The Exit Interview: What We’re Missing When Employees Leave Us

It’s difficult to pinpoint the single, most compelling reason why organizations can’t learn. However, after listening to the challenges of organizations where their people are concerned, I’ve come to realize it is far less about acknowledging the need for change — and much more about how to transact identified needs into action. There are distinct inflection points where organizations can pay close attention and shape action. However, these opportunities are often left on the table. One such opportunity, is when an employee is about to leave us.

Most of us have left organizations, yet were never asked in any detail why we were leaving. While, I suppose my own managers thought the reasons were quite obvious — upon reflection the reasons were likely more nuanced. In many cases, we’ve realized that the organization is no longer able to fulfill their end of the operating exchange relationship. However, exploring why that exchange has changed (or soured), could provide highly useful to the organization going forward. If we could embrace an “organizational” growth mindset, where potentially valuable information isn’t immediately discounted (for example, that a departing employee’s feedback is only is driven by emotion), organizations could possibly make improvements and limit premature departures.

In other cases, exit interview information is collected, yet it is never acted upon. Learning why employees are leaving your organization, is just as critical as knowing why they originally sought you out. As an employer, it’s important to peel back the layers and consider what can be learned from those who have lived our culture. Unfortunately, many organizations aren’t able to do this effectively — yet the information is ultimately shared in other forums such as Glassdoor.

Where exit interviews are concerned, a number of issues/beliefs can limit their effective use.

  • An ill-defined vision. Unfortunately, we tend to view the exit interview as a formality — not an opportunity to gather data and possibly adjust our course. Exit interviews are rarely viewed as a critical tool and the information is often ignored or filed away. It is important for organizations to define why the information is being collected and how it can be utilized effectively. This will vary by organization, but should be fully discussed.
  • A perceived lack of reliability and validity. We tend to discount the information shared in an exit interview. Although the research on exit interviews is limited, one study discussed here has noted that offered reasons for departure remained stable as time passed. So, if you tell yourself the feedback is only the momentary result of anger or frustration — you are likely wrong. Timing the interview to minimize emotional volatility is possible, for example reaching out between notice and the actual departure. A follow-up interview down the road, can also limit these effects.
  • The belief that exit interviews don’t fix (or save) relationships.  Often true, but timing may also be the problem here. I’ve learned from many managers, that they were unaware of issues pushing an employee out the door. On one hand, managers have relayed they would have tried to solve the problem for the employee. On the other hand, why wasn’t the employee forthcoming concerning the issues sooner? (More on “Stay Interviews” here.) In the context of an imminent departure, consider interviewing an employee long before their final day. This may improve the odds of learning more and possibly saving the relationship.
  • Employees just aren’t willing to share. Former employees have plenty to say — and sharing at sites such as GlassDoor, has become the exit interview of modern workplaces. The onus is on us to encourage participation, as employees have deep concerns about burning bridges in a highly networked employment environment. Bottom line: we do lose valued, respected employees — and they do seem to share in other venues. Organizations can explore methods that may overcome objections to share, such as neutral, external interviewers or an on-line exit survey to encourage employees be more forthcoming.

How have you used exit interviews strategically? How have you utilized the information? Share your ideas here.

This post was first published on LinkedIn.

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