An exit interview is a discussion between a departing employee and a representative of the organization that occurs in the last days of an employee’s tenure. The interviewer is typically a manager or a human resources professional. The interview usually takes place on company property during work hours. Exit interviews are widely believed to be helpful to organizations that wish to better understand why people leave their jobs. Recent research has found that more than 80 percent of large organizations use exit interviews. More than 90 percent of the executives in firms that use exit interviews believe that they provide useful information.
Exit interviews serve a number of beneficial purposes beyond providing information about why people leave. Some organizations use the interviews to persuade employees to stay (e.g., by offering improved wages, working conditions, transfers, or promotions). Other organizations use the interviews as a public relations exercise to ensure that the parting employee leaves the company on a positive note. The exit interview can serve as a last opportunity to inform employees about their remaining obligations, rights, and benefits packages. It can be used to remind employees of their responsibility to protect the organization’s intellectual property. A final purpose might be to protect the organization from legal proceedings by providing information about incidents of discrimination, sexual harassment, or other inappropriate activities.
Notwithstanding the many perceived benefits of exit interviews, researchers who have studied them are much less enthusiastic. One approach to studying exit interview validity highlights the costs to departing employees of telling the truth. Some of those potential costs include (a) the risk of burning bridges with the former employer, (b) the risk of conflict with individuals in the former organization, (c) the risk of incriminating or otherwise hurting friends and coworkers who remain with the organization, and (d) the risk of repercussions from the former employer (e.g., poor references). Not surprisingly, research shows that employees are more likely in exit interviews than in employee surveys to give non-job-related factors as their reasons for quitting. Another approach to assessing the validity of exit interviews questions the ability of interviewees to accurately recall their reasons for quitting—a problem compounded when the actual time of departure lags significantly behind the time of decision making.
Additional concerns about exit interviews exist. One study suggests that only about 50 percent of organizations that conduct exit interviews actually use the information. Other studies emphasize the need to use qualified interviewers; however, relatively few firms have qualified interviewers conduct exit interviews, because of cost, timing, or other constraints.
Researchers have identified a number of ways to improve the quality of exit interviews. First, they recommend the use of structured interviews. In short, that means the interviewer uses a set of open-ended questions and a standardized tool for reporting answers (e.g., computer template or tape recorder). Second, researchers advocate the use of neutral, trained interviewers. Such an interviewer would not have had prior contact with the employee, would follow the interview protocol closely (e.g., avoid probing questions that could bias the responses), and would take detailed notes. Third, researchers point to the need to guarantee confidentiality and anonymity to the departing employee. Practically speaking, the interviewer should state that confidentiality will be maintained unless legal obligations prohibit such confidentiality (e.g., Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964).
Organizations that wish to better understand why some employees stay and others quit have many additional tools available to them. One is the exit questionnaire, which is completed by employees before they leave. Such a questionnaire might be especially helpful in the context of organizations in which there is low trust between employees and their supervisors. Exit questionnaires or surveys may also be less costly in time and energy to implement. Furthermore, they may generate more reliable, valid, and specific information. Another tool is the use of external consultants. The consultants can use either interview or survey techniques to obtain information from departing employees. The primary advantage of external consultants is their independence from the firm. As an added layer of protection for respondents, the consultants frequently promise to report only aggregate data, thereby protecting individual employees from the costs associated with telling the truth.
An alternative approach to understanding reasons why people stay and why they leave is an employee morale survey. Such surveys usually solicit employee attitudes such as job satisfaction, organizational commitment, perceived job alternatives, and job involvement and then relate them to reported job search behaviors, intent to leave, and actual leaving over an extended period following the survey collection. Such prospective research designs have proven more reliable and valid than exit interviews. They have the added benefit of providing information for acting immediately on issues to curb turnover, rather than waiting for the turnover to occur and then commencing action, when, for all practical purposes, it is too late. A driving analogy is that employee morale surveys represent a forward-looking approach (i.e., looking through the windshield), whereas exit interviews represent a backward-looking approach (i.e., looking through the rearview window).
Recent research has identified exit surveys as useful means of gathering ethics-related information within an already-existing framework in most organizations. The same research found that organizational members were willing to freely discuss five areas in an ethics exit survey: illegal organizational activities, unfair administrative actions, illegal human resource activities, dishonesty, and mistreatment of organizational constituencies. Such data can be used in ethics training, policy evaluation, assessment of ethical climate, and identification of specific ethical (or legal) issues. Based on these findings, future research is likely to focus on exit interviews as a source of valuable information about ethical issues.
In sum, while the use of exit interviews is pervasive in organizations, human resource professionals and managers concerned about employee retention will use many other tools to complement them. Performance appraisals, counseling, career-planning interviews, and employee morale surveys will help provide perspective on issues of concern to employees as well as actionable ideas for improving the organizational environment. Such activities ideally reduce employee turnover—and the need for exit interviews.
- Feldman, D. C. and Klaas, B. S. 1999. “The Impact of Exit Questionnaire Procedures on Departing Employees’ Self-disclosure.” Journal of Managerial Issues 11:13-25.
- Giacalone, R. A. and Duhon, D. 1991. “Assessing Intended Employee Behavior in Exit Interviews.” Journal of Psychology 125:83-91.
- Giacalone, R. A., Jurkiewicz, C. L. and Knouse, S. B. 2003. “Exit Surveys as Assessments of Organizational Ethicality.” Public Personnel Management 32:397-410.
- Griffeth, R. W. and Hom, P. W. Retaining Valued Employees. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.