The One Question You Ask But Shouldn’t at Exit Interviews

exit-interview-600x400There is old saying that goes like this:

“If you want to know the truth, ask an honest question.”


Then there is the taunting phrase I recall from my youth:

“Ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer.”


Then finally, there is that infamous phrase from Forrest Gump:

“Stupid is as stupid does.”


So what does this all mean?  It means that we are going to talk about the one question most employers ask during an exit interview, but shouldn’t.  This question almost always yields the same old answer.  As we can conclude from the statements above, you are either not asking honestly, the question is stupid, or you are simply pursuing a stupid course of action.

The question you shouldn’t be asking

The question is this:

“So why are you leaving us?”

I will venture that about 99% of employees, having already committed to leaving and just trying to get out in peace (and in one piece), are going to tell you that they are leaving for a better job, with better benefits, with a shorter commute, and with greater opportunity.  After all, nobody leaves a job for less pay, crappy benefits, a longer commute, and diminished opportunity.  We already know the answer to this question, but we keep asking it over and over again.  (Remember, one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results.)

So why just go through the motions? Why not ask a question that will yield an honest and valuable answer?

The purpose of an exit interview is NOT to discover the hopes and aspirations of your ex-employee at their next job, but to find out WHY those hopes and aspirations were not met at their current job.  Most exiting employees are not going to voluntarily provide the information you really need.  You have to ask the honest question directly.

The question you should be asking

The honest question you should be asking, if you wish to know the truth, is:

“Congratulations on finding something better.  Why did you look?”

If you want to know the truth, you will stop hearing the “better this, better that” side of the story and start learning about your own organization.  You might hear that Suzie is leaving because her boss harasses her.  You might see a trend that a particular manager is terrible to work for.  You might find that all of the programs you work so hard to promote are being railroaded by a management staff that did not buy in.  Maybe that employee engagement program is seen as putting lipstick on a pig.  Or perhaps, you might even find that your company offers low pay, poor benefits, a terrible location, and limited growth opportunities.

If you want to know the truth about your organization (or you need proof of what you already know) start asking this honest question when valuable resources turn in their badges.  Then start addressing the real issues as to why useful, trained employees are leaving and costing your company a small fortune.  If your job is to increase employee retention, stop asking why they are leaving and start asking why they went looking.

Finally, if you already know the bad stuff and have reached a point that you are asking the flawed question because you are tired of the honest answers and the failure of the organization to address the real issues, I suggest that you start looking.

And don’t forget to practice your answer: “I am leaving for better pay, better benefits, etc.”

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