How to Master the Exit Interview (Sample Questions & Answers Included)

By Mike Simpson

Though interviewing is most often seen as the entry point to employment, it is also an exit point.

If you have ever resigned from a job, then you know exactly what I’m talking about.

The dreaded exit interview.

Wait,” you murmur, confused. “The exit interview is clearly the very best part of leaving a terrible job!

Finally, after months or even years of quietly suffering, careful to hide the stress ball clenched between your not-so-silent fingers, you can finally speak up.

You have elaborate plans for a Powerpoint presentation where you present best practices in the field and painstakingly point out every, single time your manager failed to live up to your reasonable expectations.

It includes graphs. It includes photographic proof of several instances of clear injustice. You may even print out an accompanying poster!

It is payback time. POWERPOINT PAYBACK.

We understand the sentiment.

The sweet taste of rightful indignation released into the world would surely be glee-inducing in the moment.

That moment, however, would pass. Glee would quickly turn to regret. You may only regret that you failed to take the high road and be the bigger person. More likely, you will regret the aftermath of your presentation: the creaky sound of a drawbridge being lifted, permanently.

You will never work with this employer again.

Your supervisor, who may have thought of you fondly and opened up opportunities in the future, now thinks you are a privileged jerk. Colleagues wonder at your lack of professionalism. They may even take personal offense upon hearing your comments whispered through the corridors after you’ve left.

Congratulations, you have taken a whole room of would-be friends and professional contacts and turned them into enemies.

Not your intention?

We didn’t think so. That’s why we’re here to guide you through the exit interview process. You may not leave the room giggling like a twelve-year-old who has just discovered that Mentos explode in soda, but you will leave with your professional contacts intact.

What is an Exit Interview?

An exit interview is an exchange of ideas between an employer and employee at the end of their contract. Beyond this, the specifics of the interview can vary quite significantly.

Some employers don’t have them at all, though this is less common.

An exit interview can be formal or informal. It can be a written survey, entirely verbally conducted, or contain components of both.

Though most often a conversation with Human Resources, your exit interview can be conducted with any variety of people. The content and purpose, however, remain relatively consistent across employers.

Why Are They Done? Why Are They Important to HR?

An exit interview is an opportunity for employers to better understand what they are doing right and identify areas for improvement.

In theory, employers hope to increase productivity and decrease turnover by surveying employees as they sever their relationship with the organization.

Exit interviews are also an important way for Human Resources to get a sense of why employees are leaving for other positions. In practice, Human Resources may be less than interested in organizational improvement. After all, it would require a lot of paperwork.

An exit interview can be a good time for constructive, positive criticism. It is important, however, to pay close attention to how you’re being received. Better to leave any criticism at the door if it will cost you good will and potentially harm your reputation.

Common Exit Interview Mistakes to Avoid

Don’t Be Too Negative

If you have decided to include constructive criticism in your exit interview, don’t be too negative. Your morsel of wisdom is much more likely to be constructive if it is taken seriously. It is much more likely to be taken seriously if it is a sandwiched in a generally positive conversation. No one listens to a bitter employee, and it doesn’t take much to be labeled as such.

Don’t Make it Personal

We all have small office issues. Mike stole your stapler and Karen left her gross anchovies in the fridge all week. Marty constantly squeaks his chair and Claudia doesn’t wear deodorant. Don’t even get me started on Fred. This is neither the time nor the place to take about Fred.

Theses are not the kinds of issues that interest Human Resources. Complaining about personal problems during an exit interview will make you appear petty and unprofessional. 

Don’t Share Any Comments Other Than Your Own

Your job may not have been a jailhouse, but the don’t snitch rule applies all the same. Do not share or repeat things that colleagues have told you in confidence. You may be leaving, but they are not.

If they have already left, it is still not your place to burn their drawbridge. If Lisa wanted to have to swim a moat to get back in the good graces of your mutual employer, she can burn her own bridge. As tempting as it may be use colleague’s comments to bolster your own complaints, don’t do it. Lisa will thank you.

Top Exit Interview Tips

1. Be Kind

This is the most important tip we can give you. Kindness goes a long way in any situation, but is especially important in an exit interview.

Be gracious and thankful for the time you have spent at your soon-to-be past employment. Even the worst of jobs have elements of good. If needed, do a little brainstorming session on the things you’ll miss before your exit interview.

Despite any problems, this is a company that has provided your livelihood for some time. They have earned your kindness.

2. Be Professional

An exit interview is not the time to let your freak flag fly. Hopefully, you have behaved professionally in your place of employment up to this point. Keep it up for one more interview and you’re home free!

Dress appropriately for the day of your interview.

Avoid language that is too informal and make sure to be respectful. Keep your tone of voice quiet and pleasant throughout the process.

3. Be Factual

If there are issues you want to bring up use facts to illustrate your points. Telling Human Resources that you are underpaid can easily come off as entitled. Telling Human Resources that given you level of experience other companies are offering significant more money and it became too difficult to pass up sounds different. It provides real information, and also completed avoids any issues of entitlement. 

4. Be Positive

This should come hand-in-hand with being kind. Make sure that the bulk of your exit interview is positive. Mention how you’ve grown and what you’d learned.

The complement sandwich – where a constructive criticism is sandwiched between two complements – works for a reason.

People, and employers, are more likely to hear your complaints if you have demonstrated that you are on their side. Be on their side.

Four Common Exit Interview Questions with Sample Answers

Why Are You Leaving Your Position?

I learned an incredible amount at Company X, and I am really excited to bring that knowledge to a new environment. My new position is a better fit for my current career goals, which were fostered and developed by a great team here. 

What Was Your Least Favorite Things About Working Here?

I really enjoyed working at Company X. I did enjoy the creative side of my job more than the paperwork, but this is not a critique of the company.  I imagine I will feel that way throughout my career.

What Could We Have Done to Keep You On board?

It is a testament to the company that so many employees stay here throughout their career. Unfortunately, that leaves very little room for growth. I am at a point where I need a new challenge. I would have been open to staying here had I been able to grow into a new position with new challenges, but these opportunities were not available at this time. If new, higher-level positions were to open up in the future I would be happy to be considered and to return.

How Could Management Improve?

There were a number of things that management did really well. Expectations and roles were clearly defined. I always knew that I had the support of my team and really valued the comradeship that was fostered at Company X. If I had to give one area for improvement I would say that I sometimes felt that I didn’t have the creative freedom to explore new and better ways of doing things.


Putting it All Together

If you had a wonderful working experience and really are leaving for a better fit or promotion elsewhere, then following this exit interview advice will be easy. 

If, however, you had a Powerpoint Payback presentation all fleshed out with graphs and photos depicting the state of affairs at your old job, it may be harder to give the professional, kind, positive exit interview described here.

Take a deep breath, throw the Powerpoint into the bin, and spend some time developing a more positive headspace. You will be glad you did. 

For more information be sure to check out our two companion articles: “how to quit your job” and “how to write a resignation letter”!

Good luck!

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How to Master the Exit Interview (Sample Questions & Answers Included)
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