to raise children, feeling worn out or tired of the stress, getting older, or being unhappy about being passed over for promotion. The employee can say these things. The employer must watch her back. If this guidance feels concerning, that may be reason enough to forgo having exit interviews.


Michelle van Schouwen is principal of Q5 Analytics, providing advocacy and communications for climate change mitigation and adaptation. For 32 years, Michelle was president of van Schouwen Associates, LLC (vSA), a B2B marketing company. In 2017, she sold vSA. Michelle is available for speaking engagements on topics including her work on climate crisis mitigation and Florida coastal water issues. She speaks to business and student groups about marketing launches and entrepreneurship and works with start-ups to support their development.

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