Retention: Learning from Leavers - 17 Questions to Ask in an Exit Interview

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It is a universal, albeit ironic, truth that by listening to those who are leaving your firm, you can more actively focus your retention initiatives so as to hold on to people you want to keep. 

As with other forms of feedback, such as upward reviews or employee satisfaction surveys, there is no point in asking for feedback through exit interviews unless you intend to do something with it. That said, your firm’s associates who are leaving voluntarily can be a great resource to recruiting and talent management teams alike. If you can persuade leavers to speak candidly, you can glean some really useful feedback on a wide variety of themes, from partners’ management style to development issues to firm strategy and initiatives. The key is to go beyond “Why are you leaving?” and to structure your questions as open questions, which prompt feedback on essential issues, and to ask follow-up questions.

By conducting exit interviews consistently over time, you can identify trends and recurring themes, potentially enabling your firm to adjust course where appropriate. 

Below are some suggested exit interview questions:

  1. What did you like most about working here?
  2. How did your on-the-job experience line up with your expectations when you joined the firm?
  3. Were you clear on what was expected of you in your work?
  4. How would you describe the training you received here at the firm? 
  5. What didn’t you like about working here?
  6. If you were asked by a friend what the firm’s culture is like, what would you say?
  7. Would you recommend working here to a friend or acquaintance?
  8. How did you find the team/practice group? How would you describe it? 
    Follow up: What did you think of the partners? What about the other associates? 
  9. What could the firm or the partners have done to help you develop more/faster?
  10. How much exposure to the partners and other colleagues did you get?
  11. How would you describe the partners’ management style?
  12. How would you describe the firm’s management?
    Follow up: Were you clear on the firm’s direction, its strategy and your role in helping the firm achieve its objectives?
  13. What changes would you suggest the firm make and why?
  14. What were the things you took into account when deciding to leave?
  15. What could the firm have done that would have kept you here?
  16. How did you learn about your new role?
  17. How do you think your new firm/job will be different?

Insofar as the answers to the above questions don’t cover everything, you might additionally choose to ask questions about specific firm priorities or initiatives. For example: Did you regularly receive developmental feedback that you could apply to your subsequent work? 

And, you might also choose to be inspired by the widely-used Gallup Q12 questions that look at employee engagement. One Q12 question that I think can be deceptively important goes to whether the “interviewee” had a best friend at work. The thinking is that we are all more likely to invest our time and effort in endeavors where we like those involved. Having friends at work creates a social and emotional tie to the workplace as well as a professional one. Friends at work make work seem less like... work. (For more on this topic, see Gallup’s blog).

Exit interviews may seem a chore but when they are well-managed, they can be valuable to both the firm and the individual leaving. Trying out different questions and leveraging what you learn from your leavers really can help you to develop meaningful and tailored retention initiatives and create the beginnings of positive alumni relationships.