Time To Put An End To Exit Interviews?

Some context

A friend of mine recently quit his job and mentioned that he had an exit interview. He said, “I doubt it’s going to change anything”. This discussion started a reflection, and here I am now, challenging my HR friends’ status quo! Following my reflection and as an hors-d’oeuvre to this article, I wanted to test the waters on the matter. I created two small (and absolutely non-scientific) surveys on Primos Populi’s Facebook page. One was made for non-HR employees, others for people in Human Resources and managers. Here’s what I gathered:

Non HR employeesAfter voluntarily quitting a job, do you know for a fact that a company initiated important changes after what they learned in your exit interview?Yes: 11%
No: 89%
HR people and managementIn your organization, following the departure of an employee, are any important efforts invested in improving the situation that was causing problems?Yes: 45%
No: 55%

The difference in perception is nothing too surprising. People who quit their job have much less visibility on what happens next. For my part, following my last voluntary departure, I know for a fact that some changes took place 3 months later or so, following the recommendations I made in my exit interview.

The current state of things.

I kinda have to hit the nail on the head concerning the exit interviews. I’ll do it a little further in the article, but let’s start by taking a look at the trends on the market.

Some companies don’t do exit interviews

There, that’s simple. I’m not sure if it’s very common. It happened to me once. The CEO asked me “Where are you going?” and that was it. What’s not representative of the market is the fact that, after kindly asking him to be discreet about the company I was leaving for, I went back to my place and saw that the CEO sent an email to the whole organization, letting them know I was leaving for Company X. Nice guy. That’ll also teach me not to be transparent.

It is not always a matter of nonchalance or bad faith. I once heard a manager say “People come and go, and that how the market works”. What an effective way to get rid of any kind of responsibility! People are going to leave anyway, why try to improve the place? It’s our destiny, we might as well embrace it.

It is not always a matter of nonchalance or bad faith. I once heard a manager say “People come and go, and that how the market works”. What an effective way to get rid of any kind of responsibility! People are going to leave anyway, why try to improve the place? It’s our destiny, we might as well embrace it. I’ll push this argument a little further: clients also leave companies, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Why then should we provide customer service? I’m fairly certain that such companies generally see departures as such: it wasn’t a good fit, she had problems, he wasn’t really performing, she was a difficult person anyway, etc.

Aren’t you mesmerized by the fact that those who left by themselves were all part of the problem? But the company wasn’t. You know, I had a few ex-girlfriends who left me in the past. You know what they all had in common? ME. Just a little opportunity for some introspection here…

In sum, companies who don’t do exit interview just don’t care about their employees. Not for those who quit, and not for those who remain. 

I’m well aware that this last statement goes against the title of this post. But let’s continue, shall we?

Many companies do exit interviews

Now that’s a little better: companies that can put their ego aside and want to improve. Very well, and it’s much to their credit. Especially organizations that have a real will to change things.

According to the survey above (which isn’t representative) and knowing what I know about companies in general (which is a little more representative but also biased), a lot of companies will take note of the problems, but won’t do anything to change things. It appears to be a common practice but that’s taken quite lightly. I don’t know if organizations have any idea of the impact it can have to ask people what needs to be changed and do nothing about it.

While everyone is different, if a problem is serious enough for someone to leave, it is likely that others are affected as well. Especially when it comes to a draconian manager, harassment, important problems with a client, important problems with a team member. If we meet with people, that we acknowledge the problem and do nothing about it, the situation can and will easily turn into a cynicism generator.

The real problem with exit interviews

My real problem with exit interviews is the fact that problems are acknowledged only once someone announced he’s going to leave. Oh now, all of a sudden, we care about what this employee was going through! And that is the problem. If you suddenly care about your employees only when they leave, you deserve your turnover rate. And since I might not have been clear, here it is, on a large image.

So, I have a few questions for you:

✅  What are your managers doing? It’s their role to care for people, way before HR should get involved.

✅  Do your managers get the necessary coaching so that they can take ownership of their employees’ well being?

✅  Is there a collaboration between managers and HR? Are the problem acknowledged in the exit interview already known by HR, or are they a surprise every time?

✅  Do you managers have the necessary power to fix those problems before they turn into a departure?

Aiming at making exit interviews useless

Even if the departure is for health reasons, diverging interests, career development, none of these should go unknown by a good manager who cares for his colleagues.

For my part, I try to develop a trusting relationship with my employees. I know their aspirations, their pain points, I make sure I know where they project themselves in 1 year, 3 years, 5 years, I know their next step, and I do whatever I can to help them get there, even if their next step will get them out of the company.

The necessity for an exit interview will always represent a red flag for me, as it suggests that the relationships between managers and employees aren’t transparent, that the employees don’t receive the attention and the support they need in order to grow in the organization.


Olivier Fortier
Olivier Fortier
OLIVIER Fortier is first and foremost a believer in human beings. Owner of the blog Primos Populi -- which is Latin for People First -- his focus is to find innovative ways to bring back (and keep) people at the core of businesses, and ensure they can thrive. A manager, agilist, servant leader, facilitator, and former Scrum Master, all of these interesting titles and roles represent only the means to achieve what he truly believes in: cultivating people's awesomeness. His favorite things to reflect on are leader-leader relationships, psychological safety and the right to fail, career and personal development, humanity in recruitment, and how to lower the center of gravity of decision-making processes. Considering that businesses wouldn't exist without people, can one imagine how powerful it would be if all employees wholeheartedly wanted to be in their organizations, and wanted to do what they do? This is the work world Olivier wants to live in, and the goal he set for himself.

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  1. If you expect to find out only at the exit interview because a good employee has decided to leave, we have lost the opportunity to keep a productive member in our team. If these employees are not sincere about the reasons for their abandonment, we have also lost the opportunity to identify the obstacles and problems within our company and to resolve them before losing other employees.
    Loyalty begins with employment. The key is to identify and put in place employee retention strategies that can maintain high levels of commitment and retain internal resources. And to last, the “marriage” between company and employee requires an effort on both sides. From the employee it is legitimate to expect a certain “loyalty”, provided you give him good reasons to stay for a long time, avoiding making strategic mistakes.

    • Yeah companies need to be competitive for their people as much as they are for their clients. Employees are internal clients.

      We should react as quickly when an employee isn’t happy as we react to a client who isn’t happy.

  2. Great perspective. If managers have created a safe environment the issues that stir an employee to leave would be discovered and resolved before someone thinks the only option is to depart. Taking a proactive approach would boost morale and reduce hiring costs.

    • The more I think of it, the more I’m convinced it’s basically admitting that “we didn’t care before, but now we feel bad about it so we’ll pretend we do”.