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Exit Interviews for SMEs: 3 Tips For Getting Honest Responses From Employees Leaving Your Company

by Ngozi Weller

5 February, 2022

 Over the last 18 months, employers have put an increasing amount of effort into surveying their employees, recognising that the pandemic has fundamentally changed the needs and desires of the global workforce. Many forward-thinking companies have begun investing time and money into finding out what their employees want, aware that the looming spectre of ‘The Great Resignation’ may take their best and brightest if they fail to meet changing expectations. 

Companies such as Adobe, Concentrix, and Textron systems, for example, have begun to prioritise employee development, after recent surveys revealed this to be a significant draw. Adobe, in particular, found that their new hire and stay surveys indicated that skill development was the number one reason employees joined the company and one of the key reasons they remained. 

Insights like this have led many companies to increase the rate at which they’re surveying their employees. Yet the data appears to suggest that exit interviews remain a severely underutilised resource despite their increased frequency during this period. 

This situation is understandable; it’s difficult for a company to develop their exit interview system if they’re required to conduct several exit interviews within a short period. Practice only really makes perfect if you’ve had the time to develop an effective strategy. If you haven’t, then dealing with a barrage of exit interviews can force a company to repeat their mistakes for want of review time. 

Recognising this, we’ve put together a quick look at the central issues surrounding the exit interview process and shared the three most effective steps a company can take to plug the gaps in their current system. 

The Problem 

A 2016 study from the Harvard Business Review (HBR) identified that a few key issues often undermine the exit interview process. Reviewing this information seven years on, it’s clear that little has changed. 

The first is an issue of data. HR do not receive strong or reliable information from their exit interview processes because employees do not feel comfortable being honest with their managers about the issues they have faced. 

For many, there is a real distrust of the exit interview process and a fear that levelling criticisms at a company may result in burned bridges and a loss of opportunity. Many workers consider that their new manager may phone their old manager for references, and they want to do their best to secure a favourable report should this happen. Therefore, they may feel that it is much safer to ‘play nice’ in their exit interview and cite pay or flexibility as their reason for leaving, rather than the systemic or cultural issues which may have really prompted their exit. 

Beyond this, there is also the issue of good old-fashioned social awkwardness; no one wants to talk to their manager about issues that were likely within that manager’s purview to identify or solve. 

In short, across much of the workforce, there is an absence of trust and honest communication between many line-managers and their teams. Often not because the line-manager is a bad  manager but rather because they lack adequate leadership training that supports the people-focused aspect of their role. As a result, line-managers may lack the tools that enable them to provide the psychological safety that allows direct-reports to feel comfortable sharing their experiences and being honest about how they think the company can do better.  

Wider research demonstrates that this is a common scenario. Whilst cases of mental ill-health and other workplace strains have risen significantly over the last two years, communication between employees and their managers remains low. A 2020 report from Benenden Health revealed that 40% of employees are currently undergoing health issues that they have not disclosed to their manager, a third of which are mental health related. A further study conducted in 2021 by the health insurance company Lime Group revealed that just over half (51%) of UK workers feel like they must put on a brave face for their colleagues and conceal the problems they may be facing. These figures indicate a clear absence of communication and trust between many employees and managers. 

Bringing this back to exit interviews, it’s clear to see how HBR’s observation that exit interviews typically produce shallow or false data is symptomatic of a wider absence of communication between employees and their immediate supervisors. 

This is also true of HBR’s second criticism of exit interview programmes, which is that they provide HR teams with an excuse to avoid having meaningful retention conversations with current employees. The argument here is that exit interviews tick the feedback box for a lot of companies. Therefore, many of them don’t put further effort into surveying their current employees in an effort to retain them.  

The issue with this single-pronged approach is that without earlier retention conversations between the manager and the employee, there’s no relationship in place to support honest dialogue within the exit interview. Moreover, the employee has no reason to think that the company wants to hear feedback because they’ve made no effort to gather it before this point.  

On top of this, an overreliance on exit interviews places HR in a reactive rather than pro-active position, in which they’re scrambling to meet the needs of employees they’ve already lost rather than the needs of current talent. 


It’s clear to see how HBR’s observation that exit interviews typically produce shallow or false data is symptomatic of a wider absence of communication between employees and their immediate supervisors.

The Solution 

The fundamental problems currently undermining the exit interview process can be traced back to an absence of transparent communication between employees and their managers. Therefore, any course of action that builds upon the development of this relationship will ultimately strengthen the company’s exit interview processes. However, this can seem like a vague demand, so if you do not know where to begin, here are the three most effective steps that you can take to improve internal communication within your company and thereby support your exit interview processes. 

1) Ask the employee to complete a quantitative survey alongside a qualitative interview

This approach can aid communication, as many find it easier to provide negative feedback numerically rather than verbally. There is a big difference in telling your company that your manager was terrible by scoring them three out of ten on a survey, and vocalising criticism within an interview setting.  

If your company is not yet in a position where your managers and employees have the support and training to be comfortable communicating openly, this can be a safe way to provide distance and get some honest answers. 

Another bonus of this approach is that companies can easily monitor quantifiable surveys. For example, if manager performance scored an average of 4 in your company’s exit interview surveys in 2019, 7 in 2020, and 9 in 2021, you know this area of the organisation is doing well. Alternatively, if the numbers start to fall, your company will know where work needs to be done 

2) Put time and resources into training your managers

For the exit interview process to produce accurate data, employees need to feel that they can openly communicate their issues and concerns. This obstacle necessitates an open workplace culture built upon managers trained to look beyond the first glance and ask difficult questions.  

However, if your teams aren’t currently in this position, it makes sense for someone other than the exiting employees’ manager to conduct their exit interview.

3) Introduce ‘stay’ interviews

Stay interviews follow much the same format as exit interviews, except their focus is on retaining current talent. Therefore, they are a pre-emptive resource that allows a company to ascertain what it can do to keep its best and brightest whilst demonstrating to employees that their feedback is valued. 

All forward-thinking companies should consider adding a yearly stay interview to their rota of employee surveys.  

Beyond this, there are certain questions that you as an HR leader can reflect on to ascertain whether your company is effectively surveying its employees across the board. 

1) How often do you survey your employees? 

2) Can you identify any department that might have more risk factors (stress, burnout, presenteeism) than others? Does your current survey system allow you to recognise this?

3) Review the last employee wellbeing survey that your company performed – does it allow your employees to answer truthfully and confidentially?


At Aurora Wellness we are all about mental wellbeing & productivity. If you would like support addressing any of the areas raised today, contact us, and together we will help identify any gaps and point you in the right direction.

Ngozi Weller,
Aurora Wellness