The hidden opportunities of exit interviews

3 Minutes Read

When we consider exit interviews, we generally see an opportunity for an outgoing employee to outline their reasons for leaving, and flag any organisational issues that might have been too sensitive to raise as a current employee. 

Exit interviews are typically given just before or a short time after an employee leaves an organisation, with the aim of capturing honest and critical feedback about the organisation. In theory, outgoing employees are less subject to the professional or political pressures faced by current employees allowing them to speak more candidly about their experiences. In practice, this might not always be the case as employees may choose to avoid saying anything controversial to part on peaceful terms. 

An interesting use of exit interviews is proposed by Giacalone et al (1) which highlights their role in evaluating counterproductive work behaviours. This includes questions around the frequency of such behaviours, and the possible reasons for why they occur. Counterproductive work behaviours are those where employee actions violate the legitimate interests of the organisation and its members – ranging from serious behaviours such as fraud, theft, harassment and discrimination, to more minor issues such as working slowly, unexcused absences and rudeness (2). Most people are involved in these behaviours to some degree, and when considered together, can cause significant monetary damage to organisations (3).

Current approaches to minimise counterproductive work behaviours include screening out high-risk job candidates, developing positive organisational climates and addressing job dissatisfaction (4), however, it can be hard to mitigate this risk entirely. It is crucial to understand what kind of behaviour is occurring in an organisation and why it is happening. This is where exit interviews can be useful sources of information. 

One of the few studies published in this growing area was conducted with US Army employees, indicating current employees tend to underestimate the amount of theft in their organisation compared to outgoing employees (5). More recently, another case study examined counterproductive work behaviours and found that interpersonal misbehaviours were more common than organisational misconduct, and were far more likely to be minor transgressions than serious ones (6). The most common issues related to swearing, spreading rumours, uncooperative behaviour/ a refusal to collaborate. Less common, but more serious issues, included bribery, theft and risking the safety of others. This was typically attributed to lack of oversight and security, job dissatisfaction, stress on the job, and abusive management.

Translating the findings into something that is actionable and effective is a major challenge with exit interviews. To understand issues in more detail, an organisation might consider follow up interviews or focus groups with a cohort of current employees. By involving current employees in the process, a company can gain deeper insight into the issues raised and develop action plans in collaboration with those having a vested interest in the outcomes.

When asking about counterproductive work behaviours it is important to let the employee say what they want to, in their own words, and also encourage feedback that is more general and abstract, than specific and identifying, to avoid perceptions of ‘snitching’. An approach such as this provides an ideal opportunity for an employee to share their inside knowledge in a way that is both confidential and potentially productive. For example, if lateness and working slowly is repeatedly identified in a manufacturing arm of an organisation, this could point to deeper issues within the organisational culture and might even match up with existing concerns around workload and management. Being able to outline counterproductive work behaviours as systemic and potentially solvable, rather than individual failings, can help exiting employees feel more comfortable about sharing any concerns or delicate information. 

What has your experience of using exit surveys been? Have you utilised this practice with exiting employees? Please feel free to leave your comments below.


  1. Giacalone, R.A, Knouse, S.B, & Pollard, H.G. (1999). Willingness to report unethical behaviour in exit surveys .Teaching Business Ethics, 3, 309 – 321.
  2. Sackett, P.R, & Devore, C.J. (2001). Counterproductive behaviours at work . In N. Anderson , D. S. Ones, H. K. Sinangil , & C. Viswesvaran (Eds.), Handbook of industrial, work and organizational psychology. Vol. 1. London, UK : Sage . Pp. 145 – 164.
  3. Center for Retail Research( 2010 ). The Global Retail Theft Barometer 2010. Nottingham, UK.
  4. Boye, M.W., & Jones, J.W. (1997). Organizational culture and employee counterproductivity . In R. Giacalone & J. Greenberg (Eds.), Antisocial behaviour in organizations . Thousand Oaks, CA : Sage. Pp .172 – 184.
  5. Giacalone, R.A, & Knouse, S.B. (1993). Identifying security risks in organizations: development and use of a security exit survey instrument . In P. Rosenfeld , J. E. Edwards , & M. D. Thomas (Eds.), Improving organizational surveys: new directions, methods and applications . Newbury Park, CA : Sage . Pp. 240 – 256.
  6. Baur, Aaron. (2017) “Harnessing the Social Web to Enhance Insights into People’s Opinions in Business, Government and Public Administration.” Information Systems Frontiers, vol. 19, no. 2, 2017, pp. 231–251., doi:10.1007/s10796-016-9681-7.
Picture of Anthony Ryan

Anthony Ryan

Anthony is a Senior Consultant at Evolved who is passionate about people & culture. Anthony specialises in the measurement and analysis of organisational culture, effectiveness and employee experience.